Phone Booth - 2003
Directed by Joel Schumacher
Written by Larry Cohen

Slick New York publicist Stu Shepard (Colin Farrell) uses the same phone booth to call his girlfriend (Katie Holmes) every day because his wife checks his cell phone bill. One day, he answers the pay phone and the caller on the other end (Kiefer Sutherland) tells Stu that if he hangs up or leaves the booth he will be shot. After the sniper kills a man on the street, the police and the media surround the booth believing that Stu is the killer.

Phone Booth is a film that has been long gestating. Larry Cohen came up with his original idea 20 years ago and it was turned into the short film End of the Line in 1996. The project was then picked up by Michael Bay in 1999 and a revolving door of actors were ready to star in the lead role. Mel Gibson, Will Smith, and Jim Carrey were all slated to star at different points, with it looking as though Carrey was finally going to seal the deal. Eventually, Carrey declared that he was uncomfortable with stalker aspect of the material and dropped out along with Bay. The script was then picked up by Joel Schumacher, who brought in his Tigerland actor Colin Farrell and actually managed to make the damn film. Phone Booth was initially scheduled to be released on November 17, 2002, but the Washington sniper attacks caused the studio to decide to push the release back to April of 2003.

I really love the concept of Phone Booth, but I don’t think that this is the right time or place (or director!) for this film to be made. This is the perfect type of movie to have come out of the 1970s: low budget, quick, and intense. They managed to score on both the budget (a relatively minuscule $12 million) and quick (the running time is a paltry 80 minutes), but I don’t think they nailed the intensity.

The main area where I think this film could have been improved is in the directing. Schumacher fills the film with lots of little visual moves that seem to pull the focus out of the booth. After opening with a photogrammetry shot of the movement of a cell call through satellites and transmitters (which is ripped off from the beginning of Enemy of the State), Schumacher uses a lot of split-screens and picture in picture set-ups (much like those in Kiefer Sutherland’s 24) to try and show two things going on at once. This just felt artificial and pulled me out of the film. Since the whole movie takes place on a small section of city street, I think that it might have been better if he had just used a couple of cameras and observed the goings on from those set perspectives as though they were security cameras (like in The Conversation). I would have been really impressed if he tried to pull a Rope and do the whole movie in a single shot. As gimmicky as this might sound, I think that something like that could have really sucked me in and ratcheted up the power of using such a small setting.

There’s nothing about the performances that really stand out in my mind (other than one woman playing a profanity-spewing hooker that is simply terrible). Colin Farrell is fine, which is compliment considering he pretty much has to carry the film all by himself. The ever-solid Forest Whitaker is good as the weary police captain trying to talk Stu out of the booth. Kiefer Sutherland tries to be all sinister and mean as The Caller but just can’t pull it off. Maybe his voice is just too distinctive to be the sound of random evil.

Two other total nitpicks: The laser sight on the sniper rifle looks really fake and was obviously added in post-production, and The Caller’s voice is pumped in through the main audio track, as though he were some sort of omniscient narrator. I don’t know why, but these two things irked me to no end. You can probably ignore them.

I look over this writeup and all I see is negativity, but I don’t want to give the impression that this is a bad film. It’s simply OK, nothing special. 6.5 out of 10. C+/B-. Two and a half stars. Whatever you want to call it. But it is not great, and that’s what I was hoping for. Something that could give me the claustrophobia of Cube with the standoff/hostage/character aspects of Dog Day Afternoon.

It’s a shame that remakes usually only happen to famous movies that don’t need them. It would make sense that good ideas that simply got misplayed should sometimes get another shot too. Maybe in the future someone will strike gold with the Phone Booth concept and give us something great. I’d be the first one in line.