Even with a running time (sans end credits) of 74 minutes, there is scarcely enough material to pad out “Phone Booth.” A half-hour TV slot, or even a short, might have proved the best format for this simple and surprise-deficient tale of a man trapped in a phone booth by a sniper who threatens to kill him if he hangs up. Gussied up with a host of filmmaking tricks in an attempt to keep things lively, this intensely acted little exercise just doesn’t have enough going for it, with the exception of gradually growing interest in lead Colin Farrell, to compel large numbers of people to spend firstrun prices to see it. Ancillary markets should be more lucrative.
Screenwriter Larry Cohen claims to have come up with the story idea 20 years ago, and subsequent developments have dictated certain story issues are specifically explained — such as why the lead character uses a pay phone rather than his cell phone, and why there’s this one phone booth in a city otherwise taken over by open-air telephones.
But such matters aren’t so much the problem as is the fact that this “Sorry, Wrong Number” riff is straight-line tormentor-victim pulp with nary a twist or turn to delight the suspense fan and mess a bit with the viewer’s head.
In an opening frenzy of phone calls and hyperactivity, Farrell’s Stu Shepard is introduced as a latter-day Sidney Falco, a Bronx-tongued publicist who stalks through Times Square, a cowering flunky in tow, lying, scheming and conniving his way through a succession of calls to clients, press and fellow players to get what he wants. Glib, mentally quick and full of himself, Stu is a real New Yawk tough guy, and therefore an ideal dramatic character to talk back to a professional intimidator.
Which is exactly what Stu gets when, after a chat from the phone booth with his prospective mistress, Pamela (Katie Holmes), made there so his wife Kelly (Radha Mitchell) can’t track the call, he picks up the ringing phone and starts getting an earful from a man with a very insinuating rap.
Stu hangs up on the guy once, and you’d think he’d leave well enough alone. But no, he answers when it rings again, only to be told by the caller that he’s got him in his gunsight and he’ll shoot him if he slams down the phone again; just to prove it, he nails a boorish pimp who’s trying to force Stu out of the booth.
Despite some punchy dialogue, everything from here on is amazingly familiar, even reassuring: The villain is a typically hypnotic brainy sicko, compelling by virtue of his vast knowledge and power to control; the cops, led by the capable Captain Ramey (Forest Whitaker), move in, thinking Stu himself has killed the pimp and is therefore armed and dangerous; there’s the promise, to both Stu and the caller, of having their 15 minutes of fame via media coverage of the standoff; wife and would-be girlfriend both show up, and the normally brash and self-centered Stu is forced by this direct look at his mortality to confess his many sins.
To make this little anecdote play like a searing moment in time, director Joel Schumacher employs loads of technique, including insert panel screens showing phone call recipients, desaturated images courtesy of edgy d.p. Matthew Libatique; animation of live-action images in the style of Richard Linklater’s “Waking Life”; and bookending shots of Earth-circling satellites to illustrate what makes the world’s communications go ’round.
Because of the peppy filmmaking and high-pressure situation, you can hardly call “Phone Booth” boring. But when you begin to realize what you see — a fellow in a phone booth being ordered around by a bad guy — is all you’re going to get, superficial invigoration is soon replaced by the feeling that you’re being had.
Farrell adds one more thoroughly convincing accent to his quickly growing repertoire, but now that he’s shown everyone he’s an exciting young actor who can do almost anything, it’s time he got some genuinely exciting parts that provide a field for his presumed range.
Kiefer Sutherland socks over his exclusively vocal characterization as the quicksilver assassin who takes vast amusement in putting his prey through the wringer. Whitaker, Mitchell and Holmes are welcome presences onscreen, as always, but are purely functional here.
While initial establishing footage was taken in Manhattan, bulk of the action was shot in downtown Los Angeles, convincingly dressed for the occasion by production designer Andrew Laws and his team.