Small time publicist Stu Shepherd (Colin Farrell), spends his day glued to a cell phone, and avoiding those he has lied to on the same device. His only break from mobile dishonesty is to call an aspiring actress at a phone booth, thus gaining some privacy from the hustle-bustle of New York’s streets and his wife’s prying into his phone bill. There’s just one hitch. Someone else rings him back and convinces him there is a high-powered rifle aimed at his head. If he leaves the booth he dies. If he fails to make amends for his dishonest ways, someone he cares for will die. And if he doesn’t hang up, the police swat team, who suspect him to be the killer of one of the sniper’s victims, will terminate the call permanently.
Phone Booth’s writer Larry Cohen is a hero to those who grew up with chunky VCRs. His scuzzy but imaginative brand of cinema have given us late night classics like Q (1982) and The Stuff (1985) which showed up a sterile corporate Hollywood with a verve, irreverence and scumbag brand of humour. They were true B-movies, the kind that don’t get made any more. Cohen’s formula is to take a concept and create a ride. Phone Booth is a rollercoaster that never moves, where verbal threats fill in for the hurtling speeds, and where the red dot of an unseen weapon become the explosions.
Surprisingly, and somewhat disappointingly, the film is nowhere near as claustrophobic as Die Hard (1988) or Speed (1994), in spite of the physical location of the crisis being under a metre squared in area. This has much to do with Schumacher’s typically manic style and Cohen’s coal-black humour. The ample performance of the disembodied voice (all mocking, reptile condescension), and the long-awaited emergence of Colin Farrell as a credible star, both allow the audience to avoid the yuppie-in-peril’s claustrophobic fate.
Farrell’s ascension to the A-list was built on filling roles vacated by the likes of Edward Norton, Matt Damon and Jim Carrey on projects which were tailored for them, but which they eventually turned down. The buzz around him has seen publicists working overtime to convince us that Farrell is the next big thing. Yet this much delayed thriller is the first film he’s headlined where the moviegoing public actually have some idea of who he is. His last six roles spent standing in for absent names have invariably been commercial failures. Despite showing plenty of onscreen presence in the overlong Minority Report (2002), this is the first venture which justifies the hype. The spotlight (and a rifle’s laser sight) is pointing at Farrell, and it’s time for him to prove his worth.
He does so admirably. Wearing other stars’ shoes for so long has meant that any Colin Farrell persona has been nondescript at best. Here he plays an alternative Tom Cruise; the top gun in the little league, the grinning hunk who has already failed. It took the Cruiser 15 years of success to realise that people might actually want to see him disappoint, and we got the fantastic Jerry Maguire (1996). It has taken Farrell just eighty minutes.
We watch him grimace and sweat, realising his life means nothing and has only detracted from those of other people. His sin may be relatively minor – kerb-crawling towards an affair with a hopeful – but his penance is overwrought and thoroughly enjoyable. He discovers the very technology he uses to conduct his misdeeds has become his prison, and his dishonesty may save him from the cops, but not from the sniper. Hollywood may crave tales about winners, but critics love the losers. Whether it is Charles Foster Kane dying alone with only a distant childhood memory to comfort him, or overweight ex-contender Jake La Motta punching at the jail cell wall, the fallen make for great drama.
The only thing that upsets Cohen and Farrell’s otherwise good work is the cop-out ending. Watching Phone Booth rapidly shut down, it’s clear that (at least) two denouements have been filmed: one where our loser in a nice suit takes the redemptive bullet, and another where all is forgiven, good triumphs over evil and the reunited husband and wife get to ride an ambulance into the sunset. I’m not going to tell you which makes the final cut, but it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. Hollywood can’t take too many new ideas at once.