Continuing to redeem himself for the twin travesties known as 1995's "Batman Forever" and 1997's "Batman & Robin," director Joel Schumacher's (1999's "8mm
") "Phone Booth" is more of a stunt than a fully-developed motion picture, but it is nonetheless pulled off with an engrossing flair. The stunt in question is the film's novel premise, set almost completely around a phone booth. The idea of watching someone talk on the phone to a never-seen assailant for 81 minutes may sound unappealing, but that is where you would be wrong. "Phone Booth," as thin and narratively uncomplicated as can be, is a craftily orchestrated little thriller.
Set, we are told, on the final day before the last working phone booth in New York City is shut down, Stu Shepard (Colin Farrell) is a suave, fast-talking publicist, a wheeler-dealer who claims to know more than he really does. Stu is also married to Kelly (Radha Mitchell), which is why he bypasses his cell phone to call Pamela (Katie Holmes), an aspiring actress he is thinking about sleeping with while offering false promises of helping her break into the biz, at the phone booth. Once he is off the phone with Pam, the phone suddenly rings. Making the very bad mistake of picking it up, Stu is thrust into a quickly mounting nightmare involving murder, blackmail, the police force, the media, and the two women in his life, all orchestrated by a sniper caller (Kiefer Sutherland) who refuses to stop his reign of terror until Stu has confessed of all his sins.
Once "Phone Booth" gets going around the 15-minute mark, there is no letting up until the end credits arrive. The film's rapid-fire pacing, aided immeasurably through the editing by Mark Steven and Joel Schumacher's stylish De Palma-esque use of split screens, goes a long way in shielding its shortcomings. B-movie screenwriter Larry Cohen (1997's "Uncle Sam") does a superb job of devising gradually dire road blocks and dangerous circumstances to place Stu in, but he hasn't developed the characters enough to give us a reason to truly care.
For rising sex symbol Colin Farrell, who has been in seemingly everything this year ("The Recruit
" and "Daredevil
"), he has turned in another tightly modulated and intense performance. Despite a few problematic spots where his thick Irish brogue sneaks through, Farrell should be heartily commended for how focused and unwavering his energy is throughout. Unfortunately, his Stu isn't exactly the most sympathetic of leads, as he is portrayed in the opening minutes to be a lying, scheming double-crosser. When the viewer is then asked to put a driving stake into his fate, it doesn't quite work.
Better is the technically complex exercise that "Phone Booth" personifies. Nail-biting and absorbing, director Schumacher proves just how visceral a movie can be when there is only one setting involved. The camera angles and movements, brought to life in glorious digital video by cinematographer Matthew Libatique (2002's "Abandon
"), are never less than interesting and stimulating. Meanwhile, Kiefer Sutherland (TV's "24") does chilling wonders using no other prop than his voice as the sniper caller. The supporting cast is effective, if noticeably underwritten, with Forest Whitaker (2002's "Panic Room
") as lead police officer on the scene Capt. Ramey, Katie Holmes (2000's "The Gift
") as sort-of girlfriend Pamela, and Radha Mitchell (1998's "High Art
") as wife Kelly.
With tensions at their highest point during the climax, the final scenes of "Phone Booth" are a bit of a letdownnot because they are bad in any way, but because they don't add up to nearly as much as what the film seemed to promise. As a pulp thriller and modern morality tale, "Phone Booth" gets the job done with vigor and ease. When it is over, however, the lasting impression does not come close to equaling the taut experience of watching it.