A haunting slogan from the golden days of radio, spoken by the disembodied voice on ''The Shadow,'' was the boast: ''Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows,'' followed by an insinuating cackle. In ''Phone Booth,'' Joel Schumacher's flashy stunt of a movie, a contemporary descendant of that phantom voice unleashes a similarly nasty, all-knowing snicker every few minutes during the protracted phone conversation that consumes most of this clanking, overheated thriller.
The target of derision, Stu Shepard (Colin Farrell), is a scruffy young New York publicist who resembles an up-to-date version of Sidney Falco from ''Sweet Smell of Success.'' Stu's grubby little world is shaken one afternoon when he picks up the ringing telephone in the Midtown Manhattan phone booth he uses to make secret calls to his prospective girlfriend, Pamela McFadden (Katie Holmes), and finds himself the captive of a mysterious male caller who seems to know every detail of his life.
Pamela, an aspiring actress whom Stu has been stringing along with career advice and vague promises of introductions to showbiz biggies, is unaware that Stu is married. Nor does Stu's pretty blond wife, Kelly (Radha Mitchell), who works in a store on Columbus Avenue, realize that hubby has a wandering eye. Although gussied up with all sorts of cinematic tricks and a jittery, ticking soundtrack, ''Phone Booth,'' which Mr. Schumacher directed from a screenplay by Larry Cohen, is essentially a one-act radio play in which a sadistic voyeur with a high-powered rifle plays humiliating cat-and-mouse games with an urban everyman and taunts him into breaking down and confessing his sins.
Early on, the omniscient caller warns Stu that if he doesn't cooperate with every instruction, he will be shot dead from one of the thousands of windows looking out over the street. To prove he means business, the sniper summarily kills a loudmouthed pimp (John Enos III) who has been pestering Stu (with a baseball bat) to vacate the booth so his girls can use it to make dates.
Naturally Stu is assumed to be the killer. And when it turns out the sniper has thought ahead and stashed a gun in the roof of the booth to make him appear guilty, Stu (who came without a weapon) seems to be a goner no matter what happens. If the sniper, who again demonstrates his marksmanship by grazing one of Stu's ears, doesn't kill him, the police officers who arrive in force surely will.
''Phone Booth'' begins to lose its tenuous grip on reality once the law appears. Captain Ramey (Forest Whitaker), who leads a force of itchy-fingered sharpshooters, tries to negotiate with Stu, whom the caller coerces into inventing reasons he can't leave the booth. As the standoff drags on, what little suspense the movie had built up rapidly drains away.
Desperately stalling for time, the movie, which opens today nationwide (after being postponed from last fall because of the Washington-area sniper attacks), starts padding itself by taking tangents into the police captain's failed marriage. When a frantic Kelly appears on the scene, Stu (presumably to protect her) pretends she's a crazy woman who has been stalking him. By the time it dawns on the captain (for no particular reason other than that it's time to end the movie) that Stu may not be the killer, ''Phone Booth'' has used up its last quarter.
''Phone Booth'' is bogus on every level, right down to its half-hearted trick ending. The urban realism (foul-mouthed prostitutes and tough-talking cops) is as garishly clichÃ©d as the media circus that builds around the killing. As a moral fable, ''Phone Booth'' is entirely meretricious. For one thing, Stu is awfully small potatoes compared with the big shots the sniper boasts of having executed in similar circumstances. Stu may have lust in his heart, but technically he still hasn't cheated. When he finally blubbers out his failures, there's nothing on the list that ought to get a metaphysical vigilante so riled up.
Mr. Farrell, who resembles a younger, bushier-eyebrowed Brad Pitt, acquits himself decently enough as the scuffling Bronx-born hustler who favors Italian suits. But this likable Irish actor, touted as Hollywood's studly flavor of the last several months, ultimately lacks the soulful magnetism that signifies a major screen presence.
So what is ''Phone Booth'' good for? If you want to soak in some more bad urban vibes to add to the ones already floating around, the movie could be your masochistic treat.
''Phone Booth'' is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It has lots of profanity and medium violence.
Directed by Joel Schumacher; written by Larry Cohen; director of photography, Matthew Libatique; edited by Mark Stevens; music by Harry Gregson-Williams; production designer, Andrew Laws; produced by Gil Netter and David Zucker; released by Fox 2000 Pictures. Running time: 81 minutes. This film is rated R.
WITH: Colin Farrell (Stu Shepard), Kiefer Sutherland (the Caller), Forest Whitaker (Captain Ramey), Radha Mitchell (Kelly Shepard), Katie Holmes (Pamela McFadden), Paula Jai Parker (Felicia) and John Enos III (Leon).
Synopsis of this flick without spoiling the end.
Have you ever seen a movie that you would actually pay money to watch more than once? What if I told you that this film had a setting of only one main location, two main actors and three supporting cast members? While these elements don't make up what a classic movie sounds like on paper, add director Joel Schumacher (Bad Company, 8mm) into the mix, along with screenwriter Larry Cohen, who had this story handed down to him by Alfred Hitchcock himself about 30 years ago, and you have the perfect blend of blackmail, violence and extortion: Phone Booth. The story begins by showing a glimpse into the life of Stu Shepard (Daredevil's Colin Farrell). Stu is a New York hustler that people love to hate. He is egotistical, two-faced to everyone he knows and does what he can for personal gratification. He even fantasizes about cheating on his wife Kelly (Pitch Black's Radha Mitchell) and the object of that desire is Pamela McFadden (Dawson Creek's Katie Holmes). Pam is a young actress trying to get her first break, while Stu has been grooming her for the big time. To avoid having his calls to Pam appear on his cellular phone bill, Stu calls her from the lone phone booth left in the heart of NYC. However, things would be different on this day. Upon hanging up, he receives a call that would turn his whole world upside down. The caller (24's Kiefer Sutherland) is a sniper, who has been targeting high-profile underhanded suits, just like Stu. He has a few simple rules so that Stu does not meet the same fate that two others had before him: don't leave the booth, don't tell anyone who he's talking to, and most importantly, don't hang up. To prove his seriousness, the caller shoots and kills a pimp who tries to physically remove Stu from the booth for taking too much time with his call. This, as expected, does not help matters, and the fallen pimp's hookers now believe it was indeed Stu who committed the murder. Soon, the NYPD and numerous media outlets are covering this serious situation. Things become increasingly difficult for Stu Shepard as Kelly and Pam both show up. In the meantime, the caller continues to play various mind games, while the sympathetic NYPD Captain Ramey (Twilight Zone's Forest Whitaker) tries to solve the issue. During all of this, Stu tries to maintain his sanity and not risk any more lives. His lies no longer matter. As a result, he must now search his soul, discover himself and attempt to outsmart the caller, taking the game to a whole new level. The cinematography is outstanding. Schumacher uses the right angle for every shot, and manages to keep everyone's attention with quick pans and abrupt cuts. In the end, the 80-minute movie seems longer but not because it is boring. The biggest payoff comes with the twist ending that changes the film's outcome within sixty seconds. There was not one bad performance in Phone Booth. Farrell's ability to convert his Irish brogue to a Brooklyn drawl makes his performance as Bullseye in Daredevil look like a child's school play when compared to the Broadway-level of acting he manages here. While Mitchell and Holmes did not have lengthy parts, their roles added just enough to the story and they managed to perform up to the standards of their characters. Forest Whitaker was a surprisingly great addition to the cast and his role as a sympathetic cop is one that's not often seen, and should thus be welcomed. However, all of these actors are outshined by Kiefer Sutherland, who ends up being extremely creepy and one of the best antagonists in recent movie history by just using his voice. Will this win Best Picture at next year's Academy Awards? It probably won't. However, with a great story, top-notch directing and a cast with great chemistry, what more could you ask for? Out of a possible five stars, I give this the limit of five with desires to go even higher. While I would go see it again and again, not everyone has the same tastes. However, I would put down the $8 for a ticket to see the flick at least once. If nothing else, it will make you stop and think: the next time you enter a phone booth, just who will be watching?
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