Silver Screen: The Call **1/2
In the lurid, overheated world of pulpy thrillers, there’s a fine line between an inspired premise and an absurd concept. The Call, a mercenary little suspense flick, starts with the germ of an idea that sits right on the line: What if a 9-1-1 operator tried to catch a serial killer? Pushing that notion further from plausibility is another twist: What if said 9-1-1 operator happened to look like internationally recognized sexyperson Halle Berry?
The movie’s generic prologue indicates early on that this end-of-winter trifle is going to be yet another dose of disturbingly banal, sexually fetishized violence in the vein of CSI with perhaps a twist of Saw-style torture porn. A pretty blond girl calls 9-1-1 when an intruder enters her house. She hides under the bed as he stalks through the dark while emergency-services operator Jordan (Berry) talks her through the ordeal. But Jordan makes a critical mistake that gives the girl away, and she’s dragged from under the bed toward a bloody end.
Six months later a traumatized Jordan has left her position at the phones for another job training new 9-1-1 operators. She’s in the midst of an introductory lecture when a call comes through to the dispatch center that sounds ominously familiar. Blond teenager Casey (Abigail Breslin) has been abducted from a shopping-mall parking garage. She’s in the trunk of her captor’s car, calling on her friend’s disposable cell phone. She doesn’t know who took her or why, or where the car is headed.
For the next forty minutes or so, The Call plays its kooky premise to the hilt. During this stretch the story unfolds more or less in real time and generates genuine suspense. Jordan is all but powerless on the other end of the phone, but she proves intrepid despite her previous hysterical freakouts. For a half-hour or so the characters stop making gratingly stupid decisions that only serve to further the plot. Casey calms down and starts acting on Jordan’s thoughtful instructions: Kick out the taillight to signal for help, use the items stowed in the trunk to leave a trail for police, et cetera. Michael Imperioli (Christopher Moltisanti of The Sopranos) shows up for a fun turn as a well-meaning limo driver just trying to help out, and the stakes are raised further. Against all odds, the movie that started with such a clunky rush of exposition and familiar tropes becomes a nervy nail-biter.
Alas, the final act returns us to the expected nonsense. After establishing Casey as a feisty and empowered protagonist, she’s reduced back to kidnapped-princess status. She’s terrorized, stripped half-naked, and menaced by a dimestore baddie with a collection of bloody scalps in his scary murder lair, which is located pretty much exactly where the evidence points. The cops can’t figure it out, but Jordan can, leading to a plodding, stupid climax where she abandons her post at 9-1-1 to try on her Nancy Drew shoes and immediately renounces all of the intelligence she displayed during the movie’s exciting middle for more plot-driven bad decisions. Cell phone not working in a dark field where the killer is hiding? Keep going. Killer briefly incapacitated? Surely he’ll remain that way while our heroines make a smooth and uneventful escape.
It’s a bummer the committee-written script largely credited to Richard D’Ovidio wasn’t just a little better thought out. The real-time kidnapping sequence needs just a little more fleshing out to fill the whole movie, and the momentum of these sequences points toward an intense climax that ultimately fizzles into something too familiar. Once more, the story is driven by the characters’ stupidity rather than their resourcefulness, which is one of the hallmarks of a faltering thriller.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.