|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 08 July 2003|
Film and TV writers have a standard joke when they are confronted with requests for what they consider unreasonable cuts in their action/thriller scripts: “Set it in a phone booth.” The expression is not heard so often nowadays, probably less because there are fewer unreasonable requests from producers and studio executives than because there are fewer phone booths (a fact duly noted in the film).
However, writer Larry Cohen has found a way to actually set most of the brisk 81-minute “Phone Booth” in the title location. Happily, there turns out to be more to his script and the movie than simply proving such a feat can be accomplished.
“Phone Booth” actually feels something like a segment of a TV anthology drama – think “Twilight Zone” with the supernatural element removed and big-studio production values (except, of course, for changes of location) added. After a very nifty CGI opening sequence that zooms from outer space onto a communications satellite to Planet Earth to North America to a lone Manhattan phone booth, we meet the man who, we are informed, will become the booth’s last occupant, Stu (Colin Farrell). Stu is an unscrupulous, inconsiderate New York entertainment publicist who deceives his wife (Radha Mitchell) and his not-quite girlfriend (Katie Holmes), tries to manipulate everyone in his orbit and doesn’t have time to be honest or polite with anyone. Stu naturally has a cell phone, but he uses a pay phone (for a perfectly good reason explained to us in due course) to make a call. When Stu hangs up, the phone rings. Stu reflexively answers and immediately finds himself the target, in several senses of the word, of an anonymous sniper (Kiefer Sutherland). The caller insists that Stu start telling the truth to his wife and the world at large – or else Stu will be blown away with a very accurate rifle. When a pimp threatens Stu with violence if he doesn’t get off the phone – the phone booth is crucial to the pimp’s business – the caller shows just what the rifle can do. The police promptly show up, believing Stu is an armed and dangerous killer. The caller warns Stu against telling the cops what’s really happening and forbids him to hang up. A kindly negotiator (Forest Whitaker) arrives, but will Stu be able to prove he’s not a psycho to this man without causing the sniper to open fire?
Writer Cohen has created an all-stops-out character for Farrell, who starts out as such a jerk that we’re inclined to side with the sniper, to a frantic, highly sympathetic wreck in a strong, engaging performance. Whitaker is likewise good company – he’s someone we’d like sent to calm down all tense situations – and Sutherland is wickedly expert as the avenging demon on the other end of the line. Director Joel Schumacher creates an energized atmosphere, utilizing split-screen and inset shots to provide greater visual variety, avoiding the static that is potentially inherent in the premise.
The “Phone Booth” DVD release has both widescreen and full-screen versions of the film. A bit confusingly, only one side of the disc is labeled – if you insert it in the player label side up, you get the full-screen version. Don’t be afraid to flip the disc to what looks like the “wrong” side, as this gives you the original widescreen ratio. The DVD transfer of “Phone Booth” is very handsome, pointing up the strategic contrast between the slightly washed-out, blue hues of the main action with the vibrant colors in the insets, emphasizing the difference between the emotional barrenness of Stu’s personal landscape with the healthier world around him.
The directional sound is good, though there aren’t as many dramatic moments as we might expect – the sniper uses a silencer, so the initial gunshots go unheard, and it is a plot point that their impact is soft enough to avoid drawing the attention of bystanders. The initial phone ring in Chapter 6 is big and realistic, while menacing rifle bolt action in Chapter 8 (complete with verbal dissertation on the intended effect of the sound) disconcerts us in the rears. Chapter 24 features big punchy gunshots and a solid door kick, while Chapter 27 has a nice, intentional little electronic his in the left rear as we pull back to the communications satellite. Sutherland’s omnipresent voice is very clean, separated aurally from the other sounds we hear. However, the ominous score by Harry Greggson-Williams is so bass-loaded that, if your system isn’t precisely calibrated to handle low, booming music, the orchestrations buzz a bit.
Director Schumacher’s commentary is on both the widescreen and full-screen sides of the disc. He’s good with details, though he occasionally falls silent. This is more noticeable than on some other commentary tracks, because although Schumacher’s voice is in the center channel, the soundtrack in the mains is tuned down so low that we barely hear it even when the director pauses. Still, it is educational, particularly for listeners who are curious how anyone could make a big-studio film in 10 shooting days (with two additional half-days, Schumacher discloses).
“Phone Booth” has a very tight running time and feels almost like a short rather than a feature. We never find out much about our antagonist, whose previous victims were much more evil and destructive than Stu could ever be, and the film is so baldly about the character’s onscreen alteration (most films are about this, but they are usually less clear-cut in their presentation) that it feels somewhat schematic.
Still, “Phone Booth” works as a nicely-done real-time cat-and-mouse thriller, done on a budget that works for rather than against the material.