Stu Shepard (Colin Farrell) is a fast talking, morally ambiguous public relations wizard who has New York City at his fingertips. With his wife (Radha Mitchell, "Pitch Black") at home, and his mistress (Katie Holmes, "Dawson's Creek") waiting for him elsewhere, Stu has life locked up just the way he wants it. Then, during a routine telephone call made from a rickety phone booth, Stu learns that on the other end is an enraged sniper (voiced by Kiefer Sutherland), who demands that Stu stay on the line or he will be shot. At first, Stu doesn't believe the psycho, but when the sniper proves his point by killing an innocent bystander, he must stay inside the booth as the local cops, media and the two women in his life show up to watch Stu unravel.
As stripped down as a thriller can get, "Phone Booth" (IMDb listing) is not only noteworthy as being a thriller that delights, but for the fact that it does it all within the tight, confined space of an average telephone booth. Written by noted, and higher-minded, schlock artist Larry Cohen ("It's Alive!," "Maniac Cop," "The Stuff"), "Phone Booth" pulses with tension, wringing it out of even the most mundane of circumstances. Cohen has shaped a screenplay that is simple, straight-to-the-point, and relies solely on the participants to bring it to life. It's also a screenplay that had a tumultuous history, falling in and out of production several times over the years with a host of revolving actors and directors. Then they settled on Joel Schumacher.
As a director, Joel Schumacher has had a spotty recent career ("Bad Company," "Flawless," "8mm"), and is not the first name that comes to mind when thinking of unbridled suspense. Always a director who favors glitz over common sense, I'm happy to report that Schumacher has approached the material as I would think Cohen would want: simply. This is a story told efficiently, with Schumacher ignoring his instincts to go bigger. "Phone Booth" is more of a one-act play on crack, with simple moral hurdles to cross, and no time for preliminary character development. Schumacher does find time later to develop Stu, as well as the police captain (played by Forest Whitaker), but the phone booth crisis is the center of the story, with the director playing it out competently. With a host of angles and zooms, Schumacher cleverly disguises the fact that the story doesn't go anywhere for 70 minutes. While you feel Stu's predicament in the bottom of your stomach, you never feel his claustrophobia, which works for the pace of picture as much as it hurts the overall impact Cohen is clearly striving for.
Bringing back an actor he, in a sense, created, Schumacher employs flavor-of-the-month Colin Farrell to take on Stu. Farrell is a terrific actor ("The Recruit," "Minority Report"), but a questionable judge of material ("American Outlaws," "Hart's War"), never managing to find a starring role as well-rounded as the one he played the last time he paired up with Schumacher, in 2000's little seen, but widely noticed "Tigerland." Technically, we're seeing Farrell before his recent big break, as "Booth" was shot 2 1/2 years ago, which lends an extra freshness to the performance. This is a one-man show, with Farrell handling the timing and urgency of the role with perfection. Even when he has trouble passing off his Irish brogue as New York Italian, Farrell has the arrogance and fear of an egotistical man being brought down to size. He's just marvelous here.
Rather than going off on a Jerry Bruckheimer-influenced, bombastic third act finale, "Phone Booth" instead ends about as abruptly as it starts. Schumacher hits his points and leaves, which is great to see. "Phone Booth" leaves you wanting more. How often do you get that from a thriller anymore?
Filmfodder Grade: B+