Drivers on their cell phones. Too-loud car stereos. Unhelpful, self-centered people. Cellular might be the first thriller that couldn’t exist without today’s annoyance factor, but does it ever move.
Beating with the pounding pulse of the best B-movie rides, it’s every bit the telephone-based heartstopper that the miserable Phone Booth promised to be. Maybe that’s because someone wisely blocked any incoming screenplay calls from Larry Cohen, who wrote Phone Booth but gets only a story credit here.
Chris Morgan’s screenplay is smart without being too clever for its own good, finds a wicked sense of humor in its narrative opportunities and never tries to turn its everyday characters into superheroes despite the extraordinary situation they find themselves in.
The film begins serenely as we meet Jessica Martin, a science teacher walking her young son to the bus stop. Jessica is played by Kim Basinger, but for all the movie ultimately requires of her, the filmmakers could have selected someone off the street.
Soon afterward, she’s kidnapped and thrown in the attic of a remotely located house, where the head kidnapper (Jason Statham) smashes the phone and her hopes of connecting with the outside world.
Ah, but he forgets she’s a science teacher, able to cross the wires of the junked phone and somehow connect with surfer guy Ryan (Chris Evans). He takes her plea for help as a joke until he hears the threats.
So begins a wild ride through Los Angeles as Ryan must stay connected with Jessica, find out why she’s been nabbed and save her and her family from death.
In the way Ryan must keep a signal with Jessica at all costs (avoiding stairwells and tunnels), Cellular is somewhat like Speed. And David R. Ellis’ direction establishes a similarly brisk, go-with-the-moment rush. It also leaves room for wonderful bits of irony swiftly woven into the ticking-clock plot.
More known for comedic roles in forgettable teen flicks, Evans impresses as a man given the ultimate test of his capacity for responsibility. When he hears Statham’s menace over the phone, he reacts convincingly. And though the movie has him pull off impressive feats of quick intelligence, he remains a relatively smart surfer. The movie even earns a laugh in his futile attempts to talk tough with Statham near the film’s conclusion.
The same rule holds true for William H. Macy, flawless character actor that he is, turning up as a cop ready to call it quits and run a day spa after 27 years on the force. Though he doesn’t seem like a study in quick wit when introduced, he hasn’t logged all those years for nothing, as shown in the film’s third act.
Even given these impressive performances, the movie remains gleefully aware of its silliness. Why else would composer John Ottman drop a few well-placed phone tones into his score? And with lines like “This has really been fun, but now you’re wasting my minutes” and Macy’s doozy of a send-off, it’s hard to call any of this classic thriller material.
But Cellular is as high-energy as it is high-tech, and that’s part of its guilty-pleasure charm.