[Screen It]


(2013) (Halle Berry, Abigail Breslin) (R)

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Suspense/Thriller: A 911 call center operator tries to help a teenage girl who's been kidnapped and is now trapped inside the trunk of the perpetrator's car.
Six months after being unable to help a teen survive the attack of a kidnapper who broke into her home, Jordan Turner (HALLE BERRY) has given up her active role as a 911 call center operator and instead teaches rookies the ropes about such duties. She's dating street cop Paul Phillips (MORRIS CHESTNUT), but still can't shake losing that girl and feeling responsible for her murder. While showing the latest class how to take calls, a new operator can't handle one from teenager Casey Welson (ABIGAIL BRESLIN) who's returned to consciousness in the trunk of a car after being kidnapped in a mall parking lot by Michael Foster (MICHAEL EKLUND).

With the teen having no idea where she is, and being unable to make an immediate trace on the phone since it's of the pre-paid variety, Jordan does what she can to calm down Casey and get her to take an active role in her own rescue. As Paul and other cops try to find the car based on Casey's scant details, Jordan does what she can to make sure the teen doesn't suffer the same fate as the other girl from half a year earlier.

OUR TAKE: 4.5 out of 10
Put most any adult and child together and the former will almost inevitably ask the latter, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" The answers are usually the same across generations at very young ages (policeman, princess, fireman, ballerina, etc.) but then transform as kids get older (usually, at one point or another, to a defiant/confused/apathetic "I don't know"). Put any group of adults together and sometimes one will poll the rest, "If there's any other job you could do in the entire world, what would it be?"

While the answers to that are usually a lot more varied (although some will continue to be "I don't know"), I doubt many of them would say they'd choose to be a 911 operator. That's not to disparage in the least what those terrific souls do day in and day out. But considering the stress (not only dealing with emergencies but also folks who don't quite understand the real purpose of the service), the fact that you're the real first responder to a crisis but are somewhat limited by not actually being there in person, and the issue that some split-second decisions you make can truly have life or death consequences means such a vocation isn't for everyone.

Nor is being a filmmaker. While it can have its glamorous side, there are also stresses involved. But most decisions don't have any literal lives hanging in the balance and the vast majority are thought out and planned with plenty of lead time. That can apply to any and all elements of putting a film together, including how the script will play out. Perhaps it's an issue of being too deep in the trees to see the entire forest, but it's often surprising how movies that start out decently derail somewhere along the line and lose both their way and their hold on the audience.

Case in point is "The Call," a film about -- yes, you guessed it -- a 911 call center operator (Halle Berry) who ends up handling an emergency with some serious potential repercussions. You see, an average, middle-aged sicko (Michael Eklund) has kidnapped a teen (Abigail Breslin, now quite grown up from her "Little Miss Sunshine" days), put her in his trunk, and is headed somewhere secret to do what most such movie villains do to such movie victims.

The twist here is that while the teen has a phone and can call for help, she doesn't know where she is, only has a limited description of the car she's in, and the pre-paid phone she's using can't immediately be tracked to its ever-moving GPS position. While the operator's cop boyfriend (Morris Chestnut) and other police try to find the car on very scant information, the operator attempts to keep the victim calm and talk her through various ways of grabbing the attention of and arouse the suspicions of anyone who might call the police. Oh, and the operator is a bit rattled by this as she failed to save another girl in a somewhat similar situation six months ago.

I'll admit, it's not a terribly complicated scenario. Yet, director Brad Anderson -- who works from Richard D'Ovidio's screenplay -- takes the basic premise and deftly runs with it, initially making me wonder why the releasing studio wasn't showing reviewers the flick until just two nights before it opened (which is usually a bad sign as that's after most newspaper deadlines).

The material is fairly gripping and some genuine suspense is generated, such as when another driver does indeed get suspicious and stops to check things out. Unfortunately for the victim, Michael Imperioli isn't playing Christopher Moltisanti from "The Sopranos" who could handle such a situation. Instead, he's just an average guy in the wrong place at the wrong time and his part in the film gets severely truncated (Get it? Trunc sounds like trunk?).

Any-who, things are playing out fairly well until somewhere in the third act when the perp gets off the road, takes the teen down into his lair and suddenly thinks he's joined the ranks of Norman Bates, Buffalo Bill and other cinematic whack-jobs with creepy fetishes. And our otherwise smart and seemingly streetwise heroine suddenly turns movie dumb and starts poking around dark areas at night armed with just a flashlight.

Somewhat similar material made perfect sense and played out believably in the likes of "The Silence of the Lambs," but it feels disingenuous here. And while our preview audience got into hootin' and hollerin' about the increasingly stupid behavior suddenly on display (with all of the accompanying "Look out girl! He's coming right at you!" material), it suddenly feels as if we're watching the ending to an entirely different film. With all of the time in the world (okay, maybe not all of it, but I can't imagine this was a split-second decision), I can't figure out why the filmmakers decided to go this route and conclude the film on a thematically weak if vicariously vindictive note.

Until then, the performances are generally okay, with Berry believably creating a woman tormented by a past failure. Breslin isn't given much opportunity to play beyond the scared victim, while Chestnut is similarly limited as the ancillary cop on the scene figure. Meanwhile, Eklund is pretty much one-note as the perverted villain and thus doesn't come off as particularly scary, let alone memorable.

Thanks to the bungled ending, that last adjective similarly won't apply to the overall film that will end up as one of those throwaway thrillers that endlessly plays on premium cable channels. Good when it's on the road but pretty bad when it gets off, "The Call" is one you'll probably not really want to pick up. It rates as a 4.5 out of 10.

Reviewed March 13, 2013 / Posted March 15, 2013

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