A film review by Craig J. Koban

CELLULAR jj
½ 

2004, PG-13, 94 mins.

Jessica Martin: Kim Bassinger / Ryan: Chris Evans / Chad: Eric Christian Olsen / Mooney: William H. Macy / Greer: Jason Statham / Ricky Martin: Adam Taylor Gordon / Porsche owner: Rick Hoffman / Craig Martin: Richard Burgi / Ronnie: Eddie Driscoll / Chloe: Jessica Biel

Directed by David R. Ellis / Written by Larry Cohen and Chris Morgan

Cellular Double-sided posterI must be a million miles removed from technology these days.  It seems that every other person rooming the streets has a cell phone.  It’s almost reached a point in modern society where having one has kind of  been put on a pedestal of being almost chic.  By my own admission, I still do not own one, and don’t really altogether plan on purchasing one in the future.  I guess maybe I feel that I have not reached a respectable level of self-importance in my life to feel the necessity of having a phone clasped to my waist 24/7. 

I dunno…maybe the technology intimidates me as well, as so many of its modern features (wireless networks, picture and video recording and playback capabilities) seem kind of more perversely invasive than they seem necessary.  Cell phones, to be sure, are instrumental in key, emergency situations, but for all other reasons they seem like more of an unnecessary evil.  Consider: how many times have you tried to maintain a polite conversation with someone to instantly have it rudely cut short by a redundant and oftentimes meaningless cell phone ring? Too many by my estimation. 

The thriller CELLULAR might beg to differ with my thoughts, and by the end of it I regarded cell phones not so much as an unnecessary evil than as a completely life-saving and necessary device.  The film works kind of like a hybrid of a few very effective action thrillers of recent memory.  Like SPEED, it contains a one-note premise that’s more gimmicky than plausible but nevertheless sustains it by maintaining a respectable level of suspense and intrigue.  Moreover, CELLULAR plays much like PHONE BOOTH, the best thriller of 2002.  That film starred Colin Ferrell as a man trapped by a sniper in a phone booth and must maintain contact with him by phone or pay dearly with his life.  CELLULAR is kind of like an inverse version of that film.  This time, the protagonist is not stationary.  Rather, he is forced by a series of unfortunate and dangerous events to go wherever he needs to in order to save the lives of one woman and her entire family, all while communicating to the woman on his cell phone.  Gee, I hope he has a battery charger with him.

It's no surprise that the writer of CELLULAR, Larry Cohen, also worked on PHONE BOOTH, and I can only imagine him and his collaborators locked in a room somewhere desperately churning out all possible dramatic and suspenseful things that one could possible do to utilize phones in a film.  More than anything, CELLULAR is one of those fast-paced, high-octane thrillers that does, in fact, get a serious amount of mileage from his overly undemanding premise.  It also manages to create a strange sense of plausibility with its handling of all forms of phones, whether it be rotary or cell. 

I found myself buying into the basic premise the more I watched the film and, yes, when the hero’s cell phone battery dies, he takes actions that I am sure all of us would under the circumstances: he goes to a cell phone store and when the rude clerks won't help him, he holds it up!  All things considered, CELLULAR is a textbook exercise in using phones as both plot devices and practical devices as well.  It's just a shame that the film is widely inconsistent with its tone, and seems to force feed us ham-infested and obnoxious comedy when it should be scaring us more. 

Kim Bassinger stars in the film as its victim Jessica, who proves, like Julianne Moore did in THE FORGOTTEN, that you can have a great performance in an otherwise mediocre film.  Like Moore, she very efficiently plays a credible victim;  it's one of her finest performances to date.  Jessica is a high school biology teacher (why biology, you ask…well, it obviously will pay off later).  At the beginning of the film she is abruptly kidnapped after she has dropped off her child at the bus stop for his trip to school.  These invaders catch her at home, slay her housekeeper (what do violent marauders always have with housekeepers in the movies?) and take her to an undisclosed location and lock her in the attic.  The kidnappers are the usual cold and icy lot, led by their cunning and vile boss Greer, played with an effective amount of cool detachment and evil energy by Jason Stratham, who you may remember from THE TRANSPORTER and SNATCH.   

It becomes clear very early on that this is not going to be a normal abduction for ransom.  In actuality, Greer and his men want no money at all.  It appears that he and his men want something from the wife and her husband, and that something I will not reveal, as it would further reveal a relatively surprising twist in the plot.  Basically, the “something” in question represents what Alfred Hitchcock referred to as the “MacGuffin”, that seemingly intangible and undisclosed item that both hero and villain want with equal fortitude that propels the plot forward.  Anyway, the item is of key importance to both parties, and Greer is not even too low to kidnap Jessica’s son as well.  Jessica, a smart woman, understands that since they have allowed her and her family to see who they are that they will eventually die. 

All hope is not lost for Jessica.  At the beginning of the film Greer comes into the attic and smashes a wall phone, thinking that it would impede her abilities to call anyone…or does it?  But, Jessica is an intelligent damsel in distress (a science teacher, remember) and is able to pick up the pieces and in a move that MacGyver would love, manages to connect a series of wires and make a random call.  She reaches the cell phone of a local twentysomething beach bum named Ryan (Chris Evans).  Ryan, obviously, feels he is getting a prank phone call, which is only the first of many steps the makers of the film use to create a realistic level of suspense with technology.  I mean, it's bad to be put on hold when you are desperate for time, but what if you were going to die and could not make another call?  The very idea that Jessica is incapable of dialing Ryan back, necessitating him staying on the line, further creates suspense.  Like SPEED, where if the bus goes below 50 mph, the passengers die, in CELLULAR if Ryan hangs up then Jessica will die. 

Jessica does manage to gain a reasonable amount of curiosity from Ryan, and he does not hang up on her.  He decides to take her word and go to a nearby police station to speak to a cop.  He meets up with one, Mooney (every third desk cop is named this in the movies), played by William H. Macy.  Of course, Mooney does take the call but gets immediately sidetracked.  He tries to refer Ryan to go to the homicide division, but that ends disastrously for Ryan.  Ultimately, Ryan is forced to race out of the police station and continuing on his never-ending quest to find out where Jessica is and save her life before it's too late. 

CELLULAR has a great amount of fun with its basic foundations.   I especially liked the moments of quiet terror in the attic where Jessica is forced to hide the remnants of the phone when Greer comes in to interrogate her.  Moments like that kind of also reiterate what Hitchcock said about the difference between suspense and action in films.  “Action” in films is when two characters are in a room and a bomb suddenly goes off.  “Suspense” is when two characters are in a room and there is a bomb ticking away that the audience knows about but the men don’t.  The scenes in the attic are suspenseful because if Greer finds the phone, all hope is lost.  Yet, the film finds other ways to effectively build suspense, like with the inevitabilities of the cell phone dying, or when another nearby cell phone interferes with the signal.  Moreover, the makers are also able to utilize the contemporary features of the cell phone to make them pay off in believable ways.  Things like being able to pull up the last 50 calls to it to track down certain people, taking still photos at the click of a button, or even (and I hope I am not giving too much away) downloading video files. 

Yet, CELLULAR’s tone is inconsistent all over the map.  PHONE BOOTH had an effective balance between shocking revelations, action, and absurdist and dark comedy.  Even SPEED managed to have a few laughs at the expense of the mayhem.  However, those two films knew that it was the trepidation and tension that were paramount.   CELLULAR seems to spend an uneven amount of time on cheap and needless laughs and subplots, like how Macy’s character wants to retire and develop a day spay with his wife, which further leads to awkward intermittent scenes of him trying on and applying facial products. 

Macy plays the role well in one that kind of reminded me or the worn out, but smart, cop that Robert Duval played in FALLING DOWN.  Macy plays the role with the confidence of an old pro, but he seems above the material.  There is one key moment where a plot detail should have been perceived instantly to him, but instead he forces himself to think on it for what seems like an eternity until, eureka, he gets it!  The audience should never be ahead of the characters in a good thriller.  There is also stilted and would-be comic relief from other supporting characters, like that of a grossly obnoxious lawyer that is so bathed in stereotype that I found him less funny and more annoying.   Many scenes in CELLULAR felt like they were from different films, which kind of distracts from the effective action and thrills it sustains.

CELLULAR is a hit and miss concept film.  I would recommend it as a pleasant diversion into the action/thriller genre that manages to create a discrete amount of plausibility with its gimmick, and it is a gimmick. The actors all do a great job, from Bassinger to Stratham to young Chris Evans (from NOT ANOTHER TEEN MOVIE and the as yet to be released FANTASTIC FOUR), if you exclude Jessica Biel, who serves the only useful function of being the whinny girlfriend figure whose purpose is to complain and look great with an exposed midriff.  The film does play off the technology of phones rather well, and effectively places the hero in most conceivable problems that would arise from using a cell phone.  It’s a developed and not over plotted film, and at 90 minutes it is paced well.  I guess on a thriller scorecard, one check for tension and action, one check for characters, but an "x" for forced and tacked on humor.  A marginal disappointment, to be sure, but with a bit of a re-write, CELLULAR could have eclipsed itself above the level of disposable popcorn escapism.

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