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The Call' misdials

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Thriller starts strong, loses steam

I enjoy a good thriller as much as anyone. There's something wonderfully engaging about the mounting tension that a well-crafted thriller can bring. The agonizing wait as the story unfolds, the squirming in your seat as you question each twist in the action it all makes for good cinema.

Unfortunately, recent tendencies in Hollywood indicate that studios have decided that a film that is 'just' a thriller isn't enough. There's got to be something else, some other kind of hook. Maybe you throw in some big-budget action, maybe you tack on some supernatural elements regardless, you're basically saying that the tension is not enough.

'The Call' dispenses with all that, marking an unapologetic return to thriller basics. And until it falls apart under the weight of its own contrivances in the third act, it does a surprisingly good job.

Jordan Turner (Halle Berry; 'Cloud Atlas') is a 911 operator for the city of Los Angeles. She's one of the best at what she does, but when a young girl is murdered due in part to Jordan's mistake, she finds herself overwhelmed with guilt. Unable to go back onto the calling floor (they call it 'The Hive'), she instead takes a role as an instructor.

However, when a probationary operator receives a call she can't handle, Jordan finds herself thrust back into a job she's not sure she can handle anymore. A young girl named Casey (Abigail Breslin; 'Perfect Sisters') has been abducted from a mall parking garage and thrown into the trunk of a car. She's got a phone, but it's a disposable much more difficult to trace.

It's a race against time as Jordan tries to help the police locate Casey and save her from the clutches of her increasingly unstable kidnapper (Michael Eklund; 'Ferocious'). However, each time the authorities begin closing in, the kidnapper finds a way to slip through their fingers. And when the kidnapper reaches his final destination, it's up to Jordan to figure out how to find him and Casey before it's too late.

I don't mean to indicate that the world of this film is particularly realistic. It isn't. But director Brad Anderson ('Vanishing on 7th Street') proves more than capable of constructing a taut, tension-filled vibe throughout. Considering that much of the movie revolves around an extended phone conversation, that's pretty impressive. 

Some of the credit has to be given to the two leads. Berry is quite good here; a broken woman fighting for redemption by righting past wrongs is right in her wheelhouse. She's sharp and effective in a difficult situation, somehow engaging us without leaving her chair for an hour. Breslin is one of Hollywood's best young actresses; seeing her tackle something with a little more intensity is welcome. For a kid who hasn't yet reached 18, she's got chops. Her fear and fortitude alike are palpable. And Eklund is spooky as all get out as the kidnapper; he's created a wealth of tics and mannerisms that he then largely masks. It makes him unsettling and difficult to watch.

The first hour of the film is well-done albeit a bit on the cheesy side as it builds the tension to a crescendo. Unfortunately, it veers wildly off course in the final 30 minutes or so, descending into a death spiral of wild implausibility that quickly squanders all the goodwill it worked so hard to generate. We're left with an ending that, when all is said and done, just doesn't make a lot of sense.

'The Call' could have been really good; a throwback to the days when you didn't need exploding helicopters or vengeful spirits to create a thriller. A high-end B-movie and I mean that as a high compliment. Instead, it sacrifices its momentum for an out-of-nowhere ending whose circumstances border on the ludicrous.

2.5 out of 5

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