Whatever you do, don't hang up

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I haven't yet seen major Hollywood shifts caused by Sept. 11 and other terrorist alarms, but that doesn't mean the movie world has been untouched by recent tragedies. Two films opening Friday bear this out.

When it went before the cameras, Phone Booth surely seemed like nothing more than a catchy suspense picture. When it came due for release last fall, though, it seemed like a cinematic riff on the latest headlines.

Executives at Twentieth Century Fox pulled it from their schedule lest its story - about a rifle-wielding gunman threatening violence from an unseen perch - be perceived as uncomfortably close to the exploits of the so-called Beltway snipers sparking fear in the D.C. area.

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This isn't the first time a thriller has been shuffled to the sidelines because of current events. Something eerily similar happened when Peter Bogdanovich's chilling "Targets" opened around the time of Martin Luther King's assassination in 1968.

"Phone Booth" is a less interesting movie, and its high-voltage story certainly aims at shock value. Yet it has undertones of serious commentary on American violence, thanks to the screenplay by Larry Cohen, who often uses horror-film plots to explore cracks and contradictions in society.

The main character is a self-centered yuppie (Colin Farrell) who answers a ringing pay phone on a Manhattan street, then discovers he's talking with a psychopath (Kiefer Sutherland) who threatens to shoot him down if he dares hang up.

Soon others are drawn into the crisis - a cop, a girlfriend - as the yuppie scrambles for a way to escape the assassin's invisible cross hairs.

"Phone Booth" would have been more flamboyant if Jim Carrey had played the main character, as originally planned, but his over-the-top energy might have thrown off the story's balance between suspense and irony. Mr. Farrell manages to hold the screen while leaving enough emotional space for other characters. Credit also goes to Joel Schumacher, who has directed Mr. Cohen's script with hardly a wasted move.

The story of The Guys grows directly from the Sept. 11 disasters, as distilled in a play by Anne Nelson, on which Jim Simpson's movie is based. Anthony LaPaglia plays a New York fire chief facing the responsibility of delivering eulogies for several comrades killed on Sept. 11, and Sigourney Weaver plays a freelance journalist who agrees to help him put his feelings into words.

Most of the film presents their conversations as he reminisces about his colleagues and she molds his recollections into proper, touching prose.

"The Guys" is a very well-meaning movie, and it will stand in future years as an eloquent memorial to the World Trade Center tragedy. Its shortcoming is that it has little new to tell or teach us. In the end, it resembles the eulogies its characters are writing, heartbreakingly sincere but aimed more at the heart than the mind.

'Phone Booth,' rated R, contains violence. 'The Guys,' rated PG, contains discussion of the Sept. 11 tragedies.

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