Film Reviews: Wednesday, April 3, 2003
Killer ID

Colin Farrell answers the bell in a big way in the one-location thriller Phone Booth.


At the end of Flannery OíConnorís short story, ďA Good Man Is Hard to Find,Ē the bad guy who has just killed the old lady he was holding hostage says, ďShe would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.Ē (He makes being good seem like more trouble than itís worth.) The contemporary New York setting of Joel Schumacherís Phone Booth is miles away from OíConnorís Southern Gothic, but it makes the same point that spiritual enlightenment is best achieved at the point of a gun.

Thatís where Stu Shepard (Colin Farrell) finds himself. Heís a scummy entertainment-industry publicist who exudes high-grade sleaze. He smoothly doles out favors, lies, half-truths, and threats to get ahead professionally, and he cheats on his handsome, composed wife (Radha Mitchell) with a struggling actress (Katie Holmes). It all comes to a screaming halt the day he stops to pick up a ringing pay telephone on a busy midtown Manhattan street corner. The voice on the other end of the line (Kiefer Sutherland) knows everything about Stuís life and claims to have a long-range rifle ready to put a fatal bullet in Stu if he hangs up or fails to follow the voiceís orders. Then, just to prove heís not joking, the caller guns down a baseball-bat-wielding pimp whoís about to bash Stuís head in for tying up the phone. A hostage situation ensues, as a crowd of spectators that eventually includes Stuís wife and mistress gathers around, and the police try to ascertain what is going on.

A movie that ties itself down to a single character in a single location is set up to be a virtuoso showpiece for its lead actor, and Farrell acts his ass off. Working with a Bronx accent, he makes the characterís sweaty desperation palpable. Thatís the easy part. He also demonstrates Stuís hustlerís intelligence at work through the whole ordeal, as he rages at his unseen captor, stalls for time, offers bribes, begs for mercy, and says anything that comes to mind that he thinks the killer might want to hear. You can feel Stuís brain kicking into overdrive, fumbling for ideas about how to get himself out of the mess. (Credit should also go to the filmmakers for giving Stu enough smarts to deal with the situation ó he tries to trace the call by dialing *69 before things turn deadly, and he cites police procedure gleaned from tv cop shows to counter the sniperís attempts to pin the pimpís death on him. Eventually, he grows bold enough to try to outwit the villain and communicate his plight to others.)

Movie actors frequently clamor for more screen time, but this much of it at once is unforgiving. Farrell carries it off easily, hitting the entire range of Stuís emotions underneath the terror and exhaustion. When sudden death is closest to hand, Stu finally locates his honesty and courage in a climactic speech that would turn maudlin in many actorsí hands. Farrell doesnít grandstand, but plays the scene fearfully rather than tearfully and makes this loathsome character a tragic figure.

Phone Booth runs a short 80 minutes, so it doesnít carry its premise beyond its means. This movie could well have been made 20 or 40 years ago in Hollywood, and director Schumacher and screenwriter Larry Cohen, who have both been around for decades, know how to handle material thatís based on an older model of dramatic writing ó itís easy to imagine this working as a stage play. The atmosphere is properly gritty and street-level, and the directorís realistic visual style (as opposed to the hokiness of his Batman films, among others) is a most effective tool here.

So has Schumacher the schlockmeister delivered an authentic masterpiece? Well, no. The trouble with this movie is the character of the caller. It turns out that he ultimately wants Stu to confess his sins. The smallness of those sins helps keep the film from being sensationalistic (ďYou couldnít find any murderers or child molesters, huh?Ē Stu asks. ďIím the best you could do?Ē), but the movie never gives the caller any base or self-serving motivations. The film never reconciles his murderousness with his desire to save Stuís soul, and the callerís setup of Stu is a shade too well-planned. When the killerís motives become clear, you realize itís still an inadequate explanation.

Even so, the thrills in this thriller donít come from the action, but directly from the lead actor, whose work is more electric than any amount of special effects. After his scene-stealing supporting turns in Minority Report and Daredevil, the Dublin native is finally a bona fide star. If youíve been trying to ignore the Colin Farrell bandwagon that Hollywoodís publicity machine has been pushing, give it up. In the face of a performance like this, resistance is pointless.

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