Cinema Signal:

Sniper / Counter Sniper
by Mark V. Lonsdale

. "Phone Booth"

You might think a movie that spends most of its time looking at a man in a phone booth would get claustrophobic. For a variety of reasons, this one doesn't. Among the reasons are a clever story of mind control through fear, quite attractive players and the fact that it doesn't last a minute beyond its ability to sustain the suspense provided by the simple premise.

(Colin Farrell) is a Samy Glick style publicist, a slick talker trading on dreams and subterfuge, trying to make the most of a limited number of actual contacts. It's a career concept that's like a house of cards, no foundation, ready to collapse in the first strong wind. That wind comes from a very unlikely direction in a story with a moment-in-time idea that director Joel Schumacher and writer Larry Cohen explore in all its terrorizing ramifications.

New York publicist Stewart "Stu" (Colin Farrell, "The Recruit") is a publicist plying the Manhattan beat with a lowly assistant who is caught up in the web of deceit spun by the errant maestro who answers his cell phone with, "You've got Stu!" The trouble is, his client list is limited to Star Search talents and his actual publicity contacts can be counted on one finger.

To make his character worse, he's mind-cheating on his classy wife Kelly (Radha Mitchell) by calling client Pamela McFadden (Katie Holmes) at the same time every day from the last existing phone booth on the island in order to avoid having the repetition recorded on his home phone bill. Deceptions, for him, are through and through, matter-of-fact, way-of-life. Some people wouldn't like it one bit!

One day at the phone booth (the day in question), a delivery man shows up with a paid-for pizza. Stu has other things on his mind and shoos him off. And then, the phone rings. It's not supposed to ring. He picks it up and a voice begins to get on his case. Only, it's a madman with the definite voice pattern of Kieffer Sutherland, known as, The Caller. This guy has a high-powered rifle pointed at Stu with the intention of keeping Stu in the phone booth until he's made amends for all his trickery, conniving and cheating. What we have here is one of those people who don't like Stu's style, not one bit.

But, making amends turns out to be a tall order, and it begins to get more complicated when a prostitute (Paula Jai Parker) shows up demanding to use the phone for a business call. When she brings on her posse, and The Caller puts one through her very threatening pimp, and it brings in Captain Ramey (Forest Whitaker) with his platoon of cops, complications mount. A cordon of police snipers train their sights on poor Stu.

An interesting dimension to the thriller is Ramey's relative clear-headedness. While everyone is leaping to the assumption that this jerk in the phonebooth offed the pimp, and that he's in possession of a firearm, Ramey suspects there might be more to the story. But the unusual creativity the writer displays in creating a sensitive cop is almost negated by the cliche of some other cop trying to take over the negotiation. Where have we seen this before?

As the focus of maddening attention for 87 non-stop minutes, Farrell distinguishes himself well, protecting his wall of deception until a madman and related events cause it to crumble and, with it, the superficiality of Stu's personna. Farrell finds all the nuances of bravado and breakdown to portray this weak wretch of a conniver fearful of discovery. It's a good mark in a burgeoning career.

My appreciation extends to the creators who, instead of falling in love with their creation, turn in that rare film that plays under 90 minutes. And, while there are some who don't value its well-worked out story structure and the unity of its concept, I applaud the makers of this nicely put together dramatic entrapment. My interest in the outcome never wavered.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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