Although he's widely considered a Hollywood hack, there's an argument to be made that Joel Schumacher is actually one of the most daring, underrated filmmakers working today. Go ahead and laugh, but for every one one of his forumulaic, disposable films ('St. Elmo's Fire,' 'Dying Young,' 'Flawless'), there's another that comes out of nowhere to deliver a real sucker punch to the gut ('Tigerland,' 'Falling Down'). Best of all, he's not afraid to take real risks and to stretch himself. What other major director would have attempted 'Phone Booth'? Taking place in a single location, shot in 10 days and running a scant 81 minutes, 'Phone Booth' has the spirit of an indie film, although its guts, of course, are all high-concept Hollywood thriller.
The plot is as streamlined as is possible. Stu Shepard (Colin Farrell) is a fast-talking, New York publicity flack who's got it all covered. He's bright, hip, well-connected and married to the beautiful and smart Kelly (Radha Mitchell) -- what more could a guy want? But Stu has his secrets. He doesn't always earn his living the honest way, and he likes to make a daily call from a phone booth in seedy downtown to his "platonic" girlfriend Pamela (Katie Holmes). But on this one particular day, inside this one particular phone booth, Stu is about to come face-to-face with his dark doppelganger -- a psychotic sniper, aka "The Caller," who is going to make sure he pays for his indiscretions. As the cops swarm outside, led by the empathetic Captain Ed Ramey (Forest Whitaker), Stu will have to think fast -- very fast -- if he's going to stay alive.
'Phone Booth' would seem to be the epitomy of high-concept filmmaking, but in this rare case, that's a plus. The compressed shooting schedule seems to keep Schumacher on his toes, with the narrative never dragging for a moment. He also utilizes a bevy of visual tricks (split-screen, picture-in-picture, flashbacks, etc.) to compress multiple storylines even further. He could have just cross-cut like a typical film, but his approach heightens the tension more honestly because these multiple threads (the sniper's incessant voice on the phone, Kelly's growing realization of the situation, Ramey's assessment of Stu's predicament) are all happening simultaneously in real-time. Then, in a nice mid-movie reversal, he takes that omniscient viewpoint away, and we see only what Stu sees. Sure, it's a cheat, but Schumacher proves himself adept at audience manipulation, and I want to be shamelessly exploited when I see a thriller. Now we're hanging even further on the edge of our seat, waiting for another rush of information.
Unfortunately, 'Phone Booth' misses its shot of greatness because of two fatal flaws. The first is more arguable. Though I won't ruin the surprise, the sniper is voiced by a very recognizable actor in an uncredited performance. I can't imagine anyone even remotely familiar with pop culture won't figure it out within seconds. This immediate familiarity almost ruined the movie for me. It borders on a campy in-joke, and I would have found the unseen villain far more sinister and scary had I not had that point of identification for the voice.
More detrimental is the film's ending. It is borderline sentimental, and more importantly just not satisfying. Given the film's rough, '70s feel and gritty texture, was I wrong to expect a more hard-edged, cynical climax -- like something out of a 'Chinatown' or a 'Klute?' Instead, the last few minutes of 'Phone Book' are so gooey that when a character in the film makes an Oprah joke, it is only too appropriate -- I half expected Dr. Phil to waltz out in Times Square and orchestrate a group hug.
Still, for most of its slim runtime, 'Phone Booth' works. It's quick, compact, well-acted and engaging. Ultimately it may leave no legacy -- indeed, for many, I'm guessing it's already forgotten -- but as a suspenseful diversion, it had me at the first ring of the payphone.
I wasn't expecting great things from 'Phone Booth,' picture quality-wise. It had been a few years since I watched the standard-def DVD, but I had recalled the film being grainy and gritty, and thus hardly high-def demo material. To my great surprise, however, this 1080p/MPEG-2 transfer is actually quite slick and sharp -- enough so that it may be the best of Fox's recent batch of action releases, outclassing even 'Planet of the Apes,' 'The Usual Suspects' and 'Broken Arrow.'
Though it was shot in little over a week, 'Phone Booth' looks as good as any Hollywood movie taking three times that. Aside from some flashback sequences involving another victim of the sniper (which are so grossly stylized that they look like digital animation), the transfer is surprisingly realistic in appearance. It has great depth, with enough fine detail visible on both long shots and close-ups to deliver that "wow!" three-dimensional, picture-window effect. Colors, however, may not be to everyone's taste. There is a blue filter over the entire movie that makes it look like New York in winter, only without snow. Fleshtones are thus not "accurate," but intentionally so. Other colors are not bright and poppy, but have a deep richness that doesn't bleed or appear noisy.
The only negative preventing 'Phone Booth' from earning five stars is that contrast, though not as whacked-out as I expected, is pushed enough at the high end of the grayscale that I noticed some ringing. This slightly edgy look is not really distracting, but does lend a slightly artificial, digital cast to the proceedings. Still, I was quite pleasantly surprised by this one.
Fox gives us another DTS HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 surround track, and even with only the 1.5mbps DTS core accessible with current Blu-ray hardware, it's a winner.
The coolest aspect of the mix is how expertly effects are directed across the entire soundfield in accurate relation to the onscreen action. Often even a big-budget soundtrack will just throw a bunch of effects to the rears and pump up the volume. Here, when a character is off left or off right, their voice will come from the proper direction, and even move offscreen in spatial proximity to the Colin Farrell character. Same goes dor gunshots, traffic, etc. Such attention to detail is exciting, and elevates this mix to A-class status, despite the fact that a good portion of the film is dialogue-heavy. And for a film that was shot in practical locations with on-set sound and few takes, dialogue consistency and balance is terrific -- I never missed a word. Fidelity also holds up, with great, punchy bass and robust upper frequencies. A very fine effort.
I know the idea of spending even 81 minutes listening to the sound of Joel Schumacher's voice is supposed to strike fear in the heart of a snobby cineaste, but I find him witty and amusing, with a jocular voice and a can-do attitude. Which probably explains why he is so well-liked in Hollywood. In any case, his audio commentary for 'Phone Booth' can be a hoot. He chats with great energy about shooting a major Hollywood film in ten days, working with rising star Colin Farrell, the "exploiting terrorism" controversy that delayed the film's opening by over a year, how big a star Colin Farrell became in the interim, using digital photography tricks to further enhance the story, and how much of an even-bigger star Colin Farrell is going to become in the future. My only disappointment is that Schumacher doesn't cut deep enough -- I would have liked a bit more analysis on the script's critique of cell-phone culture, as well as any potential alternate endings. As is, still a fine track.
The only other extra here is the film's Theatrical Trailer in 1080p video, plus a few other Fox Blu-ray promo spots. Despite the lack of anything more substantial, there weren't any other supplements on the standard-def DVD, either, so at least Blu-ray fans aren't missing out.
'Phone Booth' is a fun thriller that races along like a live wire through most of its slim 81-minutes until it's deep-sixed by a lame, touchy-feely ending. This Blu-ray release is nothing extravagant, but delivers on the core the goods -- it's got a great transfer and soundtrack, plus a nice commentary by director Joel Schumacher. It may not be a sure purchase (especially for the steep $39.95 list), but it's well worth a rent if you're looking for a good Friday night diversion.