A phone booth hasn't gotten this much attention since "Superman."
From filmmaker Joel Schumacher, who directed Colin Farrell in "Tigerland" (2000) and Kiefer Sutherland in "The Lost Boys" (1987) and "Flatliners" (1990), comes this 2002 thriller starring Farrell and Sutherland about a sniper who pins a guy down in a phone booth. It sounds preposterous to sustain for the duration of a feature-length film, you say? Think again.
"Phone Booth" may be imperfect, its biggest flaws being two unsympathetic main characters and a contrived and far-fetched plot, but that doesn't stop the audience from having a heck of a good time most of the way. It's quite an accomplishment, really, when you consider that Farrell is on screen almost 100% of the time and Sutherland is a disembodied voice.
We're told at the beginning of the movie that despite practically everyone in the greater New York metropolitan area owning a telephone, approximately 4,500,000 people still use phone booths on a regular basis. One of these people is publicist Stu Shepard, a married man who daily uses the last remaining old-fashioned phone booth in the city for calls to his girlfriend, Pam (Katie Holmes). He calls at same time every day from a place he feels his wife (Radha Mitchell) will never find evidence on the phone bills. It's a booth in busy, downtown Manhattan, about to be retired and replaced by a ubiquitous telephone kiosk. But today it's all Stu's, his privacy secure. That is, until a sniper targets him for his personal amusement.
High above the phone booth, hidden in one of a thousand windows, is a madman with a high-powered rifle and a telescopic lens, a man who knows Stu's every move and has rigged up the booth with all manner of gizmos to get and keep Stu's attention. He's never met Stu, but he's researched him and hates what he represents: a fast-talking schemer, a conceited ladies' man, and an unfaithful husband. It's enough for the sniper to call Stu at the booth and then keep him there with the promise of a bullet through his head if he dares leave. If Stu hangs up or steps out of the booth, it's good-bye, Stu. Those few square feet suddenly become for the duration of the movie Stu's whole world, his whole life.
Does the killer mean what he says? "Stu," the sniper tells him, "I never kid." And then he blows away a pimp who's come to claim the phone booth for one of his girls. The police arrive, finding Stu in the booth and the dead body outside, and assume Stu is a murderer.
That's the whole situation in a nutshell, set up in the first few minutes of the picture and continuing for the remainder of the film. The sniper is a self-appointed vigilante who finds Stu guilty of "inhumanity" to his fellow man. Forest Whitaker plays a policeman, Captain Ramey, who has to figure out what's going on and what to do. Before long, Stu's become famous, because not only does half the NYC blue show up but so do the television cameras. Yet Stu can't explain why he won't leave the booth or what's happening to him, lest the unknown, unseen sniper put a bullet through him.
The situation is tense, scary, and gripping throughout, even if the whole affair is too incredible to believe. It's to the film's credit, however, that it doesn't give one enough time to consider the logic until it's over, by which time you don't care because it's been so entertaining.
I did have a few quibbles, though, that nagged me during and after the picture. Most important, was it really necessary to make both leads so repellant? It goes without saying that the sniper is a lunatic, a serial killer who's done this kind of thing before; we're not supposed to have any heart for him. He is virtually never seen, and Sutherland projects in his voice exactly the right degree of slimy menace to make him totally repulsive. Indeed, it is Sutherland who practically steals the show, he's so mesmerizing, a little like the old-time "Shadow."
But Farrell's character is almost equally offensive. Stu is the kind of guy who gives PR a bad name: a lying, cheating, conniving, self-centered young jerk without a care in the world for anybody but himself. Frankly, for most of the picture, we don't feel enough for him to care whether he lives or dies. Indeed, I'd be willing to bet that a lot of folks in the audience would like to see him blown away regardless. Worse, there's a reason for Stu's being such a total creep, and when it's revealed, it's almost as bad as our not knowing.
I also had issues with the movie's ending; with the police captain's extraneous problems with a department negotiator; with the director's overreliance on split screens and multi-angles; and with the fact that the plot runs out of steam about two-thirds of the way through, making the film probably too long even for its brief eighty-one minutes. Still, it's a good time while it lasts.
The story is the brainchild of writer Larry Cohen, hitherto known for B-movie and schlock horror flicks like "Maniac Cop" and "It's Alive." With "Phone Booth," however, Cohen is right on target and hits the mark, if you'll excuse the expression. It's still B-movie material, mind you, but it's good B-movie material, elevating the substance of this film well beyond anything we have had any right to expect from the genre.
As usual, Fox delivers a clean, crisp DVD picture, projected in both an anamorphic widescreen that measures an approximately 2.17:1 ratio across a normal television and a pan-and-scan, standard format. The P&S on side two is not entirely objectionable, however, as it restores information at the bottom of the screen while cutting off the edges. Even movies shot specifically for release in widescreen formats like Panavision are most often photographed in larger negative sizes in order to ensure that things like microphones, booms, and other hanging objects in a frame can later be cut out. Since "Phone Booth" was released to theaters in something like 2.35:1, the widescreen on the disc will be the preferred viewing for movie purists.
As to the picture quality, understandably, there's not a lot of color in the movie; I mean, the guy's in a phone booth, after all. But the transfer is as sharply defined and the hues as clearly presented as I would imagine they looked in a movie house, and there is virtually no grain and there are no moiré effects or other digital transfer artifacts of mention.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 sonics are at least half the fun. In a movie that depends upon our sense of hearing as much as our sense of seeing, the audio reproduction does its part admirably. The surround speakers are used to create an all-encompassing environment, and the front speakers erupt with violent outbreaks of dynamics and bass. What's more, it's satisfying to hear Sutherland's unflappable speech patterns projected not just from the center channel but from above and beyond the center channel, and it's good to hear other voices actually moving across the screen along with their characters. The movie provides an enthralling aural experience all by itself.
Not a lot going on here. Besides offering the film in standard and widescreen formats, the only other bonus item of note the Fox people provide is an audio commentary with director Schumacher. Beyond that, there are twenty-eight scene selections and theatrical trailers for this film and something called "Garage Days." English, French, and Spanish are the spoken language options, with English and Spanish for subtitles
"Phone Booth" is, without a doubt, little more than an amusement-park joy ride, but what an enjoyable ride it is! With the sure hand of a capable director and the exceptionally fine performances of its three principal actors, the film is one of the edgiest, most exciting dramas to come along in a while. In short, "Phone Booth" is a great call.