Cellular (United States, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Cellular is a nearly perfectly executed "high concept" thriller, that, like Speed and Phone Booth, uses a gimmicky setup but is paced so relentlessly that you don't have time to dwell upon the obvious implausibility of the situation. (It should be noted that Larry Cohen was involved in writing both Cellular and Phone Booth.) When you step in to a theater to see David R. Ellis' movie, you either agree to buy into the premise or not. In the latter case, you should look for another film. In the former, you're in for an entertaining ride.

Jessica Martin (Kim Basinger) is a high school science teacher living a comfortable life in a non-descript Southern California community. One day, after sending her son, Ricky (Adam Taylor Gordon), off to school, her routine is rudely interrupted. A group of thugs, led by the implacable Greer (Jason Statham), breaks into her home, kidnaps her, and whisks her away to an unknown location. Once there, she is locked in an attic. There's a phone there, but Greer smashes it with a sledge hammer to make sure she can't use it to facilitate an escape. But the phone isn't quite dead. By touching two wires together, Jessica is able to make phone calls to random numbers. When she gets Ryan (Chris Evans) on the line, there's something in her distressed voice that keeps him from hanging up. At first, he doesn't believe her, but he nevertheless agrees to take her story to a cop named Mooney (William H. Macy), who listens patiently to the story, but is then distracted. As a result, it's Ryan to the rescue when Greer's thugs head over to Ricky's school to add the boy to their hostage collection. Acting on information from Jessica about where to find her son, he ends up in a race with the bad guys to see who can find Ricky first.

Any possible cell phone cliché you can possibly imagine comes into play here: a dying battery, poor signal strength, crossed signals, ringing at inopportune moments, and dropped calls. Because it's imperative that Jessica and Ryan are not disconnected (she can't reconnect because the broken phone doesn't dial normally, and he can't call her because the criminals will answer), Cellular gains much of its tension by maneuvering Ryan around all sorts of obstacles to keep the call active while soliciting help from the police, looking for Jessica, and trying to prevent her son and husband from joining her. (At one point, he ends up at a cell phone store where mindless salesmen tell him to take a number and stand in line while the "low battery" warning light on his phone flashes.) And, when Greer becomes aware of Ryan's existence, that's when things start to get ugly. Cellular also contains other staples of the action genre, including car chases, foot chases, shoot outs, fights, and an annoying character whose only role is to provide comic relief (Rick Hoffman).

This isn't really an actors' movie, so it's no surprise that there aren't any stand-out performances. Kim Basinger and Chris Evans are adequate - they do what the script requires of them, but not a lot more. William H. Macy essentially plays the kind of role he has become known for - a reluctant, unlikely hero. All he really wants to do is open a day spa, but circumstances force him to proceed with a dogged investigation that involves him with Ryan in the over-the-top climax. Jason Statham, a veteran "hard guy" from British gangster films, is perfectly cast as the chief villain. With his nasty sneer and chilling stare, it's hard to find someone more intimidating.

Cellular reliably entertains for its 90-minute running time. Using the clever premise, it packs a lot of thrills into a short space while keeping the level of tension consistently high. There's time for exposition, but never so much that it breaks the action for too long. The storyline is cleverly developed, but not overplotted. In addition, even though the cell phone is used as a multi-functional tool, it never does anything more than a real-world phone (circa 2004) can do. It takes pictures and video, makes calls, and stores numbers. And, like the device I have clipped to my belt, it can be as annoyingly inconsistent as it is liberating. Cellular is a popcorn movie, but you may end up gripping the armrest before you have emptied the bag. And don't forget to turn off your own phone - if it rings during the movie, you'll jump two feet.

Cellular (United States, 2004)

Run Time: 1:34
U.S. Release Date: 2004-09-10
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1