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Review: 'Phone Booth' is a good call

Fine acting, taut direction carry the day

Colin Farrell is in the sights of a madman in "Phone Booth."

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(CNN) -- "Phone Booth" is a high-concept movie -- man trapped in phone booth by sniper -- that actually works. The drama also solidifies Colin Farrell's status as a star.

The movie has been a long time coming: veteran screenwriter Larry Cohen first pitched his idea, about a movie shot entirely within a phone booth, to Alfred Hitchcock over lunch at the Universal Studios commissary almost 30 years ago. It then took Cohen a couple of decades to figure out how to structure the plot while keeping his protagonist enclosed in a glass phone booth. (In the ensuing decades, glass phone booths became hard to come by, too.)

Cohen finally cracked the problem by making his lead character, Stu Shepard, a public relations flack with the moral fiber of a killer shark. He then traps him in a phone booth with the device of an unseen sniper -- a self-proclaimed arbitrator of all things moral and right -- threatening to shoot him if he hangs up.

It seems the sniper has been following his unsuspecting target, and found him wanting when it comes to his business practices and his marriage vows. He plans on teaching Stu a lesson by making him admit his shortcomings -- or Stu will die.

Circuitous path

Even after there was a story, the film still faced the usual Hollywood delays before it finally landed on the desk of director Joel Schumacher, who had just completed "Tigerland" (2000). That movie starred a young, then-unknown Irish actor named Colin Farrell, who Schumacher tapped to star as Stu. "Phone Booth" was then shot -- in sequence -- on digital tape in just 11 days.

With the movie in the can, the studio decided to hold off on its release, because it was obvious that Farrell's star was beginning to rise. His next two films, "Hart's War" and "American Outlaws," tanked, but with the success of "Minority Report," starring Tom Cruise, it was decided that it was finally time to cash in on Farrell's growing fame. A release date was set for last fall.

Katie Holmes plays a woman Farrell is pursuing.

Then two real-life snipers began killing people in Maryland. Once again, the movie was put on hold.

Even now, with the war on, the timing isn't perfect -- but "Phone Booth" has finally arrived at a theater near you. It was worth the wait.

It's not perfect, and there are a few logical flaws in some characters' actions, but overall this is a taut, compelling thriller that slowly sneaks up on you and nails you to your seat. A great deal of the credit goes to editor Mark Stevens and cinematographer Matthew Libatique, both of whom also worked with Schumacher on "Tigerland." Libatique, whose images here are stunning, also lent his considerable talents to director Darren Aronofsky's brilliantly conceived and photographed "Requiem for a Dream."

Good acting

But when you have a story with one character dominating every single frame of the film, the bottom line is acting. Farrell delivers big time, with a deeply layered performance that slowly reveals Stu's inner flaws and fears. Kiefer Sutherland, as the sniper, also delivers one of his best performances ever, just by using his voice.

Sutherland, who worked with Schumacher on the film "Flatliners" (1990), was brought into the project late, after another actor didn't work out. His low, modulated tones are pure menace, as his sniper sits perched in a nearby high-rise and purrs his deadly threats into Stu's unwilling ear.

Forest Whitaker does a credible job as a New York City police captain trying to talk Stu out of the booth, after it appears that Stu has shot a man in the street. Unbeknownst to the cops, of course, Stu didn't shoot anybody -- but if he tells the police what's going on, or hangs up the phone, the sniper will gun him down.

Soon, the whole situation becomes a media event -- an irony not lost on the desperate Stu, who makes his living turning the media into a sideshow promoting his various (and mostly dubious) clients. Stu, a spinner of tales and half-truths, has now become the story.

Katie Holmes does a nice turn as Pamela McFadden, a client and prospective conquest of Stu's. She's drawn to the scene after seeing it on the news. Also at the scene is Stu's wife, Kelly, played by Radha Mitchell. Both women become targets as the sniper tightens his noose around Stu, while dozens of cops with itchy trigger fingers are covering him on the ground.

The film's biggest flaw is that Stu -- while shallow to the point of being pond scum -- is not really evil. He doesn't really deserve this treatment. He could have been drawn a little more towards the dark side while still sustaining the audience's interest, such as Kevin Spacey's character in "Swimming With Sharks" (1994). Farrell is a good enough actor to have retained the audience's sympathy while being more of a jerk, and could have played it with a deeper edge -- had it been written that way.

Nevertheless, "Phone Booth" is a satisfying concoction of thrills and chills, and Farrell has emerged as Hollywood's newest, hottest hunk. And he can act, too! Will wonders never cease?

"Phone Booth" opens nationwide on Friday, April 4, and is rated R.

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