On the Line was directed and written by Romuald Boulanger (Connectes, Haters) and stars Mel Gibson (Bandit, Mad Max), Alia Seror-O’Neill (Spides, Gelateria), Paul Spera (Something in the Air, Detroit: Become Human), William Moseley (Raven’s Hollow, Land of Dreams), Nancy Tate (A Perfect Plan, 13 French Street), Romy Pointet, and Kevin Dillon (Hot Seat, Wire Room). It’s about a radio host who’s been targeted by a violent caller that threatens the host’s family, with the only way to stop him is to find out his identity.
The Plot: It’s been a long time since a serious movie took the idea of radio shows and ran with it. In that sense, On the Line has a time advantage that allows it to bring a premise that’s been largely neglected since the 90s back to the limelight. Boulanger doesn’t reinvigorate the location, but there’s newfound creativity to witness.
KLAT host Elvis (Gibson) is clocking in for the late-night radio show with his switchboard controller Mary (Seror-O’Neill) and producer Dylan (Moseley) for another shift of witty banter and scathing commentary; one that starts with oddity and goes forward with unease. The movie makes use of standard tropes that stem from a flatlining show that will inevitably pick up steam once the second act gets underway, and a series of introductions to co-workers like Justin (Dillon) who hope the platform falls through. It’s a functional method of setup that has a little kick to it thanks to the closeness of the surroundings and the unusual setting.
Calls begin to come in, and subjects range from divorce to baseball – all familiar territory for Elvis – but once Gary (Spera) gets his foot in the door and his courage up, he begins taunting the hosts with Elvis’ personal details. You’ve seen this kind of thing before, an unknown calls upon someone more established and demands that they capitulate to their demands. Unfortunately, Boulanger has a tough time coming up with a new destination for a time-tested tale. Gary takes Elvis’s wife Olivia (Tate) and daughter Adria (Pointet) and it’s up to Elvis, Dylan, and Mary to figure out who Gary really is and stop him before something drastic happens.
Boulanger has a well-oiled plot and the components to take it to a new time period, which he does to an extent, but it’s the ending that sinks On the Line; the film tries for something subversive instead of consistent, which doesn’t ruin the preceding events, but it does sully them.
The Characters: On the Line again works with the basics of these kinds of thrillers, however, it takes some extra care to shade in the main character and makes allusions to the life of his cohorts. No one is stretching their muscles, but there’s characterization that’s different enough to make the participants interesting.
Elvis has been doing his thing for a long time and hasn’t cared much about shuffling the formula since his titularly named show has had a longstanding degree of success. He’s a gravelly person that makes fun of everyone and everything, which often riles up those he talks to. This is partially a persona, as he’s clearly friendly towards his co-workers and loves his family, and knows how to hold a normal conversation.
But he’s so steadfast in his character that he gets himself into trouble more often than people would like. Since On the Line makes it clear that he’s of a different breed, Elvis becomes easy to root for because of his enjoyable commentary and legitimately useful advice, even if he is a troublemaker.
Production assistants Mary and Dylan aren’t the most fleshed-out apprentices they could’ve been, but they’re good enough. Mary is the only person who can snap back at Elvis with the same kind of wit that he can dish out, making her cut-ins on the show minor highlights when they happen, and she’s the most loyal out of the bunch, making her an asset to de-escalating the situation. Dylan is a new guy from across the pond who doesn’t quite know how to handle the leathery personality, but he’s good at his job and pitches in where he can. Less of a presence for sure, but he’s fine.
It’d be best to hide the details about Gary, but the average viewer will be able to guess at least a few traits and some of his backstory before they’re revealed. Despite this, Spera’s performance, along with the entire rest of the cast, elevates the already decent characters of On the Line.
The Thrills: Some legitimately enthralling moments litter the picture, despite the similarities to other hostage/one-location thrillers that On the Line bears. Punches can be pulled at times, and not everything is a resounding success, but the tension is largely sustained.
As the host enters the building, he’s met with an unhinged listener who thinks he’s the second coming of Christ. It’s an unusual sequence that shows Elvis’s ability to de-escalate a problem on the fly. The man wants to get his message out and is upset the showrunner doesn’t know him, which Elvis quickly catches onto, and spontaneously comes up with a peaceful resolution to the problem, which itself was bordering on bloodshed mere moments into its beginning.
Most of the first 30 minutes is devoted to adding tension to On the Line, and the director does a respectable job with the task. Gary enters the fray and shows some apprehension as he breathes into the mic and leaves, only to return later with vague threats. It doesn’t take long to figure out who they’re directed towards, but thankfully the movie doesn’t treat its audience like they’re clueless, as within the next 7-ish minutes, On the Line scales itself up to forcing Elvis to admit some damaging personal information and allowing Gary to have some direct visuals of the crew.
Not everything works, as there’s a sequence where Gary wants Elvis to leap off the roof of the building, which everyone knows isn’t going to happen as it’s only 40 minutes into the movie. However, the threats get closer to the main characters, which gives the maniac some credulity in his taunts and On the Line some room to work with in the form of multiple floors of the radio station. It starts effectively and escalates with ease, but the last few tricks up Gary’s sleeve do more blood-boiling than blood-chilling.
The Technics: Gibson has been working on lower-budgeted material for the past few years. On the Line doesn’t shake up the pattern, but it’s much better in execution in most ways than its brethren in the scaled-down sweepstakes.
Because the movie has an aural attunement, it’s a relief that the sound team nailed the audio of the picture. Callers have a slight graininess to their voices coming through characters’ headphones, which subtly changes when Elvis puts on both sides of his headset if you listen closely, and the sound design of Gary’s exploits heard over the phone is punchy enough as to not sound flimsy or distant.
Visually, while there might not be much to look at, the location fits the bill just fine and is well-shot by cinematographer Xavier Castro (Aida, Polar), who, again, uses subtle movements to illustrate the thoughts and moods of the characters to good effect. While On the Line is no masterclass in editing a thriller, Pierre-Marie Croquet (Night Fare, Talk) does a very good job with interesting match cuts and keeping the movie progressing towards its end. The ability to stretch funds due to a limited scope is a net positive here.
An ending that feels way out of place and ultimately disappointing does knock On the Line down a level from “very good” to just “good”, but the journey there is an enjoyably tense one bolstered by a fully invested Gibson and some bits of ingenuity to revitalize an old medium.
Saban Films has released On the Line in theatres and on VOD and Digital platforms.