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   Click for more: celebrities | movie reviews

Phone Booth

Directed by Joel Schumacher
Written by Larry Cohen
Cast: Colin Farrell, Forrest Whittaker, Radha Mitchell, Katie Holmes, Kiefer Sutherland

Hot on the heels of last season’s brilliant TV series “24” comes another “real time” thriller, complete with Jack Bauer himself, Kiefer Sutherland, in a key role. But to be fair, “Phone Booth” is no cynical cash-in on Fox’s hit—longtime readers of message boards and entertainment mags will recognize this title as one of those forever-in-development projects ala “I Am Legend” and “Watchmen”.

Will Smith and Michael Bay were attached, then the Hughes Brothers expressed interest, then, Jim Carrey agreed to star with Joel Schumacher as director. When Carrey couldn’t commit, Schumacher replaced him with the-then unknown Colin Farrell, with whom he’d enjoyed a successful collaboration on his rough-hewn, modestly-budgeted Vietnam drama “Tigerland”, which had also received its North American debut at the TIFF (note: “Phone Booth” was in the can more than a year ago, before Farrell seemed to be in every other movie ever made, and before Schumacher’s lamentable stumble back to blockbuster territory, “Bad Company”). The good news is that Schumacher has delivered one of his most energetic and purely enjoyable films, and unlike the admirable but logy “Tigerland”, this one doesn’t come stamped with a “look at me, I’m stretching” subliminal title.

Farrell adopts a convincing New York accent as the nattily-attired Stu Shepard, a fast-talking, cock-of-the-walk PR dynamo who pays off cops for tips with freebie Britney tickets and pontificates endlessly on the nature of “the biz” to his lapdog personal assistant. When he detours to a public phone booth in order to call his girlfriend Kelly (his suspicious wife checks his cell phone bills), the phone rings, and thinking nothing of it, Stu answers. As the neighborhood hookers beat on the glass and demand that Stu free up their line for business, a calm but intimidating voice (Sutherland) tells him that if he hangs up, he’ll be killed. Of course, Stu thinks this is just another New York crackpot, but when the girls’ pimp is felled by a sniper bullet, it’s abundantly clear “The Caller” is deadly serious. The girls tell the cops that it was Stu who fired the shot, and soon, the corner hosts a police standoff right out of “Dog Day Afternoon” as sympathetic cop Ramey (Forest Whitaker) tries to talk Stu out of the booth. The Caller knows an awful lot about Stu’s private life, and will obviously not hesitate to take him out unless he follows his would-be assassin’s demands to the letter…

Beyond the presence of golden boy du jour Farrell, the main attraction here is the script by veteran auteur Larry Cohen, who is something of an icon in the independent genre scene, and something of a presence at this year’s TIFF, too, appearing on camera in Isaac Julien’s “Baaadasss Cinema”. The prolific screenwriter has worked in just about every conceivable genre from blaxploitation (“Bone”) to sci-fi (“God Told Me To"), to horror (“It’s Alive”) to straight thrillers (“Best Seller”), and “Phone Booth” marks his return to the majors in a time where there seems to be little reception for his kind of iconoclastic, genre-bending voice.

While “Phone Booth” is a less-subversive work than I’d come to expect from him, some vintage Cohen still shines through: it’s still the pre-Guilliani 70s in his New York City, right down to the porn shops, the Baretta-era hookers, hell, the very existence of a working coin-operated phone booth—I kept checking the background to see if Fred Williamson would strut by in his “Black Caesar” duds.

But I was disappointed to find that there are no major Cohenesque twists here—the man who once revealed the identity of God to be a hippy alien and a rash of mutant births to be the next step of human evolution instead gives us a climactic weepy confessional that reeks of those overwrought “Hate The 80s” melodramas of the last decade, where cocky Master-Of-The-Universe types were taught to be “better men” by either getting cancer (“The Doctor”), or my favorite, getting shot in the head (“Regarding Henry”). Stu’s alleged “crime” here seems so petty—The Caller is apparently peeved because his target is a show-biz phony who talks too much on the cell phone, cheats on his wife, lies to his girlfriend, and sports a cheesy goatee that is soooo Limp Bizkit circa Woodstock 98. As a cautionary tale, “Phone Booth” is trite and already dated.

Fortunately, it’s much better as a straight thriller. Clocking in at a mere 80 minutes, “Phone Booth” is a barebones romp as lean as many of Schumacher’s other films are overstuffed, offering a nifty adrenaline rush, for most, will be enough to compensate for its so-so coda. And you know, after a week of enduring industry types yakking incessantly into their phones during screenings and throwing Diva-fits over lineups, I’m inclined to reconsider some of my reservations and admit that I know where Cohen’s crusading “Caller” is coming from.

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