On The Line is a psychological thriller from writer/director Romuald Boulanger starring Mel Gibson as controversial talkback radio host Elvis Cooney who is a dinosaur.
On the radio for 40 years and dealing with crazy listeners for 30 of them, Elvis Cooney has seen it all. With his late-night call-in talk show ‘On the Line’, he gives advice and entertains Los Angeles’ inhabitants daily. With a penchant for pushing the envelope his own way and a distain for ‘new media’ (TikTok, Instagram etc.), this has led to dwindling listenership. Joined by his switchboard operator Mary (Alia Seror-O’Neill) and his new young producer Dylan (William Moseley), it is a night like any other until Elvis receives a call from Gary (Paul Spera), an unhinged listener who wants to deliver some karma for the 40 years’ worth of Elvis being a shock-jock.
On The Line is based on a short film by Boulanger, ‘Talk’ starring William Baldwin. Winning over 60 awards worldwide from various film festivals, ‘Talk’ was destined to receive a feature length extension. Although replaced by Gibson in the movie, Baldwin does stay on as executive producer.
Something of a combination of ‘Phone Booth’ and ‘Frasier’, this has a compelling premise. I have recently been listening to a lot over the last few years to old episodes of ‘Opie & Anthony’ and ‘Ron & Fez’, two defunct popular American satellite (ie: uncensored) radio shows not too dissimilar from ‘On the Line’. So, it was interesting seeing a film based so heavily around the dying medium of talkback radio.
This is something I appreciated that the script actually touches on. With Elvis‘ program director, Sam Dubois (Nadia Farès) trying to push him into social media and the like. It helped to establish Elvis as a cocky guy who did things his own way to a fault. I did like that the film highlighted that Elvis is kind of a jerk, as most shock-jocks naturally are. This could have been played up a little more, as much of the impetus behind Gary‘s call is payback for what an asshole Elvis actually is.
However, we only see a little bit of this behaviour and some of it we never even see. We are only told about it. Mel Gibson, despite all controversy, is still a highly charismatic and likeable actor. Hell, there was an entire Simpsons episode about it for a reason! It would have been interesting seeing Elvis‘ true nature exposed more and more as the film went on. But as it stands, Gary‘s motivations for such revenge unfortunately just didn’t click with me.
It’s a pity because this is an actor’s movie. We only ever see things from Elvis’ side of the call. Boulanger has taken a method approach to playing all dialogue and sound effects from the intense calls on set. Every smash, breaking glass, and gunshot is heard by the actors, and it shows, with some authentic performances.
Gibson, not a stranger to manic phone calls, is characteristically intense in this film. He elevates On The Line with his performance but unfortunately shows up the rest of the production in doing so. He gives an A-List performance in an otherwise B-Grade, though very enjoyable, film.
The supporting cast do well to back Gibson up too; Moseley in particular in the sidekick role as Dylan is great as Elvis drags him along for the ride, Seror-O’Neill as Mary felt like she had more to give, while the criminally underrated Kevin Dillon appears in an almost ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ role as a rival DJ.
I think the biggest weakness of On The Line is not having an antagonist who adequately rivals Gibson‘s screen presence. Paul Spera, who reprises his role from the short film, unfortunately isn’t up to the task. Mel Gibson is an actor with an incredible amount of screen presence. The antagonist has none and his attempts to sound threatening come off as cringy.
Managing expectations, On The Line is still an exciting movie and another example of perseverance through Covid lockdowns. I was also caught off guard by the film’s ending which even with some plot holes, managed to turn me around and bring a massive smile to my face.
On The Line is in cinemas from November 17.