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Phone Booth places action and suspense on Speed dial

Not to make too big a deal of it, but Phone Booth is considerably more than what the advance publicity would lead us to expect. Beyond everything else, this unassuming but feisty little thriller goes right for the gut with an intensity and sustained forward momentum the likes of which we haven't seen since the original Speed. Phone Booth has other things in common with Speed too, besides the sheer outpouring of energy. Both movies cut right to the chase, confident that the chase they've cooked up is worth serving as a one-course meal. Both movies then proceed to give us heroes caught in classic (albeit curiously convoluted) dilemmas: in one, we have a bus that can't slow down; in the other, a phone that can't be hung up. If either thing happens, everybody dies.

That's pretty much where the similarities end. The bus is always moving in Speed, which is only one of the reasons it's practically a textbook example of an action movie. A much more minimalist affair, Phone Booth takes place almost entirely in and around the tiny glass and metal cubicle spelled out in the movie's title. Its protagonist is essentially confined to a single, tiny patch of space, which makes the film's ability to generate thrills an even more impressive achievement.

Oh, and lest we forget, Phone Booth, unlike Speed, has a real actor in the driver's seat. Colin Farrell isn't quite the whole movie here, but he's in practically every frame of Phone Booth, and he's pretty remarkable, bringing an intensity to the role that feeds into the overall intensity of the film.

There's nothing too terribly fancy about Phone Booth, but the movie's smart enough to recognize where its strength lies, which is squarely in the no frills, semi-sensationalist territory frequented by genre pictures. Much of the movie's success can be attributed to its screenwriter, Larry Cohen, a too-little lauded crafter of smarter-than-the-average genre pics like God Told Me To, Black Caesar, The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover and It's Alive. My personal favorite Cohen creation is Q, in which a flying Aztec dragon-deity nests atop the Chrysler Building and makes periodic swoops over the rooftops of swanky Manhattan apartment buildings to bite the heads off sunbathing fashion models.

Cohen's a guy who understands the impulses and power of pure pulp, and Phone Booth teams him with a kindred soul, Joel Schumacher. Although often thought of as a soulless hack, Schumacher might be due for a re-evaluation. His artistic detour Tigerland (the film that introduced Farrell to American audiences) revealed unexpected creative depths, and even the overblown silliness of his post-Tim Burton Batman movies shows us, if nothing else, a man with his heart in the pulp. Phone Booth is good enough; in fact, it might just cause a few of us to go the extra mile to reassess those Latex-encased butts-and-muscles money shots in Batman Forever.

Schumacher brings a similar tongue-in-cheek quality to Phone Booth, opening the film with a breezy a cappella version of the gospel standard Operator accompanied by briskly edited shots of New Yorkers doing what New Yorkers do out on the street, most of which involves talking on phones. An omniscient, off-screen narrator's voice-over is more pure pulp, making a few wry, Rod Serling-ish social observations before introducing us to the titular phone booth and then portentously informing us that "we are about to meet the last occupant of that booth."

That occupant is Stu Shepard (Farrell), an ethically challenged PR guy who walks the walk and talks the talk, but is really more of a low-rent street huckster than the slick professional he makes himself out to be. Stu uses the same phone booth every day to call his mistress (he doesn't want his wife discovering calls placed on his cell), so when he finds himself in the booth one fine day and the phone starts ringing, he impulsively picks up the receiver.

That, as they say, was his fatal mistake. At the other end of the line is that ever- reliable genre staple, the apparently invincible, all-seeing, genius psychopath with a major grudge against the hero. This particular psycho seems to know pretty much everything there is to know about Stu and uses that information to all but destroy the poor guy's life in two or three easy steps. After alerting Stu's wife and girlfriend to each other's existence, the godlike voice on the phone (Kiefer Sutherland doing his best Terrence Stamp impersonation) plays its trump card. Keeping Stu constantly in the sights of the telescopic scope on his high-powered rifle, Mr. Psycho commits a murder for which our hero is blamed, and then threatens to blow away Stu and any number of innocent bystanders unless his orders are followed to the letter.

What follows is a movie-length mindfuck of epic and supremely nasty proportions. There are numerous twists along the way, not excluding the implication that the creepy orchestrator of all this ugliness and mayhem actually has a moral side, albeit a morality that's been twisted into vengeful sadism. It turns out he's a guy who makes targets of those who offend his personal sense of right and wrong (including pedophiles and porn kings who consider themselves artists), and Stu is simply his latest project. What the psycho really seems to desire from Stu is a public humiliation and confession of the man's sins — preferably televised, he says, since "TV brings out the worst in us." He's less a raving loony and more like an angry, self-righteous John Lennon circa Gimme Some Truth, albeit with a high powered automatic weapon and a burning desire to use it.

Phone Booth is quite a ride, as they say, especially considering the film's minimalist premise — a hero unable to move from a patch of ground measuring only a few square feet — and the fact that one of the two main characters is a disembodied voice. It's a slight but, in its way, perfect concept, played with precision and verve, and building skillfully on a claustrophobic tension that keeps us on the edge of our proverbial seats. At an ultra-brisk 80 minutes, this is one no-frills popcorn movie that's high energy almost all the way.

The media is definitely part of the message here, beginning with the central image of the telephone itself — which, circling back to Speed, is certainly a more potent symbol than a boring bus (unless of course you happen to be in Israel dealing with daily Palestinian bus bombers). Schumacher begins the film with a shot that travels along the circuitry of a telephone line (not unlike the opening of Kieslowski's Red), and makes frequent use of an ingenious split screen effect whereby images are inserted within images to show who's communicating with whom.

The movie's media savvy extends to the fact that bystanders with camcorders seem to be recording virtually everything that happens in Phone Booth, hoping for the worst to occur so that they can sell their lurid images to the highest bidder. The film doesn't make a big deal of it, but the camcorders are always there on the edge of the frame, just like the big billboard reading "Who Do You Think You Are?" that's occasionally glimpsed behind the phone booth in which our flawed hero is held prisoner. The full effect of the message doesn't become clear until the movie's final moments, but, when it does, it adds an unexpected resonance to what is, for all its pleasures, still basically just a particularly satisfying thrill machine.

That said, Schumacher and Cohen manage to sprinkle interesting tidbits throughout the movie in a way that's smart without being showy, and sophisticated without being too cynical about the whole thing. There are other momentary pleasures here as well, including an appearance by Forest Whitaker (whose presence always seems to class up the joint) and an Eminem stand-in who briefly shows up early in the film to take the piss out of a whiteboy rapper or two. Even odder is an apparently gratuitous Britney Spears reference that's particularly bizarre in light of Farrell's brief but much publicized connection with the pop iconette — and the fact that said connection didn't even take place until well after this film was shot. Truth is stranger, as they say.

Lance Goldenberg can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888, ext. 157.

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