*** (out of four)
Do you prefer your thrillers streamlined and sufficiently logical or over-the-top and nuts?
If you answered "both," you'll love "The Call," which is in fact not based on the Backstreet Boys song of the same name and fortunately controls any excessive impulses until the questionable finale. Instead, overqualified director Brad Anderson ("The Machinist") favors the in-the-moment tension of a kidnapped teenager, on the phone with a 911 operator from the trunk of a car, unsure if she'll ever again see a friendly face. Abigail Breslin ("Zombieland") plays Casey, the girl in the trunk, and brings us in there with her better than Ryan Reynolds did in the coffin of "Buried." Halle Berry also is good as Jordan, the LAPD dispatcher whose recent misstep on the job cost a young woman like Casey her life, making this latest plight all the more urgent.
Confining a heroine to a desk and earpiece hampers the traditional accumulation of action but also reinforces the helplessness felt by anyone desperate but potentially unable to change their situation. Call me a logistics nerd, but I think the police work involved in dispatching—Jordan multi-tasks like a champ, gathering information and delegating the necessary forces—contains plenty of its own nerve-wracking excitement. The script by Richard D'Ovidio, who hasn't written a movie since "Thirteen Ghosts" and the Steven Seagal/DMX joint "Exit Wounds" in 2001, also largely resists the gruesomeness and vile revenge favored in related genre efforts like "Taken." He doesn't make the characters spell out everything on screen—no one notes Michael Foster's (Michael Eklund) affinity for vulnerable, blond teens, though his fixation is undeniable.
So. That ending. "The Call" definitely overheats, tossing away logic to generate maximum gasps. Yet compared to the broad disposability of other phone-centric thrillers like "Phone Booth" and "Cellular," "The Call" delivers a terrifying scenario and survives its descent into nonsense.
Jordan recommends new 911 operators avoid emotional attachment but finds it's easier said than done. The same goes for "The Call," which is just the kind of white-knuckle junk you want it to be.
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