Combustible Celluloid

Phone Booth (2003)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Ringing True

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy Phone Booth on DVD.

When the title card "Written by Larry Cohen" comes up on the new movie Phone Booth, it's like hearing a favorite old song.

Cohen is one of the hardest-working and longest-lasting filmmakers in the realm known as the 'B' film. His first feature writing credit came on Burt Kennedy's 1966 Western Return of the Seven and since then he has written and/or directed Black Caesar, Hell Up in Harlem, It's Alive! (and its two sequels), God Told Me To, Q: The Winged Serpent, The Stuff, Maniac Cop (and its sequel), The Ambulance and Original Gangstas.

From time to time, Cohen manages to reach through to the mainstream, providing screenplays for the likes of Sidney Lumet (Guilty as Sin), Abel Ferrara (Body Snatchers) and now Joel Schumacher.

So what we have is a mainstream Hollywood flick with true 'B' movie credibility. And for most of its lean 81 minutes, Phone Booth crackles with the raw energy of a filmmaker who has nothing to lose.

Colin Farrell (whom Schumacher "discovered" and cast in his underrated Tigerland) stars as Stu Shepard, a slick, selfish New York publicist -- the kind of guy who rarely puts down his cell phone. He makes a few fast-paced deals, then slinks off to telephone his secret crush. See, Stu is already married. So he can't tell his new girlfriend Pamela (Katie Holmes) about his wife, nor can he call her on his cell phone, for fear that his wife (Radha Mitchell) will notice the call on the phone bill.

So every day, Stu plunks some change into one of New York's few remaining phone booths to call Pamela. Today's call goes fine, but for some reason a pizza guy tries to deliver him a pie while he's in the booth. Then the phone rings and Stu answers it. It's from an unseen sniper (voiced by Kiefer Sutherland) who has a high-powered rifle pointed at him. If he hangs up, he's a dead man. If he tells anyone what's really going on, he's a dead man.

Things stay quiet for a bit until some hookers who use the booth for business sic their pimp on Stu. That scuffle brings out the cops, led by Capt. Ramey (Forest Whitaker). And the heart of the movie is a tense standoff, with each party trying to outwit the other.

Only the final 10 or so minutes fails to live up to the film's prevailing stamina. I suspect that someone else came in to re-write Cohen's original ending; whatever it was, it must have been better than this. But Cohen and Schumacher handle the meat of the film with such precision and speed that it doesn't matter.

Colin Farrell keeps up a kind of frenzied panic for the entire length of the film, and it's partially due to his presence that the thing works at all. I'm still not certain of his future as a Great Movie Star, but between this, The War Zone, Tigerland, Hart's War, Minority Report and stealing every scene in the mediocre Daredevil, he's off to a tremendous start.

And there's no question that Schumacher is at a high point in his career. After spending millions making monstrously awful summer movies, he's making small, inexpensive genre movies and clearly loving every minute of it.

As for the 64 year-old Cohen, Phone Booth is just another feather in his already heavily-plumaged hat.

DVD Details: Extras include a full-length audio commentary by director Schumacher and a theatrical trailer.

Starring: Colin Farrell, Katie Holmes, Radha Mitchell, Kiefer Sutherland, Forest Whitaker
Written by: Larry Cohen
Directed by: Joel Schumacher
MPAA Rating: R for pervasive language and some violence
Running Time: 81 minutes
Date: April 4, 2002

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