Hollywood's love of high-concept thrillers, the kind that can be summarized in one snappy sentence, often gets blamed for dumbing down cinema. But sometimes a strong concept, well executed, hits the spot.
"Phone Booth" isn't the deepest of thrillers, and it has flaws in logic and presentation, but the idea behind it is a grabber: A man answers a phone in a phone booth only to be told that if he hangs up, he'll be shot by a gunman lurking in a nearby window.
The phone-answerer here is Stu Shepard (Colin Farrell), an obnoxious New York press agent. (He's like an update of the smarmy Sidney Falco from "Sweet Smell of Success.") Stu, who is married, regularly uses this supposed last phone booth in Manhattan to call a fetching young client and would-be girlfriend (Katie Holmes) because he doesn't want the number to show up on his cell-phone bill.
But the calls - and lives - of those who use the phone booth somehow are being monitored by a man with a vengeful-god complex. He doesn't have a name, but his voice has the recognizably sandy tones of Kiefer Sutherland. The Caller, as he's identified in the credits, rings up Stu in the booth, then won't let him go until the publicist publicly repents for his misdeeds - and even then, freedom is an iffy proposition.
The redemption-at-gunpoint theme is the movie's shakiest aspect. If the Caller truly wanted to weed out nefarious sinners, he surely could do better than a fast-talking publicist contemplating an affair.
Screenwriter Larry Cohen, who has worked in Hollywood since the early '60s (he directed the demon-baby horror film "It's Alive!"), no doubt has come to see publicists as more demonic than your average moviegoer does.
But the situation is so tense that you can overlook the thematic overreaching. Stu is forced into one double bind after another, with the Caller forcing him to make comments to his wife (Radha Mitchell) on the phone and to neighborhood strippers and cops on the street that only bolster the perception that Stu may be a gun-wielding menace.
Some of the plotting is a bit clumsy, particularly at the violent turning point, where a small-scale conflict blows up into a police standoff. But for the most part director Joel Schumacher and Cohen keep the action taut and believable within its own self-contained world. Although the phone booth may confine Stu in uncomfortable ways, it has a liberating effect on Schumacher, who infuses his filmmaking with a no-nonsense energy to keep the story moving.
Aside from picture-in-picture shots of people on the phone with Stu (though never the Caller), the action is limited mostly to a one-block radius, with cinematographer Matthew Libatique using handheld cameras to pump up the sense of immediacy as Stu's predicament becomes a televised confrontation. It's worth noting that Schumacher's two best recent films, this and the barely released Vietnam drama "Tigerland," were shot quickly on shoestring budgets, whereas the dud "Bad Company," filmed after "Phone Booth," was a lavish Jerry Bruckheimer production.
Schumacher discovered Farrell for "Tigerland" - if you want to admire a star-making performance, rent it - and signed him up here when Jim Carrey dropped out. (The movie's release was delayed to take advantage of Farrell's profile-raising appearance in "Minority Report," then was bumped after last fall's sniper attacks in the Washington, D.C., area.) Farrell once again shows he can hold the screen, though the Irish-born actor's New York accent is shaky, and he's not as commanding as in "Tigerland" or the more recent "The Recruit." Then again, his role here is basically to be commanded.
Sutherland is effective as the taunting rifleman, though the effect on his voice makes him sound like he's being amplified in surround Dolby rather than transmitted through the compressed tones of a phone line. Forest Whitaker does well in one of his off-kilter gentle-giant roles as the police captain trying to negotiate Stu out of the booth.
To enjoy "Phone Booth," you must accept its pulpiness. Schumacher sometimes keeps the action and characters just this side of hysterical - particularly those strippers so desperate to use the phone - and at times you want to react to particulars of the crisis escalation with an "Oh, come on."
But the movie works, holding you to that screen like poor Stu is held in that booth. At 81 minutes, "Phone Booth" is a lean, mean tension machine, setting up its premise, executing it with smarts, throwing in enough twists to keep things interesting, and wrapping it up before anyone can get fatigued or reflective. It's on the money.
3 stars (out of 4) "Phone Booth"
Directed by Joel Schumacher; written by Larry Cohen; photographed by Matthew Libatique; edited by Mark Stevens; production designed by Andrew Laws; music by Harry Gregson-Williams; produced by Gil Netter, David Zucker. A Fox 2000 Pictures release; opens Friday, April 4. Running time: 1:21. MPAA rating: R (pervasive language, some violence).
Stu Shepard - Colin Farrell
The Caller - Kiefer Sutherland
Captain Ramey - Forest Whitaker
Kelly Shepard - Radha Mitchell
Pamela McFadden - Katie Holmes Felicia - Paula Jai Parker
Mark Caro is the Chicago Tribune movie reporter.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times