" I’ll be monitoring your frequency "
— Zoe Saldana, Star Trek

MRQE Top Critic

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Colin Farrell is trapped in a phone booth by a sniper. It’s a tense situation presented in real time. It ought to be a tight, tense thriller. But Phone Booth has at least one fundamental flaw that no amount of good acting can counterbalance.

Cell Phone Ambition

Whitaker and Farrell negotiate a truce
Whitaker and Farrell negotiate a truce

Farrell is a scrappy agent, calling competing magazines on his multiple cell phones to leverage a better placement for his clients. He’s clawing his way to the top and has no respect for anyone with less ambition than he has.

Part of his ambitious lifestyle includes having two women: his wife and a hot bartender he’s trying to bed. Since his wife Kelly (Radha Mitchell) looks at his cell phone records, he uses the booth — the last one in New York City, we are told — to call Pamela (Katie Holmes).

And that’s when his troubles begin. The phone in the booth rings just after he hangs up. It is the calm, sick voice (Keifer Sutherland) that will haunt him for the next 80 minutes. The voice knows who Stu is, what he does, and just about every dirty little detail of his life.

Hostage Situation

During the first minutes of the call, Stu would be wise to simply hang up on the crank. In fact, the script goes through some contortions to plausibly keep him on the line. But eventually, the sniper proves he has a gun and very good aim, and Stu realizes he is trapped, a hostage held at a distance. If he hangs up, or breaks any of the sniper’s other rules, he’s dead.

When the sniper shoots a pimp whose prostitutes use the phone for business, the cops, led by Captain Ramey (Forest Whitaker), arrive. They assume Stu shot the pimp. They correctly assume this is a hostage situation, but they think Stu is the gunman, and they don’t know about the sniper.

Who’s Calling?

The potential for suspense is great, but Phone Booth is not very good. The biggest problem is that the villain is unexplained. Sure, we know his identity by the end, but where does he get his information, and why does he do what he does? The only answer Phone Booth gives is that he must be a madman. But insanity comes in predictable shapes and sizes. Our sniper’s petty moralizing, his interest in punishing scumbags, rings false and contrived.

Why would such a villain pick our hero? The sniper’s other targets were a pedophile pornographer and a corrupt CEO. Our current target is merely a jerk to talks too loudly on his cell phones. His greatest crimes are ambition and lusting in his heart. The sniper might as well pick on Jimmy Carter.

The point is, the screenplay is written only from hero’s point of view. Screenwriter Larry Cohen probably asked “Wouldn’t it be weird to be in this situation? What would you do?” But without a plausible character on the other end of the phone, it’s a little hard to imagine the situation. At least Cohen could have made the story science fiction, a genre that allows you to build implausible things into the premise. A real setting in modern New York requires something more believably frightening than “a madman.”

Acting Their Way Out of a Phone Booth

Because the film has the illusion of real time, Farrell’s role is demanding, and he gives a very good performance. His character drops from cocky swagger to defeated bystander over the course of 81 minutes. Forest Whitaker is fascinating in everything he does, including this film. Keifer Sutherland is an excellent choice for the voice on the phone; he’s confident and intelligent with just a hint of cold menace.

Good casting helps Phone Booth, but not enough to make up for the unexplained and implausible villain.