Phone Booth

Maintaining his reputation as one of Hollywood’s most inconsistent directors, Joel Schumacher bounces back from last year’s “Bad Company” debacle with the excellent “Phone Booth,” a tight, suspenseful little drama whose moralistic streak is downplayed while its sweaty tension is played up.

Colin Farrell, who had his breakout role in Schumacher’s “Tigerland” (2000), plays Stu Shepard, a manipulative Manhattan publicist who, as one observer says, “puts the ‘ho’ in ‘show business.'” Bustling around mid-town at a break-neck pace, he is dogged by his eager young assistant Adam (Keith Nobbs), who has another cell phone call lined up for him as soon as he’s finished the one he’s on. Adam is learning the tricks of the trade, which, coincidentally, involve a lot of trickery and a lot of trading.

Lying is part of Stu’s job, but you get the feeling he became a publicist because he’s a good liar, not the other way around. He certainly enjoys fibbing enough to practice it at home, where his beautiful wife Kelly (Radha Mitchell) has no idea he’s been flirting with Pamela (Katie Holmes), a naive young actress who doesn’t know Stu is married.

Stu never uses his cell phone to call Pamela, instead visiting a phone booth — one of the last of its kind, and scheduled for replacement — at 53rd and 8th. He tells her it’s because it’s quieter, but the real reason is that Kelly sees his cell phone bill and might get suspicious. (That’s silly, of course. If it’s his business cell phone, why would his wife examine the bill? And even if she did, wouldn’t there be a lot of numbers being called regularly — clients and such — and not just Pamela’s? And couldn’t Pamela BE a client?)

After completing one such phone booth visit, the pay phone rings and, instinctively — no one can resist a ringing phone — Stu picks it up. The voice of Kiefer Sutherland tells him if he hangs up, he will shoot him. The caller is perched somewhere above the site with a high-powered rifle. To demonstrate, he obliterates a street vendor’s toy robot mere inches from Stu’s foot.

Thus begins the stand-off, shot in real time (just like Sutherland’s TV show, “24”) and soon involving the police and news cameras, thanks to an uncooperative pimp being picked off by the sniper, a crime blamed on the altogether gun-less Stu. But if Stu tells the police what really happened, or if he hangs up the phone, he’s a dead man.

Schumacher, working from Larry Cohen’s fat-free script, keeps the pace moving rapidly in what is essentially a one-act story. He doesn’t have much to say about the joys and pitfalls of 21st-century convenience, but he at least identifies them. At one point, Stu is on the phone with both Kelly and the caller while a band of hookers harasses him from outside the booth, everyone talking at once in a fever pitch of modern-life insanity. And we realize it’s not too different from having someone on the phone and a salesman at the door while the kids holler for snacks and your husband wants to know where his shirt is.

Note also the intrusiveness and prevalence of video cameras. Kelly and Pamela both learn of Stu’s standoff by seeing it on TV, and the police (led by Forest Whitaker) acknowledge that the presence of tourists with camcorders is what’s keeping them from just shooting Stu and getting it over with.

Farrell’s performance is key, as he is on the screen almost every second. He is charismatic enough to be likable, and slimy enough as a publicist to be compelling, and he’s almost convincing in morphing his Irish brogue into a New York accent. Schumacher favorite Sutherland — this is his fourth film with the director — uses only his voice, but it’s a distinctive, unsettlingly calm one.

Though it heads down the road previously trod by “Seven” and other films in which psychos find sinners and punish them, “Phone Booth” abandons that idea without fully developing it. As such, there is not as much satisfaction over the resolution as there ought to be, and I’m not certain the final outcome is actually possible, as I think it requires the caller to have been in two places at once.

But no matter. It fully exploits the tense possibilities of the situation, very nicely providing popcorn thrills in the process. I, for one, will never answer a pay phone again.

B (1 hr., 20 min.; R, abundant harsh profanity, some violence.)