by Ed Symkus

The beginning is a playful one, with some great a cappella singing about an operator, and dizzying shots charging from communications satellites up in space down to the phone-centric denizens of Times Square, where everyone is walking around talking on their cell.

There's a brief flurry of statistics about this and that, an even briefer mention that this is the last day for a certain phone booth at 53rd and 8th, and then we meet our hero, Stu Shepard. Or is he a villain? Or is he a victim? Actually, he's a little bit of each. As played in a perfect Brooklyn accent by Irishman Colin Farrell, Stu is a fast-talking, low-rent publicist, walking down the street as if he owned it, his head pressed to his cell phone, always looking for some "mutual back-scratching" from whatever client or client-to-be is on the other end. It's never made clear if he's any good at his job, but he definitely looks and sounds the part. He dresses well, his expressions are excitable, he's a foul-mouthed wise guy.

And he has a little secret -- one that he's even keeping from his wife. It seems that every day, at a specific time, he pockets the cell phone and makes his way to that previously mentioned phone booth, from which he makes a call to a special client, an up-and-coming actress named Pamela (Katie Holmes). It's become a ritual for both of them, in which he offers some sweet talk and she gladly takes it. There's nothing going on between them, but the point when there will be appears to be getting closer.

But someone else has a secret, too. And he knows about the phone calls. So one day, seconds after Stu has hung up from chatting with Pamela, and before he's gone anywhere, the phone rings. The movie rule here is that everyone in the audience is saying to themselves, "Don't pick it up. Don't pick it up." So Stu picks it up, and from the get-go, the deep, slow, articulate voice on the other end (Kiefer Sutherland) is absolutely menacing.

"It's not in your best interest to disconnect me," he warns, when Stu starts to hang up. And before long, Stu finds out that this man means business, that he can be vicious, that he has a high-powered gun and a single-minded agenda. That agenda ensnares Stu's apparent inability to be a decent man. Since neither Stu nor anyone watching the film knows where the call is coming from and, consequently, where the gunman is located, a nice, solid sense of paranoia sets in -- for the star as well as the viewer. It's accompanied by a dark, dark sense of humor.

Undoubtedly, viewers will be wondering how tension or even interest can be maintained in one small location for 90 minutes. But fear not. The film opens up in some inventive ways. After the first warning bullets are fired, people in the street start taking notice. Soon the cops are there, headed up by a puzzled and soon frustrated Captain Ramey (Forest Whitaker). It's not long before the media finds out something odd is going on concerning a possibly crazy person on the phone who might have a gun and who is ignoring any orders the well-armed cops are shouting at him. While all of this is going on, there are lots of point-of view-shots, with Stu staring out helplessly at the small world around him.

The whole thing ends up as a tour de force for Farrell, whose only previous exposure to American audiences at the time of filming was in the excellent but little-seen Tigerland (though he has since turned in high-profile performances in Hart's War, Minority Report, and The Recruit). In this one, he runs the gamut from cock-of-the-walk to sniveling creep -- all convincingly, and almost all of it in close-up. Sutherland, who's offscreen 99 percent of the time, works wonders with his vocal instrument, mostly talking slowly and hypnotically and insidiously, laughing gleefully when Stu does what he's told, yet ever ready to launch into an angry tirade when he doesn't.

Anyone whose job crosses paths with a publicist will get a hoot out of what Farrell's character undergoes. The ending, at least the ending before we revisit outer space, will let some people off with relieved laughter. Others will go home with knots in their stomachs.

Publication date: 04/10/03

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