Fret lag

Movie: Phone Booth

Phone Booth
Length: 1 hour, 20 minutes
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Release Date: 2003-04-04
Cast: Colin Farrell, Forest Whitaker, Keith Nobbs, Katie Holmes, Kiefer Sutherland
Director: Joel Schumacher
Screenwriter: Larry Cohen
WorkNameSort: Phone Booth
Our Rating: 4.00

According to movie legend, the JFK assassination moved Frank Sinatra to pull his similarly themed political thriller "The Manchurian Candidate" from circulation. It sat in limbo for decades, a victim of its own unforeseen relevance.

The complete truth is more elusive. Some say that money disputes between Sinatra and United Artists were just as important in the decision to pull the plug. But the public continues to believe that The Chairman took a stand on behalf of decency and good taste. And so it's tempting to crack wise that the impending release of two pictures likewise tainted by front-page synchronicity "The Core" and "Phone Booth" -- shows Hollywood falling bitterly short of Sinatra's high moral standards. Though both films betray spooky similarities to recent calamities (the loss of the space shuttle Columbia and the D.C. sniper case, respectively), their eventual wide release was never in any real doubt. Damn the bereaved, there's costs to recoup.

In the case of "The Core," not even a slight postponement was decreed. This speculative stinker arrives in theaters as planned Friday, March 28, bearing a crucial sequence in which another space shuttle attempting re-entry gets into another knuckle-whitening jam. In this version, the vessel is thrown far off course by disruptions to the Earth's electromagnetic field, which force its crew to make a crash landing in the scuzzy L.A. river basin.

Just eight weeks after Columbia went down, it's off-putting indeed to watch a crew of desperate flyboys and -gals (led by Bruce Greenwood and Hilary Swank) pulling out all the stops to avoid returning home as charcoal briquettes. Clips of their peril figured prominently in the movie's trailer, which was pulled from theaters following the Columbia crash. But the entire scenario remains untouched in the film's final cut. Having to retool so vital a plot point, one assumes, would have jeopardized the movie's all-important release date. Paramount execs are defending the retention by pointing out that the shuttle crew survives in their movie -- as if that somehow transforms a regrettable coincidence into a chance for group catharsis.

Adding insult to injury, the sequence is capped not by a sober assessment of the danger now passed, but by a low-comic double take from an innocent bystander -- a bit that would have been at home in one of Roger Moore's 007 romps. Such a cheeseball copout is sadly typical of The Core, a tossed-off popcorn picture that sets up a scientifically questionable crisis (the Earth's core has stopped spinning, threatening the end of all terrestrial life), then answers it with a ludicrous solution (a team of "terranauts" burrows deep below the surface to jump-start the process by detonating a nuclear payload). Some will perceive an inward-looking "Armageddon," but the movie is more of a brazen inheritor to the "Fantastic Voyage" school of boys'-own adventuring, with all of its melodramatics lazily unchanged. (There are at least three variations of the old door-closing-too-fast-for-the-escaping-hero routine.) It's borderline sinful to put actors like Aaron Eckhart, Stanley Tucci and Delroy Lindo in the cardboard roles of scientists who are improbably selected to man a mission of their own devising (there's no specimen more fit than a college professor, folks), and then spend a good deal of that mission squabbling over stolen theories, like competitors at a grade-school science fair. Remind yourself: Rick Husband did not die for this.

The belated arrival of "Phone Booth," in contrast, suggests that dramatic viability equals tragedy plus time. Five months, to be exact. Scheduled for release last November, "Phone Booth" fell smack-dab into the climate of fear cultivated by snipers John Allen Muhammad and John Lee Malvo. The film -- which casts Colin Farrell as a sleazy publicist confined to a Manhattan phone booth by an unseen gunman -- was delayed four times while 20th Century Fox waited for the fallout from the duo's shooting spree to subside.

The idea that viewers will have divested themselves of their emotional baggage within five months is a seriously dodgy one. But not once in this gripping film did I recoil in distaste -- not even when Farrell's Stu Shepard favored his mysterious assailant with the unfortunate observation, "I'll be forgotten about in a week." "Phone Booth" is simply too good to hold a grudge against, one of those intimate and tense urban-standoff dramas of the sort that helped make the 1970s a landmark period in American film.

Set in and around its titular cubicle and taking place almost in real time, the movie puts us in the crosshairs with Shepard, who answered the wrong call and now can't hang up: The voice on the other end of the line is promising to drop him if he does. Schumacher employs just enough split-screen work and other visuals to prevent the ordeal from seeming claustrophobic, and he knows just how far to push the concept, his movie clocking in at an economical 82 minutes. Sutherland turns in a juicy piece of voice acting, tormenting his prey with honeyed taunts and chuckling into the receiver like the Ghost Host at Disney's Haunted Mansion.

But it's Farrell who gives the movie its honesty. His labored Noo Yawk accent aside, the actor hones in on the pathos of Shepard's plight, hitting all the right notes as his character sinks to the lowly status of a trapped, terrified animal. Witnessing the sheer terror in his eyes, you can't help but conclude that violence is a curse on anyone who has the ill luck to be touched by it. Relatives of real-life victims may hardly require the news flash, but for the rest of us, it's the closest thing to good-faith "relevance" that features can provide. See it now, if you've got the stomach for it.


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