Phone Booth Review
Freedom is a wonderful thing, but it does have it drawbacks, having the opportunity to make decisions and having the ability to are two very different things, I guess too much freedom can be just as bad as none at all. Stu Shepard (Colin Farrell) is about to be taught a very unpleasant lesson in freedom, both his uses of it and his further opportunity to have it, are about to be brought into question.
So far Stu is having a very average day, as a fast-talking publicist he’s been spending his morning lying to everyone he can to try and promote his clients. He’s a guy that’ll do whatever it takes to get what he wants, and his morals have long gone past being flexible to being limp and almost non-existent. Despite having a mobile phone Stu makes a daily stop at a particular phone booth on his morning rounds. Why? Because he can’t have the number of his girlfriend appearing everyday on a phone bill his wife might come across. That’s right, Stu’s lack of moral fibre has spilled from his professional life and is now causing him personal problems too. But his problems are about to get far, far worse, as his favourite phone is ringing, and it isn’t his girlfriend but the sinister voice of a man (Kiefer Sutherland) who claims to be pointing a high-powered sniper rifle right at Stu’s head and if Stu hangs up the phone he’ll be shot.
And just when things can’t get much worse for poor old Stu the police arrive, they’re under the impression that he’s shot a man and would like him to leave the booth as soon as possible to answer a few questions, but not only is Stu not allowed to leave, he’s not allowed to tell anyone why he can’t leave. His life is in the balance as he tries to fend off being shot by the sniper and brush off the advances of the NYPD, it looks like even his smooth talking may not be enough to make this end happily.
I must admit I went into Phone Booth with less than an open mind, for starters I’ve had the displeasure of sitting through the terminally dull Liberty Stands Still, a film with the same basic concept – Linda Fiorentino is held hostage on the end of her mobile phone as a gun wielding Wesley Snipes refuses to let her move from a hot dog stand (of all things) – and quite frankly I’d rather get shot than sit through that again. Also from what I’ve seen of Colin Farrell he’s let the ‘next big thing’ label go to his head, and his recent films have seen him either cruising by on auto-pilot or completely out of control (see The Recruit, Hart’s War and Daredevil). Not to mention director Joel Schumacher is the man responsible for Batman and Robin, which is far from the only blot on his resume. Oh one more thing, Phone Booth is actually a couple of years old, and sat on Fox’s shelves collecting dust unable to claim a release anywhere in the world. These are all very bad signs.
So I was rather surprised to find my expectations of Phone Booth couldn’t have been more wrong as it is one of the most thrilling, genuinely tense movies in a very long time. Clocking in at a slight 77 minutes (and that’s including lengthy introduction and closing credits) Schumacher was never worried about padding out the running time, all the fat has been stripped away and it flies by at breakneck speeds, never giving your pulse a chance to slow. He manages to keep the film feeling energetic, in spite of its singular central location with great use of roaming cameras, picture-in-picture shots and split screen effects. This means you often have a lot to take in, with up to four angles of the street available at once, perfectly capturing the frantic activities of the police up and down the avenue.
The real reason you get drawn in though is Farrell himself, in a performance I honestly didn’t think he was capable of, after a few minutes at the wrong end of that rifle all his (natural) arrogance has disappeared and he becomes a pot of emotion that’s in danger of boiling over. His anger and fear both seem real, and he genuinely seems to be having trouble keeping them under control, how he managed to maintain the intensity of this performance throughout the shoot is beyond me, the man really is as good as they say - at least when he tries hard enough. Sutherland, as the almost unseen sniper, carries tremendous menace in his voice, and although it has become difficult to think of him as anything other than 24’s Jack Bauer this would be Bauer at his darkest, you never doubt he could pull the trigger at any time, not only if Stu stops following his commands, but maybe if he simply tired of the game. It’s a rare case of a Hollywood film really having the potential to end unhappily and you’re never sure if either Stu, or the sniper, are going to walk away from this.
The film does have faults, albeit minor ones, Schumacher’s attempt’s at a double bluff finale never get off the ground as we’re all aware just who the sniper really is, and his appearance on the cover confirms they haven’t simply used his voice and another actors face a la Joyride/Roadkill. However the police don’t know his identity so it does all make sense, it was just never going to trick an audience. On top of this Forest Whitaker’s police Captain is a rather one-dimensional character – although instantly stamped with Whitaker’s trademark compassion - he never really gets the time to develop the way Farrell and Sutherland do, but his role was always there to be a plot device rather than an integral character. This is a two-man show, everything else is window dressing.
It seems after all the delays Phone Booth really was a victim of circumstance, with real world events (most notably the Washington sniper, who caused yet further delays when he took his first victim mere days before its hard earned American release) forcing it to stay under lock and key, rather than worries about either its quality or marketability.
I’ve been a big fan of cinematographer Matthew Libatique since I realised he worked on both Pi and Requiem for a Dream and despite the huge challenge Joel Schumacher put to him on this film, shooting with 4 cameras at once on a schedule of only 10 days, he’s shot the film superbly, and the transfer more does his work justice. The steely blue New York setting looks suitably chilling, and this is contrasted nicely by the far warmer palette the subjects of Stu’s calls reside in. The image is razor sharp throughout and there isn’t a hint of problematic compression, a first-class transfer.
Although technically Phone Booth has a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack you wouldn’t know it. Despite the busy metropolis giving huge scope for ambient effects work from the rear speakers, they actually have very little to do. During the opening scenes as we see Stu strolling through Times Square I was expecting to hear noises from all around, speeding traffic, bustling commuters and so forth, but hardly a whisper is heard from the rear channels, and the situation stay largely the same throughout the film. The front channels provide all you’d expect from the surroundings, complete with very active sound steering, but it falls somewhat short of the immersive experience the 5.1 tag suggests.
Commentary from Director Joel Schumacher
Despite the short amount of time he has Schumacher manages to cram a huge amount into this commentary, which was recorded while the film was searching for a cinema release, including a fair few surprises. Even though the film is set in New York everything bar the Times Square opening sequence was shot in Los Angeles, on a street that was dressed in only four days - quite an accomplishment. Also Farrell’s emotional speech at the end of the film was shot in one take, and they didn’t bother doing a second, Schumacher is so impressed with it – and rightly so – he stops the commentary so everyone can appreciate the performance. Amusingly Schumacher makes a point of describing the extras as ‘background artists’ early on, saying they are a very underappreciated section of the filmmaking world, and the term ‘extras’ doesn’t give them the respect they deserve. He then goes on to refer to them as extras at every opportunity, both here and in the documentary. At least the thought was there. Much of his time concentrates on the immense task of shooting the film on such a short timeframe, and it’s clear he’s the founding member of the Colin Farrell fan club – though I suppose he has reason as he seems to be the only person that can get the best from the man – but over-appreciation aside it’s a very entertaining commentary, which also carries full subtitles.
The Making of Phone Booth
This half hour look behind the scenes walks the line behind informative documentary and promotional fluff, but mostly stays on the right side of it. After getting the obligatory talking heads and back slapping out of the way it goes behind the scenes to follow the shoot day by day. The film was shot in sequence, with each day progressing through 12 pages of the script, which is a lightning pace, so there are many fraught snippets from stressed crew members on the pros and cons of the ridiculous schedule. It also reveals that Kiefer Sutherland didn’t show up until the final day, his lines previously being delivered over the phone to Farrell by an unrecognisable voice. It really shows the difference a good actor can make, with this phantom voice having none of the menace Sutherland brought to the role. On the whole is an interesting look at a very unusual shooting process.
The film is fantastic, Farrell has certainly never been better, and Schumacher has rarely been this good in his – much longer – career. The the picture is gleaming and the sound is more than adequate but it is a shame that the extras list is so short, it would have been great to have some input from the cast, but at least what is there manages to be as engrossing to those interested in the technical side of filmmaking as the film itself.