Relegated to bit parts and off-screen voices in countless movies, the 911 operator graduates to lead-role status in “The Call,” with Halle Berry playing the heroic municipal employee.
The semi-fresh thriller, set mainly in an emergency call center and on the freeways of Los Angeles, puts a tech slant on a damsel-in-distress setup. It buzzes along for a while, the promising plot innovations inviting suspension of disbelief, before by-the-numbers implausibility, over-the-top valor and unsavory contrivances take over and the line goes dead.
When Berry’s Jordan Turner takes charge of an especially challenging call, she’s still shaken by her mishandling of an emergency that ended badly. Until circumstances force her back into the thick of it, she’s been taking a break from direct contact with the public and their shootings, ODs and home invasions. Instead she’s been training newbies at the Hive, the thrumming call center where she works.
Berry, who has a knack for finding the toughness beneath vulnerability, and vice versa (and who deserves better roles), delivers a taut, unfussy performance as a cop’s daughter who’s dating a cop (Morris Chestnut, in a minuscule role). She gets fine support from Denise Dowse as a co-worker and Roma Maffia as her supervisor.
Jordan returns to the high-wire stress of the phones when teenager Casey (Abigail Breslin) calls from the trunk of a car, having been abducted by a deranged man with a plan (Michael Eklund). In a handy, if not quite credible, plot contraption, Casey is using a prepaid, disposable phone, making her location harder to trace and thereby drawing out the tension.
The lifeline connection between Jordan and Casey is the heart of the film, and director Brad Anderson, working from a screenplay by Richard D’Ovidio, choreographs gut-churning sequences as Jordan instructs the girl in ways to attract attention from the speeding sedan.
These scenes also offer gruesome cautionary lessons in the etiquette of approaching suspicious weirdos on the road. The kidnapper doesn’t take it well when his neat little plot is complicated by encounters with good Samaritans, including one played by Michael Imperioli.
But while Anderson gets the adrenaline pumping, once that digital tether between Jordan and Casey is broken, the story devolves into formulaic genre territory, where any semblance of reasonable behavior is a distant blip in the rearview mirror.
In recent years, Anderson, known for well-received low-budget features such as “Next Stop Wonderland” and “The Machinist,” has focused on prestigious cable dramas (“Boardwalk Empire,” “The Killing”). Despite the impressive scale of his new film, the material has the mild impact of a special episode of a network crime series, with Eklund’s villain a figure of mannered creepiness rather than profound chills.
“The Call” effectively taps into primal fears only to serve up a deflating bit of intended catharsis. On the way, it stoops to “a-ha” moments of back story via conveniently arranged photos, and teases out the threat of torture in the kind of bunker that’s a popular choice among big-screen suburban psychopaths (“The Lovely Bones,” “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”).
In the process, Breslin’s good girl learns to curse, but not before being half-undressed and subjected to her abductor’s sadistic leer. But the movie’s biggest letdown is the way its shift to action heroics makes Jordan’s occupation, and its intriguing dramatic potential, beside the point.
MPAA rating: R for violence, disturbing content and some language
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes
Playing: In general release