I’m sad to report the following news, folks: I am getting nostalgic about films from the early 2000s. Yes, the early 2000s. I think once two decades passes, you can start feeling nostalgic, right?! So enters 2002’s Phone Booth, which hits that nostalgic button in multiple ways.
Directed by Joel Schumacher (yes, that Joel Schumacher of Batman & Robin infamy, which I haven’t actually seen, to be fair), the film follows Stu (played by Colin Farrell), a selfish, arrogant New York City publicist, who gets stuck in a phone booth. I should note, he gets stuck in the phone booth because he has Jack Bauer training a sniper rifle on him and messing with his brain and he won’t let him out of the phone booth until he atones for his sins (in this case, cheating on his wife and treating people like dirt).
Seriously, I find it hilarious that Kiefer Sutherland plays a terrorist in this film when 24 had already been out since November of the previous year, where he plays Bauer, trying to stop terrorists. And the thing is, Sutherland’s terrorist in this is genuinely great and terrifying and a lot better than my memory of prior viewings of this film allowed for.
Begrudgingly, I also have to commend Farrell for playing the arrogant and the scared-but-repenting Stu character really well. His face, which has to do a lot of the heavy lifting throughout the film, sells the terror, guilt, fear and apologies quite well. I say begrudgingly because for whatever reason, I’ve never been much of a Farrell fan.
Let me explain one criticism of the film’s story I do have. Toward the beginning of the film while he’s in the booth, Stu receives a pizza delivery. He thinks it’s ridiculous to receive a pizza delivery while at a phone booth and tells the guy off in a rather jerk move. The pizza guy walks away.
Later, when the police realize that Stu isn’t the terrorist who shot a pimp and that it’s someone with a sniper in one of the surrounding buildings, they are eventually able to track down his room. It turns out, the pizza guy was the shooter.
Except, that’s ridiculous! At least for Stu since he’s the only one who heard Sutherland’s voice. He heard the voices of the pizza guy and Sutherland’s and they don’t sound anything alike! He should have been sounding the alarm bells.
Ultimately, because of that switcheroo, Sutherland’s character is able to get away with it.
Forget the nostalgia for a moment, what makes this film particularly terrorizing is by placing it back in its 2002 shoes. Consider, this film was slated to release only one year after the events of 9/11 on the film festival circuit. Even a year later, for obvious reasons, 9/11 was still raw and at the forefront of people’s minds.
And then its actual theatrical release was slated for November 2002. However, in October, the D.C. snipers started shooting people. Snipers! They actually delayed the film’s release until April 2003 because of those real life events.
So, imagine sitting in the theater only a few months removed from the terror of a sniper picking people off at the gas station and while driving on the highway. That’s terrifying.
But yes, there’s nostalgia for this film because IT TAKES PLACE IN A PHONE BOOTH. That said, the point Sutherland makes with his narration is still rather resonate, at least as far as villain’s making good points goes. Whether it’s a phone booth or a cell phone, humans are always on their phones nowadays. Guilty as charged, Mr. Sutherland.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that Forest Whitaker, who plays Capt. Ed Ramey opposite Farrell as Stu, is a huge nostalgic point for me. In that same year, Whitaker starred in Panic Room, another one of my favorite films from that early 2000s period.
And also, aesthetically, Schumacher’s film (with the help of Matthew Libatique on cinematography) looks and feels very early 2000s, when there was that weird blue tone to films, sort of grungy and as if the camera operator had one too many cups of coffee, with a lot of frenzied shots and cuts. If you know you know.
That said, it’s hard to fault any feature film that clocks in at less than 80 minutes. Given the premise of it largely taking place in the confines of a phone booth, that runtime isn’t surprising, but still, it’s smart to be taut with a thriller.
If it’s been a while since you’ve seen this film, I recommend giving it a re-visit because it held up a lot better than I remember thinking when I first watched it. And if you’ve never seen it and are thinking the premise seems outdated and silly, I highly recommend watching it to see how tension-filled it actually is across its runtime.