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Dustin Putman

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Cellular (2004)
2 Stars

Directed by David R. Ellis
Cast: Chris Evans, Kim Basinger, William H. Macy, Jason Statham, Noah Emmerich, Jessica Biel, Eric Christian Olsen, Eric Etebari, Valerie Cruz, Eddie Driscoll, Adam Taylor Gordon, Richard Burgi, Brendan Kelly, Matt McColm, Sherri Shepherd, Lin Shaye
2004 – 89 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for violence, language, terror situations, and sexual references).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, September 7, 2004.

It was only a matter of time before a motion picture took the cell phone technology and all of its capabilities and pitfalls and created an entire story revolving around it. The surprise is that it took so long. Directed with savvy gusto by David R. Ellis (2003's "Final Destination 2"), "Cellular" is a taut, crowd-pleasing thriller in which the improbable, if canny, premise is overlooked in exchange for what is an exceedingly fun ride. Think of the film as a cross between 1994's "Speed"—with a cell phone standing in for a bus—and 2003's "Phone Booth," coincidentally written by Larry Cohen, who gets the "story" credit here, and you will have a pretty solid idea of what to expect.

Ryan (Chris Evans) is the kind of handsome slacker who spends most of his days at the beach, unreliable to those around him but coasting by on charm. When he receives a call on his cell phone from a woman named Jessica Martin (Kim Basinger), who earnestly tells him she has been kidnapped and is holed up in an unknown location, his natural first impression is that she is a prank caller. After pleading her case to him—she has managed, by chance, to make a random call on a shattered telephone and he is her only hope for savior—Ryan changes his mind. Having no luck at the police station, Ryan is suddenly thrust into a long, dangerous day of trying to find out where Jessica is, thwart her captors, headed by Greer (Jason Statham), and keep alive their phone connection with each other. If the battery runs out, or the call is lost, Jessica and her family are as good as dead.

The story of a care-free young man who is forced to grow up and take on the responsibility of saving the life of a total stranger, "Cellular" doesn't offer much more depth in Ryan than that, but there is hardly time for character depth in a film, and hero, that has nary a second to sit down and take a breather. The movie, slim as it may be and as contrived as the setup is, enthralls the viewer from the very beginning and doesn't stop piling on one innovative predicament after the next for Ryan to face until its 90-minute running time is over.

The screenplay by Chris Morgan appreciably plays by the rules, not straining the boundaries of one's disbelief on how a cell phone works and what it can and cannot do. Ryan can't drive into any tunnels, the call threatens to break up in stairwells, and it is only so long before his cell gets low on battery. There is further tongue-in-cheek humor throughout that strikes some common truths about the world we live in without getting too silly for its own good. While rushing through slow L.A. traffic, Ryan—on the phone with Jessica—yells at another driver to get off their cell and concentrate on the road. Later, he becomes frustrated when, wouldn't you know it, he gets stuck behind a big truck, blocking his view of the kidnappers' car that he is following. In another scene, while Ryan is stopped at a red light, the beats of rap music move closer until a middle-aged white woman pulls up next to him, her loud radio threatening to give Jessica's secretive call away to Greer on the other end of the line.

As Ryan, this could be Chris Evan's (2004's "The Perfect Score") star-making performance. He is likable, commands the screen with no other prop or character to work off of other than his phone, and is just awkward enough in some of his intense run-in's with the public to make believable that this is a guy who has never broken the law before or raised his voice to get what he wants. As the distraught Jessica, Kim Basinger (2004's "The Door in the Floor") does excellent with an emotionally demanding role, keying vividly into the pure terror and desperation of a woman facing life-threatening circumstances. And, along the way, Evans and Basinger form a tight-knit bond without ever meeting face-to-face until the climax. William H. Macy (2003's "The Cooler") is strong in a quirky supporting role as police officer Mooney, who begins to investigate Jessica's whereabouts on a hunch following his cut-short conversation with Ryan.

As "Cellular" speeds toward its conclusions, a few plot threads are left to unsatisfying closure, including the particulars surrounding a key event that led to the kidnappers' motives and Ryan's rocky relationship with ex-girlfriend Chloe (Jessica Biel). More time could have also been afforded to Jessica's also-in-danger husband (Richard Burgi) and son (Adam Taylor Gordon). These problematic areas, however, don't leave more than a cursory impression on the viewer because, fundamentally, the film is but a plot-driven, action-laden thriller out to entertain as wide of an audience as possible. "Cellular" achieves this goal, bringing suspense and ingenuity into the equation when so few movies in the genre barely seem to try at all.
© 2004 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman