Some films are good, some films are okay and some films are just bad. But there are several subtle degrees of ‘badness’ to which a film can coalesce into; it’s not as clear-cut as, say, being conscious or unconscious – which is where you might find yourself after sitting through the film featured here.
So some films, for instance, are bad the moment they’re released (and this section of the site will certainly be looking at plenty of these in the weeks and months to come). These are films which instantly stink up the place, and everyone knows it; they’re badly written, badly directed, poorly acted and even your geriatric, myopic greyhound can see that they’re a waste of carbon.
Today though, as an inaugural entrant into ‘The Valley of the Damned’, we’re going to have a look at a certain other kind of cinematic badness; a much more sneaky, stealthy and vengeful kind of betrayal. This is the sort of bad film that comes back to repeat on you several days later like undercooked pork; it’s the type of film that leaves dirty messages on you answering machine a month after you left the cinema. These films are the cinematic equivalent of a regrettable one-night stand with woman who runs the launderette.
So I’ll explain: what we are dealing with here is the sort of film that, upon its release, looks upon casual inspection like a decent film: it has some big-name production staff and actors, a glossy big-budget promotional campaign backing it, and resultantly, it rides the crest of a wave through its theatrical release with an impressive whizz-bang of vacuous hutzpah; critical reviews are decent-to-good, it makes a bunch of cash and then slips off quietly into the plush retirement village of home-media to stare into the sunset.
But here’s the problem: whilst in this doily-emblazoned retirement home, spending its days playing bowls, completing cross-words in the back of broadsheet newspapers and regaling its fellow retirees with tales of its box-office hit days, the true nature of these kinds of bad films begin to surface. Away from the limelight, they start pinching other residents’ mints and leaving the toilet seat up. What I’m saying is this: after the flash-bulbs have stopped and popcorn has long been swept from the floor of the theatre we are able to see these sorts of films for what they really are: totally valueless garbage.
With this in mind, let’s examine the case of 2002’s Phone Booth, directed by Joel Schumacher (he of Batman Forever and Batman and Robin fame; two films about the caped-crusader so good, it took eight years and a complete reboot to bring Batman back to the big screen). Phone Booth’s marketing was all about it being an unflinchingly intense, adrenaline-soaked thriller about a man – Stu Shepard – who answers a ringing telephone in a busy New York street and ends up in a fight for his life (yawn, excuse me). What really sold Phone Booth as a commercial property though was its opportunism. PB tapped into the zeitgeist of the moment – specifically, the ‘real time’ gimmick which was setting the cultural touch paper alight in T.V via the series 24. The notion that fiction could mimic life and be played-out on a minute-for-minute basis was big news at the beginning of the new millennium. It was also a pretty ridiculous construct, and even the vastly superior 24 ran into huge difficulties to maintain this premise eventually. Powerful, suspenseful and sustained drama fundamentally requires the creative use of time in order to achieve its objectives; why, for example, would we ever want to watch or read fiction where we are subjected to the tedious minutia of our own lives? This is not why we escape in the make-believe. At best, using ‘real-time’ chronology is a showpiece.
So anyway, Phone Booth aimed to bite a chunk out of this emerging market with such open cynicism that it even cast Kiefer Sutherland – 24’s own hero Jack Bauer – as the film’s antagonist. Adding to its zeitgeist factor, Hollywood-breakout-heartthrob-bad-boy Colin Farrell was pitched in as the film’s lead. What could be better?
Well, a lot actually. Phone Booth is a film which is unoriginal, formulaic and really, after a single viewing, actually quite dull. It was a cheap way of hoodwinking the film-going population into watching a tired re-tread of about fifty other films’ plot (protagonist in mortal danger where every second counts!) by hanging some popular devices and actors onto its skeletal narrative.
Keeping in tune with this populism, director Schumacher’s assembly of the film is also ridden with early 2000s elements which may have looked ‘cool’ and edgy then, but now merely date Phone Booth further as the unfortunate offspring of a brief affair. The photography has an odd blue tinge to it, making the film look washed out and lifeless; one has to speculate this was done during processing to give the text a harsh quality which emphasises Stu Shepard’s hollow existence etc. In reality, when I put the DVD into my laptop to write this, I just thought some settings had been changed in my media player (filmed a few years later, Martin Scorsese’s Aviator springs to mind as a much more interesting use of odd colour-processing, with the film carrying a bluish, green hue which adds to the nostalgic feel). Schumacher opts for frequent rapid, jarring editing which again aims to lend the piece some pace and motion. Many shots are intersected with cut-away ‘in-vision’ inserts showing parallel scenes taking place, as well as occasional P.O.V shots, ratcheting up the ‘novelty’ count further and adding nothing of substance to the story being told. Additionally, (and I didn’t remember this until re-watching) there is a persistently intrusive percussion-based soundtrack that is way too high in the sound mix, masking dialogue and trying desperately to maintain a sense of purpose in the narrative. The direction and editing is just a loud, flashy performance, reminiscent of a child skidding on their knees across the dance-floor at their Uncle Bob’s 50th Birthday party, desperate to be noticed by the adults who are busy comparing the extent of the weight-gains since the last family do and talking about interest rates.
So to the characters, and Farrell’s protagonist Stu Shepard is about as interesting as the back of tea coaster – clichéd, unimaginative and really, he only functions as a bundle of plot-threads which can be unpacked later in the film, as well as being a showcase for Farrell’s acting range. Shepard is an arrogant, deceitful publicist and the opening scenes of the film (after a expository voice-over tells the audience a few largely superfluous facts about public phone usage in New York – seriously) do their best to make sure the we know this: he strolls through Times Square (WE ARE IN NEW YORK, in case you didn’t remember), making a series of phone-calls to clients, berating his geeky new assistant and meeting up with a cop he bribes for inside knowledge about celebrities. Okay, we get it. Stu Shepard is slick, conniving and street-smart. After about ten minutes of this sledgehammer-subtle character introduction, Shepard sets foot in the eponymous phone booth, takes off his wedding ring and makes a call to a young actress (played by a typically comatose Katie Holmes) who he is trying to bed. Shepard lies to her about how he can help her career and generally ensures that those big flashing lights that read “This Guy is a Dick” are working correctly, just in case you sneezed and missed the last eight minutes with a nose bleed or something.
Then the plot finally arrives and Stu’s torment begins. Kiefer Sutherland’s sonorous tones call Stu up (if there’s one good element of this film, it’s the gripping sound of Sutherland’s voice). And that’s pretty much it in-terms of story. Stu has some raucous adventures fending off a group of prostitutes and their pimp, before the police – fronted up by Forest Whitaker in painfully bland straight-man form – arrive and things begin to escalate to what already feels is a predictable denouement.
Whilst it is fun watching Shepard say and do things because he has a sniper’s rifle pointed at him, it’s ultimately difficult to become invested in him as a character. We see little to suggest he’s likeable, and his actions are so unrealistic and telegraphed, really caring about what transpires is difficult. Farrell moves through the emotional gears at such a break-neck pace (by my calculations, he transitions from cool, fast-talking lothario to being at the verge of breaking in about ten minutes of screen time – and this is before Sutherland’s antagonist has even threatened him with any form of actual violence yet) and this is just too rapid; it doesn’t give the character any room for manoeuvre later on, forcing Farrell to escalate to ludicrous emotional extremes over the next thirty-five minutes in order to allow the narrative to peak appropriately. (Just to contextualise this, the timespan of Farrell’s emotional apogee less than the length of an average T.V show episode. Whilst in T.V we can accept rapid and sometimes clunky emotional and narrative escalations because of the conventions of the format, in a feature-film, we really expect a more subtle emotional arc than this).
And it is this which ultimately sinks Phone Booth as a work of fiction: The premise and the performance dynamic required to achieve its objectives are just stupid. Because of the kind-of real-time elapse/compressed time-frame effect they were going for here, Stu Shepard’s moment of clarity at the film’s denouement is just absurd, with the audience expected to believe that this character has been completely and entirely shattered emotionally and mentally in the course of an actual hour (!). Even if we can accept that there are some time-lapses and gaps, the narrative takes place at maximum over the period of a couple of hours, yet the evolution of the character suggests days if of weeks of sustained torture. There’s just too much to buy into in such a short space of time for there to be any satisfactory payoff the viewer. 24 worked because it was formed of hour-long chunks which pieced together to form entire days over the course of season’s run (24 episodes). Phone Booth looks for high impact returns from almost zero character development and an almost motiveless antagonist (why did he spend his morning fucking with Shepard anyway?)
Phone Booth isn’t a terrible film – and we’ll see worse here in future I’m sure – but it’s a poor one which did its utmost to convince the world that it was a great one. And that’s a crime worthy of severe punishment in itself. Watching it back over ten years later, it stands as nothing more than footnote in a cultural cycle. It’s an overly-stylised, message-less film which doesn’t even attempt to try and tell an interesting or engaging story. I’d much rather watch an ambitious failure (I’m looking at you, Gangs of New York) that tries something a bit different any day, than sit through a film that looks and feels like it was assembled by a computer from pieces of old screenplays.
Do yourself a favour: if you’re at a loose end and want to watch a stand-alone piece of drama that’s about an hour long, stick on an episode of a T.V series like The X-Files or Star Trek. You’ll have far more fun, get something to think about and not feel like you’ve been mugged in the street – which is exactly how you’ll feel if you pay good money to watch Phone Booth; it’s a vapid, nostalgic throwback without any happy memories, like the time the police were called out because nan got drunk and locked herself in the downstairs toilet.
Phone Booth: welcome to The Valley of the Damned. Dinner is served at six.