Thursday, March 14, 2013

Review: "The Call"

Like with Hitchcock's "Rear Window," "The Call" is challenged by having a protagonist who is more or less stuck in one place. Unlike "Rear Window," this new thriller manages to siphon off dramatic tension instead of building it, taking a strong opening and leeching away anything resembling suspense during an ill-thought-out final act.

Instead of being lamed by a broken leg like Jimmy Stewart, Halle Berry's Jordan Turner is tied to her desk. As a 9-1-1 operator for the city of Los Angeles, she spends hour after hour sitting in front of a high-tech station receiving emergency calls, some of them truly frightening, but most routine and rather dull.

For instance, there's a drunk who seems to get thrown into jail every single night and uses his one free call to dial up his "sugar" to purr come-ons and lament his fate. (Even though The Hive, the massive L.A. emergency center, has dozens of operators, his calls mysteriously always come straight to Jordan.)

At first, director Brad Anderson ("The Machinist") and screenwriter Richard D'Ovidio use the main character's immobility to great dramatic effect. Jordan's job entails hearing all the gory details of a crime, but without a police officer's resolution of finding out how things turn out.

One fateful night she gets a call from a teen girl whose house is being broken into, and it's a terrifically tense sequence as Jordan talks to the hysterical young woman, keeping her calm and using a clever ploy to make the intruder think she's escaped. But then Jordan makes an error in judgment, the killer is alerted to her presence and the girl ends up dead.

The situation gets repeated six months later when another teen named Casey (Abigail Breslin) is kidnapped by the same man.The first part of the chase is quite engaging, as Casey talks to Jordan via cell phone from the trunk of her assailant's car. Jordan comes up with all sorts of clever ways for Casey to alert other drivers that something's amiss -- though it doesn't turn out so well for one Good Samaritan (Michael Imperioli).

Meanwhile, Jordan's (boy?)friend cop Paul (Morris Chestnut) leads the chase from the ground, always one step behind. It's good dramatic intercutting of the different urgencies, with the girl's frantic pleas for help, Jordan's calm advice with an undercurrent of panic about blowing it again, the twitchy kidnapper (Michael Eklund) trying to avoid detection and the police on the hunt.

But then, well...

Without giving too much away, suffice it to say that the filmmakers take the exact thing that was working for the movie and flush it down the toilet. As if this weren't bad enough, they do it in a totally artificial and unbelievable way, with a huge sequence of ridiculous events that strain the credulity of the audience.

What had been a fairly zippy crime thriller suddenly devolves into a ham-fisted horror movie, with the audience compelled to shout directions at sub-moronic avatars: "No, don't go in there! Turn around! He's right behind you!"

Watching this movie is a reminder that, if one day in real life you are being hunted by a relentless killer, and against all odds you manage to incapacitate him, your job is not finished until you have observed vampire protocol -- aka stake in the heart, head comes away form the neck, and a little holy water wouldn't hurt. (If the police ask questions, just tell them "I really wanted to be sure...")

Berry is smart and effective in her role, at least until things go screwy. Breslin is forced to spend a good chunk of the movie half-clothed, which is a bit off-putting for people who mostly remember as the precocious tyke in "Little Miss Sunshine." Eklund has a few effective notes as the seemingly bland white dude with a Buffalo Bill thing on the side. But the rest of the actors are constrained by characters who only exist to service the plot.

It's too bad "The Call" went off its wheels, because if you swapped out the final third or so you could actually have a decent thriller on your hands. Alas, this movie mis-dialed the ending.

2 stars out of four

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