For B-movie fanatics, it was more than a little gratifying to watch some of Hollywood's biggest names ravenously circle Larry Cohen's crackerjack script for Phone Booth (2002) a few years ago. At the time of this feeding frenzy, it had been a decade since Cohen a veteran screenwriter who cut his teeth writing for some of the best television shows of the 1960s , including "The Defenders" and "The Fugitive" had gotten a whiff of the mainstream, being relegated mostly to banging out grade-Z schlock for directors like Mark Lester and William Lustig. But suddenly there he was, watching the likes of Michael Bay, Will Smith, Jim Carrey, and Tom Cruise clamor for a shot at pulling off the writer's 30-year old idea about a hapless schmuck being pinned down by a sniper in a New York City phone booth. It's an intriguingly simple premise that's pure Cohen. Throughout his career, he's given birth to some of the most irresistibly loopy, and controversial, cult films ever made: God Told Me To posited a mass killing spree in which all of the assailants claim divine inspiration for their actions, while Q, The Winged Serpent concerned a mythic Aztecan beast that's nested at the top of the Chrysler Building. Cohen's stories, like the best pulp entertainments, possess a lurid hook. And while it's no surprise to find studios once again mining his fertile imagination, it's just a little curious that, given the paucity of workable ideas out there, they took so long to rediscover him. Logistics and scheduling eventually knocked all of those big names out of the running for Phone Booth, which is probably just as well. This is a movie that needed to be shot on the fly and on the cheap, which is precisely what director Joel Schumacher has been doing since the gaudy debacle of Batman & Robin threatened to end his career. Schumacher has re-teamed with perpetual star-on-the-rise Colin Farrell, who plays Stu Shepard, a Bronx boy turned fast-talking PR maven. Like his fictional predecessor, Sidney Falco, Stu mostly shuns the office, keeping his ear to the street for any juicy info that might help his present clients, or curry favor with potential ones. In other words, he lies. This deception extends to his personal life, where he's carrying on an affair with a naïve young actress (Katie Holmes) unbeknownst to his wife (Radha Mitchell). And, like all great liars, he's careful, too making calls to his illicit paramour from a Midtown phone booth lest his wife find the other woman's number on the cellular bill. But someone has been watching this double-dealer with intense interest, and on this particular day he's viewing Stu through the lens of high powered rifle's scope. After Stu hangs up on his girlfriend, the voyeur (Keifer Sutherland) puts in a call to Stu's phone booth. Instinctually, Stu answers. At first, he's dismissive of the sniper, but after the wacko makes a damaging phone call to Stu's wife, he begins to take him more seriously. And yet this isn't good enough for the sniper after allowing a dispute between Stu and a trio of prostitutes to conflagrate into violence, the faceless gunman takes advantage of the confusion and shoots down an innocent bystander, which gets pinned on Stu. Soon enough, the police show up, and the beleaguered bullshit artist finds himself truly lying for his life.
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Clocking in, sans credits, at a lean 75 minutes, Phone Booth takes a while to warm up. Initially, Farrell's Bronx boy is a tad too old country Irish in his accent, but once he's under fire the desperation comes pouring out of him, and the young actor puts on a show worthy of his press clippings (one has to enjoy the obvious irony of watching a crass publicity creation like Farrell play a starmaking spin doctor). Meanwhile, Schumacher, with an assist from gifted cinematographer Matthew Libatique, turns in his most confidently stylish work since The Lost Boys, which is probably due to this being the best script he's had to work with since then. Indeed, Cohen's screenplay succeeds so marvelously at placing the viewer in that phone booth with Stu because the writer's written himself into the predicament as well. How does one keep this poor schlub stuck in the booth for an hour without straining credibility? Cohen has stated in the past that he prefers not to know where he's headed when writing a screenplay, and his script sizzles with the excitement of a clever scribe surprising himself with each twist and turn. This thrill of invention freshens up many of the stale genre conventions, including the antagonistic relationship between Stu and the hostage negotiator (Forest Whitaker), who establish an unspoken shorthand once the latter figures out the bigger picture. Most enjoyably, though, Cohen uses his pulp premise as a means to rail against any number of pet peeves. In this case, it's PR and the culture of spin that has turned this country into a nation of liars trying to cover up misdeeds both big and trivial. As Sutherland's sniper character draws out of Stu, under the threat of death, the kind of bluntness he's been spending his whole life trying to suppress, it's not hard to imagine Cohen cracking a devilish grin as he checks off one more target on his naughty list. And while Stu's sins pale in comparison to the sniper's previous targets (a pederast porn king and an embezzling corporate CEO), the cautionary notion of an avenging angel a sort of Clarence with a twelve-gauge keeping us honest in our dealings with others is a real corker.
Fox's DVD release of Phone Booth presents the film in both anamorphic (2.35:1) and pan-and-scan (1.33:1) transfers with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. The disc's only extra, aside from a theatrical trailer, is a commentary from Joel Schumacher that is a little too long on generous plaudits for his cast and crew, in between which are sandwiched a few genuinely interesting tidbits about the two-week production. Whether or not they are worth seeking out depends on one's tolerance level for excessive praise of minor elements like (most annoyingly) the film's background performers at the expense of a substantive discussion of the screenplay's provocative, if insistent, themes. Perhaps the director's highest compliment was paid in his execution, by simply staying out of the script's way. Keep-case.