Halle Berry stars in "The Call." (Greg Gayne / Sony-TriStar Pictures via AP)
Rated R for strong violence and language.
Halle Berry’s new thriller “The Call” is built on a simple yet irresistible narrative premise:
A teenage girl who has been abducted by a psycho manages to reach the Los Angeles 911 dispatch center via a concealed cellphone. Of course, it’s her friend’s disposable phone that can’t be pinpointed by GPS.
So 911 dispatcher Jordan Turner (Berry) and her colleagues — along with everyone in the audience — can only sit helplessly, hearts in throats, listening to the girl’s anguished pleas and hoping against hope that the police (including Jordan’s hunky boyfriend, Paul, played by Morris Chestnut), can find her in time.
The psycho is Michael Foster (Michael Eklund), a suburban family man with deep, dark, borderline incestuous secrets involving the sister he idolized, who wasted away and died of cancer years earlier.
Foster has the girl, Casey Welson (Abigail Breslin of “Little Miss Sunshine,” all grown up), locked in the trunk of a car as he whisks her across the Los Angeles Basin to the secret lair that every screen psycho is obligated to maintain under Screen Actors Guild regulations.
Along the way, Jordan keeps Casey on the line, getting her to kick out a taillight and wave an arm to attract other drivers, then empty a can of paint out the hole to spatter on the highway as a marker for police to look for.
Naturally, all of these efforts go awry, as innocent bystanders who try to help (including Michael Imperioli, forever Christopher of “The Sopranos” fame) pay a steep price for sticking their noses in.
For a solid 45 minutes, director Brad Anderson, in his feature-film debut after almost 15 years in TV, and neophyte screenwriter Richard D’Ovidio deftly milk every drop of breathless tension from this arm’s-length gambit in one long, adrenaline-soaked rush.
In fact, the story is so beguiling that you may start to wonder, “How come this flick has gotten hardly any publicity?”
Well, there’s a reason.
Slightly more than halfway through, it turns into a completely different movie — and not for the better.
The transformation begins just as hope seems lost. Casey has gone offline, the cops already have raided Foster’s remote cottage and come up empty, and all other leads have dried up.
The sinking feeling starts to set in when Jordan decides to pay a last visit to that spooky cottage.
Alone. At 2 a.m.
She finds a hidden trapdoor in the dirt near the cottage, pulls it open and finds a rickety ladder leading down into blackness. She takes out her cellphone to call the police … and accidentally fumbles it into the pit.
I won’t dish any further on what happens next, but it’s no exaggeration to say that the final half-hour of this film is stuffed with the hoariest, cheesiest big-screen thriller clichés imaginable, to the point that the audience at my screening burst out laughing at least four separate times — with the biggest guffaws reserved for the very last scene.
It’s as remarkable as it is inexplicable, underscored by a complete absence of irony or self-awareness on the part of Anderson and D’Ovidio. Jump the shark? This film jumps Sea World with room to spare.
And coming hard on the heels of that smart, gripping first half, the silly, headlong flight off the rails in the late going feels even weirder.
Berry, who has starred in some real clunkers for an actress of her caliber, gives it her all to the end, and Breslin remains a talent on the rise (and is young enough to survive a debacle like this without too much damage).
But they can’t salvage the final scenes of “The Call.” Unless you like your serious thrillers laced with unintentional humor, you’re better off hanging up and waiting for this one to hit cable — which shouldn’t take very long.
Three stars for the first half. Zero for the second half.