Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 21 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Pervasive Language and some Violence
Directed by: Joel Schumacher
Written by: Larry Cohen
Starring: Colin Farrell, Kiefer Sutherland, Forest Whitaker, Katie Holmes, Radha Mitchell & Paula Jai Parker
After creating two of the worst Batman movies ever (BATMAN FOREVER, BATMAN & ROBIN), Joel Schumacher went on to direct two of the most underrated thrillers of the last 20 years. The first being 1999’s creepy 8MM and the second being 2002’s PHONE BOOTH. The aptly named PHONE BOOTH takes place mostly in, appropriately enough, a phone booth and just might be one of the most Hitchcockian thrillers to come out during the 2000s. With superb acting, a breathless pace that moves in real time, an ingeniously simple premise and excellently crafted suspense, PHONE BOOTH is one hell of thriller!
Stu Shepard (Colin Farrell) is a scumbag PR agent who prides himself on expensive suits, a stellar reputation, and his celebrity connections around the Bronx. Stu is also the kind of married guy who imagines sleeping with up-and-coming actress Pamela McFadden (Katie Holmes). His fantasies are real enough that Stu visits a phone booth every day to call and woo her, but that turns out to be a possible death sentence today. Someone (voiced by Kiefer Sutherland) has been watching Stu and intends to make him pay for every single sin he’s committed in his life. This someone has a high-powered sniper rifle and begins to hold Stu hostage over the course of one very intense phone call. Stu soon finds himself stuck in a nightmare.
PHONE BOOTH is a special kind of thriller in that it has a one sentence premise (a guy is cornered in a phone booth by a sniper) and milks the maximum amount of suspense out of that simple idea. This is the kind of story that makes everyday happenings into matters of life or death. Angry people (including scantily clad hookers and a chatty pimp) also want to make a call in the phone booth, which generates some rather intense scenes. The pay-off to one of these moments ratchets the suspense up tenfold as the scenario escalates, but it never leaves the realm of plausibility. PHONE BOOTH maintains a sense of believability the whole way through. This premise could really happen and that keeps the viewer so far on the edge of their seat that they threaten to tumble off it at any second.
However, this thrilling film is not without a few faults. An opening piece of narration seems a bit cheesy and like it exists purely to spoon-feed an introduction to the viewer. I cannot help but feel that this film would have benefitted by immediately jumping to the phone booth and then panning two blocks away to Stu walking on the sidewalk, instead of verbally explaining everything to us. These opening minutes violate the cinematic rule of “show me, don’t tell me.” Still, the film’s overall style is slick and these visuals seem to accurately represent the dirty streets of New York City. The soundtrack adds extra layers of suspense to the proceeds, by using an echo effect to intense pieces of dialogue.
Colin Farrell has been occasionally been derided for unconvincing movie accents, but he utterly nails a convincing Bronx accent in Stu. It bears mentioning that this character and his development are stellar. Farrell’s Stu starts off as a totally unlikable douchebag. He’s arrogant, rude, foul-mouthed and acts like he’s always on top of things. This also introduces a cruel sense of irony when this pompous jerk is thrown into a situation where he’s likely going to be the victim, no matter what happens. Farrell’s dialogue-fueled battle of wits with the unseen sniper is every bit as intense as a bullet-ridden shootout or a bloody fight scene. One deeply emotional speech near the end causes to viewer to realize just how much they actually care about Stu, which is an impressive accomplishment considering how much of an despicable dickhead he was at the start of these perfectly-paced 81 minutes.
Adding a sense of humor and a hidden threat to the intense proceedings, Kiefer Sutherland is a blast as the unseen sniper who has Stu pinned under his scope. Purely through his sexy, deep voice, Sutherland maintains a sense of menace and a joking nature that is likely to get more than a few laughs out of the viewer. This character’s motivations seem unclear other than he simply wants to punish scumbags and plenty of theories are thrown out to his background, but it’s just him toying with Stu. This makes this villain even more dangerous, because we know next to nothing about him. I cannot stress how funny Kiefer is in this role though. He gets lots of laughs, while also being intimidating as hell.
Katie Holmes is okay enough as the up-and-coming actress, while Radha Mitchell is convincing as Stu’s desperate wife. Both characters add even more to the high stakes when they show up near the phone booth for obvious reasons. The only actor who seems a bit distracting is Forest Whitaker as a cop/hostage negotiator. Some background info is given by other cops and his clichéd subplot about a failed hostage negotiator trying to find redemption in this standoff occasionally distracts from the tense plot at hand. Still, it’s far from bad and doesn’t ruin a majority of this film’s carefully calculated suspense.
Working off Joel Schumacher’s assured direction and Larry Cohen’s tense script (which was originally pitched to Alfred Hitchcock in the 60’s and then revised in the 90’s), PHONE BOOTH is an intense, highly entertaining thriller! This underrated mini-masterpiece feels like something that Hitchcock would have made in his heyday, but it just happened to be released in 2002. The acting is great. The film’s style is slick and engaging. The writing constantly raises suspense in believable ways and the whole film is a blast to watch. Though there are a couple of problems that hold it back from perfection (opening narration, Katie Holmes, and Forest Whitaker’s clichéd subplot), PHONE BOOTH is easily one of the most underrated thrillers of the 2000s!