Trapped in a New York phone booth, slick-talking media consultant, Stu (Farrell), is forced to come clean on his indiscretions by a sniper who threatens to shoot him if he hangs up. That's if the police don't misread the situation and riddle Stu with bullet
Art imitates life. Life imitates art. And, in the meantime, the release of a movie like Phone Booth gets held up for months until a tide of particularly sensitive headlines recedes. Writer Larry Cohen and director Joel Schumacher surely thought that the only real-life raw nerves they'd touch with this tense but funny thriller would belong to the sleazebag publicists upon whom the main character is based. But that was before two men decided to take fatal pot shots at innocent American citizens, and the country froze in fear of 'The Washington Sniper'. The filmmakers' clever, low-budget scenario - one man trapped in a single location (in real time) by an unknown, gun-wielding adversary - suddenly became front page news. As a result, the film will only reach US cinemas one week earlier than the UK. That's not the only obstacle Phone Booth had to overcome. The role of the sniper was re-cast and re-shot (to give away the identity of the actor is a bit of a spoiler). Leading men Jim Carrey and Will Smith backed out after having second thoughts about the insularity of the script. Director Michael Bay also passed. But maybe it's a karma thing, because luck is certainly turning in the movie's favour. Casting Colin Farrell (favoured by Schumacher after their collaboration on Tigerland) was a stroke of genius; he's far more credible in the cocky, motormouth charm department than any of the other names bandied about. Meanwhile, the release delay has given Farrell an additional six months to rise up the Hollywood ladder. In April 2003, he is hotter than he's ever been. Despite the Tigerland pedigree, on paper Schumacher doesn't look like the man for the job. No sooner did that boot camp drama help redeem his Batman & Robin sins than he delivered another empty dud in the shape of Bad Company. But the Schumacher of Phone Booth is more like the Schumacher of Falling Down: he spots the potential for social satire in the script, then manages to tease laughs and tension out of a ridiculous, life-or-death situation. Time flies while watching the movie, and not just because of its short running time. The concept is a corker and it continually ups the stakes as irate hookers, police marksmen and the protagonist's wife are dragged into the action. Visual breaks are provided by split screens that show either end of the phone conversations. Meanwhile, the cast of fame-hungry characters - from a white rapper to Stu's poodle-like assistant to superficial Stu himself - are held up as empty vessels for all to see. It's to Farrell's credit that he's able to carry the audience along with him on Stu's moral journey. At first we're on the side of 'the caller' because we've seen what a manipulative asshole Stu is. Okay, the confessions he's forced to make will ruin his career, but he is only reaping what he has sown. At this point, 'the caller' is little more than Jiminy Cricket with a high-powered precision rifle; but when he becomes a vigilante with a God complex, our loyalties swing towards Stu. It's all about degrees of evil. The real master at work here is B-movie king Larry Cohen. His script keeps the focus so lean and tight, it's barely out of breath by the time the credits roll. If there's one thing that runs through his work, it's his ability to take something innocent and fill it with a sense of threat - babies in It's Alive!, ice cream in The Stuff. Here Cohen transforms our thoughts about public phone booths - for who, after seeing this movie, won't think twice about answering a 'wrong number' as they pass by in the street.
Riveting as a thriller, sharp and funny as a satire, this is a slice of pure entertainment. Put everything else on hold and pick up Farrell's call.