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Although it falls into a couple of jaw-dropping, females-in-peril stupid moments near the end — that is, when unarmed women enter creepy cabins or dark basements knowing full well a boogeyman is on the loose — The Call for the most part is a tense, extreme-jeopardy thriller that delivers the intended goods. If a successful date movie sometimes is measured by its ability to scare girls so much that they’ll impulsively grab the arm of their male companions, then this efficiently made TriStar film should do quite nicely, for a couple of weekends anyway.
This has all the earmarks of a straight commercial assignment for indie stalwart Brad Anderson, who of late has distinguished himself more for his work on high-end cable dramas such as The Wire, Treme and Boardwalk Empire than for his features. The give-me-a-break moments notwithstanding, the film does exactly what it sets out to do — create genuine suspense about a teenager’s fate in the hands of a predatory whack job — and does so within a fresh conceptual framework.
The central character in Richard D’Ovidio‘s screenplay is a good and unusual one. Jordan (Halle Berry) works the phones at the Los Angeles Police Department’s 911 emergency call center — a large, high-tech beehive at which dozens of operators receive ceaseless urgent phone calls from people throughout the city, with problems ranging from a bird having entered the house to a murder seeming to be in the offing.
The latter is the case during the breathless prologue, in which a young woman desperately informs Jordan that a prowler is assaulting her. Cool and methodical as she has been trained to be, Jordan suddenly hears the creep come on the line and tells him, “You don’t have to do this.” She is to remain haunted by his reply: “It’s already done.”
Undone by her failure to stop this crime, Jordan goes off the phones and switches to briefing applicants for the type of job she formerly had. Her two rules to live by are, “Stay emotionally controlled” and “Don’t make promises.” However, when it appears that the same madman is at it again, she’s drawn back in to try to advise another teenage blonde, Casey (Abigail Breslin), what to do now that she’s a captive with a cellphone in the trunk of a moving car.
There’s no mystery about who the bad guy is; Michael (Michael Eklund) is a sweaty, raving lunatic who, after trapping Casey in a mall parking garage, is bent on taking her to a place where he intends to do something very, very bad. While the police desperately try to trace the phone call before the battery runs out and Michael drives out of downtown to points north, Jordan guides the captive through some successful ploys, such as knocking out a brake light from the inside and pouring some handy paint out the back to draw attention, which ultimately forces the maniac to pull over and deal with an observant limo driver (Michael Imperioli), who’s too curious and solicitous for his own good.
The constant back-and-forth between the 911 center, Casey’s severely restricted perspective and the highway pursuit by squad cars and helicopters gives Anderson plenty of opportunity to create suspense both through the successes and failures of the prisoner’s strenuous efforts and the calibrated cross-cutting occasioned by the ongoing chase.
Some of the best moments come when the driver must stop and confront others while Casey struggles to make her presence known. But the film loses some traction — and provokes a chortle or two — when they leave the road and finally arrive at the destination, said isolated house and cellar where serial killers do what serial killers do, from before Psycho to after The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. As always, it’s a question of how long the nutcase dawdles in preparation for the big event and whether the savior can get there in time to stop it. The film has been smarter than this up to now and disappointingly descends from the intriguing world of the emergency operator to the cliched realm of the twisted villain.
Up to the denouement, Berry delivers a focused, emotionally honest turn as a woman whose profession is far more taxing and draining than the norm; Jordan shouldn’t need to become an action heroine. The virtually unrecognizable Breslin must spend most of the running time crying and pleading while cooped up in the trunk, no doubt a taxing assignment, while Eklund delivers the creep factor in spades. Morris Chestnut plays Jordan’s supportive cop boyfriend, and asking Imperioli to play a well-intentioned good guy creates some interesting colorings for a brief role.
Downtown L.A. and San Fernando Valley locations are well used, and production values are solid on a budget.
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