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(2003) (Colin Farrell, Forest Whitaker) (R)

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Suspense/Thriller: A sniper pins down a New York publicist in a phone booth to make him see the error of his ways.
Stu Shepard (COLIN FARRELL) is a hustling New York publicist whose life is built around lies and conducting business over the phone. That includes stopping in an out of the way phone booth to call his girlfriend, Pamela McFadden (KATIE HOLMES), so that his wife, Kelly (RADHA MITCHELL), won't see the calls on his cell phone bill.

He makes the mistake, however, of answering a call in the booth from a stranger (voice of KIEFER SUTHERLAND) who seems to know a great deal about Stu and his way of life. He also turns out to be a sniper with a rifle who warns and proves that he'll shoot him if he hangs up. Stu tries to talk his way out of the situation, but the caller is too savvy for that and seems to relish making Stu squirm. He also wants Stu to call Pam and Kelly and tell them the truth.

Things get more complicated when the sniper shoots and kills a pimp who was harassing Stu about using his hookers' phone. That ends up drawing the police and Capt. Ramey (FOREST WHITAKER) who tries to figure out what's going on.

With the caller not allowing Stu to state what's occurring, the situation becomes more tense, especially when the sniper threatens to shoot various people including Kelly and then Pam who show up after seeing Stu on the news. From that point on, Stu must decide what to do and how to deal with the caller, all while Ramey tries to resolve the situation.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
The chance of any Hollywood studio picture recouping ever-growing production and promotional costs - now north of $75 million on average - is a substantial gamble and risk. While it's apparently difficult to keep the costs down, attract name talent and still deliver a product the masses want to see, I'm sure the studios are pushing filmmakers to do just that.

Veteran filmmaker Joel Schumacher has worked on both sides of the coin, delivering big budget blockbusters like "Batman Forever" and "Batman & Robin" as well as smaller films such as "Falling Down" and "Tigerland." With "Phone Booth," he's definitely stayed on the "cheap" side by delivering a film that reportedly took less than a month and only $10 million or so to produce.

You may be asking how he managed to do that. Well, in fitting with the title, the majority of the film takes place in or directly around an old-fashioned, enclosed phone booth in a less than savory New York City neighborhood.

Restricting the film's setting to what's essentially a filmed stage play is a prime example of directorial gutsiness, experimentation or foolhardiness, depending on how one looks at the concept and finished product. Actually, it's a bit of all three.

Working from a script by Larry Cohen ("Misbegotten," "Guilty as Sin"), Schumacher obviously has his work cut out for him. In dealing with a marketing professional who's trapped inside said phone booth by a sadistic but apparently righteous sniper, there are only so many ways to tell the tale.

As to be expected, Schumacher and cinematographer Matthew Libatique ("Abandon," "Requiem For a Dream") keep the camera constantly moving to avoid any static moments. They also utilize picture in picture effects to show other simultaneous reactions and actions, and editor Mark Stevens ("Tigerland," "8MM") has cut the picture down to an extremely brisk 80-some minute runtime (including credits).

Despite all of that, the nagging question is whether the film, with its obvious built-in limitations, can grab and then keep the viewer hooked from start to finish. For a while, it appears that it might. The film certainly doesn't dawdle in getting to the meat of the effort.

Just moments after meeting Stu Shepard -- Colin Farrell ("Daredevil," "The Recruit") with an American accent once again - we find him trapped in the booth - which he uses to call his would-be lover - by the sniper. We don't see the gunman, at least until near the end of the film, but there's no mistaking that the voice belongs to Kiefer Sutherland ("Dark City," TV's "24").

Since his is near totally a vocal performance only, the actor has to make the most of his delivery. For the most part, he succeeds, although he may occasionally remind some viewers of Jeremy Irons doing something similar in "Die Hard 3."

The focus, though, is on Farrell's character and it's up to the actor to carry the effort. Considering that there's only so much he can do given the premise and setting, Farrell manages to deliver a decent if sweaty performance.

The story initially grips us as we try to figure out why the sniper is behaving the way he is, what Farrell's character did, if anything, to provoke or warrant being the target, and, of course, how things will ultimately turn out.

As the first two parts of that are systematically revealed, the film is fairly engaging as we watch the two characters try to manipulate each other. Eventually, however, the film ends up treading over increasingly familiar grounds and unfortunately becomes repetitive.

Probably sensing that, the filmmakers then bring in a cop -- Forest Whitaker ("Panic Room," "Light It Up") - who assumes the role of negotiator, as well as the protagonist's wife and paramour -- Radha Mitchell ("Pitch Black," "High Art") and Katie Holmes ("Abandon," "The Gift") respectively. The latter two don't add as much from a dramatic or tension aspect as one would expect, but Whitaker is decent as a cop with own troubles.

I won't give away the ending or the reasons behind the characters' actions except to say that there isn't enough buildup to make it entirely believable (including why the protagonist doesn't just have a second, secret cell phone to call his girlfriend) or the "crime" worthy of the punishment.

In the end, there's only so much one can do with this sort of material and setup. In such regards, the filmmakers come up short long before the scant 80 some minutes are done. While intriguing and even engaging for a while, the effort runs out of gas and real estate far too soon. "Phone Booth" rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed March 21, 2003 / Posted April 4, 2003

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