In countless films about emergencies, crimes and police work, the 911 dispatcher is but a bit player, an anonymous, robotic voice briefly heard on the other end of a breathless call made by our movie's main players.
But in "The Call," the 911 operator gets a starring role. It would seem to be long overdue, since Halle Berry is apparently among their ranks.
She's a highly professional emergency operator in Los Angeles, where the trauma of a first kidnapping case has forced her to hang up the headset. But, having shifted to a trainer position, she's lured back for a second kidnapping call when a rookie dispatcher can't handle the frightened pleas from a teenager trapped in a car's trunk (Abigail Breslin).
Director Brad Anderson (who has a few sturdy thrillers to his credit: "Transsiberian," ''The Machinist"), working from the simple, high-concept screenplay by Richard D'Ovidio, ably cuts between Berry's increasingly emotionally-attached Jordan Turner and Breslin's panicking Casey Welson, contrasting the fraught strategizing of Turner with the frantic police pursuit of the kidnapper (Michael Eklund). Turner's cop boyfriend (Morris Chestnut) is among those in the hunt.
"The Call" dials up a shallow thrill ride, but one efficiently peppered with your typical "don't go in there!" moments. But what once was usual for Hollywood - reliable, popcorn-eating genre frights - isn't so much anymore. "The Call" is a rudimentary, almost old-fashioned 90-minute escape that manages to achieve its low ambitions.
To distract and calm Welson, Turner at one point asks her her favorite movie, to which she replies "Bridesmaids." The bit has a two-pronged effect. One, we can't help but think: Wouldn't it be nice to instead be watching something as good as "Bridesmaids"? But also, two, to remind us of the joy of moviegoing, of which thoughtless movies like "The Call" are a definite part.
But while "The Call" manages to build some suspense from the trunk of the car - the clever attempts to elicit help, the dwindling cell phone battery - its deficiencies become less forgivable once the action turns off the road. Eklund's psychopath kidnapper is cartoonishly drawn and when he has Welson back at this lair - and Turner is summoned from the high-tech, oddly NASA-like call center - "The Call" disconnects with horror film clichÃ©s.
Berry, with a ball of short curly hair, keeps the film rolling even when it veers off course. Breslin, making a leap to more sordid territory, has little to do but be scared. Michael Imperioli makes a brief appearance as a concerned bystander, a reminder mainly that the fine "Sopranos" actor deserves considerably better.
From "Phone Booth" to "Cellular" (a film with which "The Call" shares many similarities), phone-based movies have generally been bad service for moviegoers, who so often would rather look at their own mobiles in the movie theater. Perhaps we can await a sequel to "The Call" that shifts to the 311 call center, where a pothole complaint spirals dramatically out of control. So call me maybe?
"The Call," a Sony Pictures release, is rated R for violence, disturbing content and some language. Running time: 95 minutes. Two stars out of four.