Cellular

September, 2004, Thriller

Directed by:David R. Ellis

Starring:Chris Evans, Kim Basinger, Jason Statham, Eric Christian Olsen, Eric Etebari, with Noah Emmerich, and and William H. Macy

How refreshing; an action thriller that's neither over-long nor inclined to take itself too seriously. While not as accomplished or intelligent as the summer's best in this genre, (The Bourne Supremacy), Cellular benefits from a unique, (if highly improbable) premise, a pair of bracing performances and a pulse-thumping final shoot-out. At a brisk 94 minutes, this one delivers the kind of non-stop machismo which appeals to the adolescent male in (almost) all of us.

Veteran screenwriter Larry Cohen came up with the idea for this movie while writing the screenplay for last year's polar opposite, Phone Booth. In that film, the lead was trapped on a phone within the confines of a highly recognizable physical space; in Cellular, on the other hand, the hero can move about freely, but only to assist Mrs. Jessica Martin, (Kim Bassinger) a frantic housewife and mother who's been kidnapped and left alone in the attic of an abandoned Los Angles home with only a smashed telephone for company. Because she just happens to be a middle-school science teacher, Jessica manages to assemble the bits and pieces of the phone into a one-way plea for help that gets sent to the cell phone of Ryan, (Chris Evans) a twenty-ish beach boy busily hustling sweet young things on Santa Monica's boardwalk. Initially convinced that he's the subject of an elaborate prank, Sean becomes convinced of Jessica's plight and tries to enlist the help of desk sergeant Mooney, (William H. Macy) in tracking Jessica down before the thuggish Greer, (Jason Statham) and the two goons accompanying him can kidnap her son and husband as well. But for what purpose, exactly? 

The kidnappers' boldness and ferocity are initially as inexplicable as their objective, and it's one of Cellular's understated charms that it exposes those elements of the plot only when the action absolutely demands it. Like other, more famous examples of the "predicament" thriller, (North by Northwest, Die Hard) in which an outlandish plot device becomes the propellant of the movie's subsequent action, this one follows Ryan's frantic efforts to stay connected to Jessica as he robs, carjacks and lies his way closer and closer to her abductors while Mooney employs the typical elements of law enforcement procedure in checking out Ryan's improbable request for help. 

Macy, (Fargo, Seabiscuit) embodies the career cop, (nearing retirement without ever firing his gun in the line of duty) a civil servant far more comfortable with police bureaucracy than crime itself. That hang-dog face and slightly apologetic manner seem designed to relegate Mooney to the category of comedic loser, but screenwriter Chris Morgan manages to invert this flatfoot's role as effectively as that of Greer and his violent cohorts. At age 54, Macy continues to take parts in thoroughly conventional films and make something special out of them. He should be awarded an Oscar one day simply for the sustained excellence of his work.

As Greer, Great Britain's Jason Statham, (The Italian Job, Snatch) once again displays the restless energy which makes the characters his portrays capable of anything--in this case, a villainy so palpable the audience's loathing is equaled only by its desire to see him get his comeuppance. With his close-cropped hair and chiseled physique, (a decade ago, the actor was an Olympic diver for England) Statham seems destined to find a great deal of work in the action film genre for which he's very well equipped; like the younger John Travolta, Statham's a true switch hitter, moving back and forth between roles as hero and villain with perfect credibility. 

Cellular would have been considerably more interesting had its principals been better developed; Bassinger's distraught-but-plucky heroine in distress is about as believable as Chris Evans' boyish Ryan. The real charms of this unpretentious thriller lie in the performances of its sidemen and the script's sly ability to gently mock the genre it's so obviously comfortable being part of. If you aren't willing to spend a couple of hours in a theater on this one, earmark it for an evening at home with your DVD in a year or so; when you're in the mood for some mindless action, you won't be disappointed. 

Question; with a garroting, a stabbing, a pair of brutal fistfights, the terrorizing of a woman and her grade-school-aged child and at least 4 deaths by gunshot, why is this film rated PG-13? We're clearly in R-rated country here, with enough profanity scattered throughout the screenplay to confirm that designation. The Motion Picture Rating Association should be ashamed of itself for letting adolescents such easy access to this one.           

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