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Phone Booth

(2003) ** 1/2 Pg-13
81 min. 20th Century Fox. Director: Joel Schumacher. Cast: Colin Farrell, Kiefer Sutherland, Forest Whitaker, Radha Mitchell, Katie Holmes.

In a piece I wrote over a decade ago, I ridiculed Hollywood's obsession with remaking Die Hard, as in "Die Hard on a cruise ship" (Under Siege). I extrapolated the idea of Die Hard on a bus, which came true in 1994's Speed. The punchline of the piece was that, after that, it would be Die Hard in a phone booth. The day has arrived, my friend, with Phone Booth, a relentlessly silly thriller scripted by Larry Cohen and directed by Joel Schumacher.

It's a fine line between tongue-in-cheek and silly, and Schumacher starts on the right side of it with an opening sequence shooting through satellite-infested space and down to the New York City streets, where we find the street choir which has been crooning through it all, "Operator...information...long distance..." Here, as Cohen must laboriously justify at this late date in history, the last remaining phone booth on the West Side is scheduled to be demolished "tomorrow," but not before an action movie takes place inside it!

Enter Stu (Colin Farrell), a cock-of-the-walk, Dolce and Gabbana-clad publicist, complete with wife (Radha Mitchell) and mistress (Katie Holmes). After making his habitual, seemingly private phone booth call to the mistress, Farrell finds himself the target of an "angel of death" sniper, voiced with hair-trigger velvet menace by Kiefer Sutherland. This overly articulate madman targets Stu, like his other victims, for the sin of arrogance. Before the movie's 81 real-time minutes are up, Stu will have to confess those sins for the cameras.

The sniper's show of strength definitively traps Stu and also turns a small section of street into a theater of conflict. It's not long before the crowds form and the cops show up to further complicate matters. Ever-reliable Forest Whitaker does the walkie-talkie duty this time, which is ironic conisidering that his last movie was titled Panic Room; Farrell's been better elsewhere, but he flops his sweat just fine here. The tired hostage-drama dynamic recalls many cheap thrills over the last decade, not the least of which was Schumacher's effectively creepy Falling Down.

Phone Booth does some falling down of its own, with Farrell's slippery accent, Schumacher's understandable but ugly choice of picture-in-picture (I preferred the split screens), and Cohen's sometimes unbearably silly dialogue. Disbelief must be repeatedly and actively suspended to accept the the level of technology employed by the killer, as well as the dimness of Stu, the cops, and the killer in dealing with the situation. Still, Schumacher does rachet up a fair share of suspense with Cohen's information-age morality-play construct, and I suppose I happily traded the trimness of the 81 minutes for its thinness of exposition. After all, we get it: Farrell is an Everyjerk, so let's get to the glass shattering.

In one of many cleverly scripted turns, Stu chooses to misidentify the killer as his therapist, for the benefit of the under-fire cops who surround the booth. Indeed, Stu's ungentlemanly "Caller" serves as his shrink: making him small, needling him into an emotional breakdown, forcing him to look into the mirror. Like Falling Down, Phone Booth delivers a literal wake-up call to the scrapping, morally fast-and-loose middle to upper class (the Caller intones, as much about warnings to be heeded as cat-killing curiosity, "A ringing phone has to be answered, doesn't it?"). Is there a spin doctor in the house? In the Caller's eyes, "spins" are lies to which one must own up and repent. With the subtlety of a hammer, Schumacher positions his phone booth in front of a generic "advertisement" which screams, "Who Do You Think You Are?"

Phone Booth's original release date was too timely, coming as it did on the heels of the Washington, D.C. sniper assaults (not to mention the white-collar sins of Enron), but the film remains tangy, not only for its "God" sniper, but for its tense implied reference to New York's Amadou Diallo shooting and for Stu's pointed exclamation "I'm just part of a big cycle of lies. . . . I should be president!"

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