The last phone booth in Times Square is about to be torn down to be replaced by another little kiosk, but first it will host one last caller for a gruelling 80 minutes. He is Stu Shepard (Colin Farrell), a New York publicist who’s always running around hustling people on his cell phone… Then why use a phone booth? Because he’s contemplating having an affair with a hot young actress he represents (Katie Holmes) but he’s afraid his wife will check his cell phone bills. On this particular day though it’s not the prospect of adulterous sex that keeps him on the line but the threat of being shot dead by a sniper (the voice of Kiefer Sutherland) who’s watching his every move while taunting him on the phone…
And that’s it, that’s your movie, one man stuck in a phone booth wondering what he did to deserve this. It turns out he did plenty, lying his way through life and generally being wholly inconsiderate of other people. And now a mysterious observer with telescopic-sight-mounted rifle wants him to pay the price. Things get more complicated when the sniper executes a stander-by and a frenzy of cops and journalists surround the phone booth, convinced that Stu shot him and still has a gun in his possession.
“Phone Booth” is a minimalist thriller that’s part Se7en with its self-righteous serial killer out to punish sinners, part Scream for the way the villain intimidates his victims through ominous phone conversations and part Die Hard for how the drama unfolds in a limited location surrounded by the media and the police, including an insecure black cop (Forrest Whitaker) who’s friendly to the protagonist. The film also has a general ‘70s vibe attributable to how it springs from a 20 year old screenplay by Larry Cohen, who spent his career writing gritty urban dramas and B-movies.
The movie was directed by Joel Schumacher, who’s made a lot of unwatchable dreck but also a few solid flicks, notably “Tigerland” also starring Colin Farrell. His latest is one of his better, even though it has some flaws, like the use of distracting visual gimmicks (notably picture-in-picture shots, like those TVs that let you watch the game with the news in a corner at the same time) and the relative implausibility of the premise. Why so many cops to surround one guy with only a phone in his hand? Why does the sniper pick him, anyway? Because he’s a bullshit artist and he’s dishonest to his wife? Meet half the men in America! Maybe that’s the point, that we’re all guilty and that no lie is innocent. Or maybe the sniper’s a crazy lunatic after all.
In any case, one must admire how the film manages to consistently hold our attention with so little. Between Farrell’s wrenching performance and Sutherland’s ominous voice-over, “Phone Booth” is more suspenseful than most movies which rely on big twists and shocks.