Dumb young buck Ryan is “irresponsible, self-centered, and completely childish,” his girlfriend informs him — and, notably, the audience as well — as Cellular opens. Fortunately for his romantic prospects and our amusement, mere moments later Kim Basinger will randomly call his cell phone, insist on his helping her get unkidnapped by Really Bad Guys, and give him the opportunity to become responsible, unselfish, and totally grownup.
That’s the kind of flick Cellular is: goofily obvious when it isn’t unexpectedly exciting. It’s one of those movies that succeeds partly by not being anywhere near as bad as you were expecting it to be — by being, really, not so bad at all, much to one’s shocked surprise. Seriously, I was anticipating two hours of that annoyingly pseudo-hip Elvis Costello-ish guy from the TV commercials who wanders around saying “Can you hear me now?” into his cell phone — and why o why won’t someone kidnap him? — and instead the goofily obvious stuff is more than made up for by the suspense and the humor. Okay, by the end it kinda descends into gunfights and the usual Hollywood stuff, like it ain’t a real movie if someone doesn’t get shot, but there’s actually only one really stupid moment, wherein if Ryan had asked a simple, obvious question the movie would have ended, but that doesn’t happen until at least halfway through the film, so there’s another good thing.
Cellular is sorta like Open Water in the sense that, if you’ve only heard a quickie summary of the premise — here, kidnapped woman calls dude’s cell phone and asks him to help her — the first thing you think is, That’d never work. Like: Why doesn’t the kidnapped woman just call 911 instead of the random dude? Why doesn’t the random dude just hang up and call 911? And so on. But go see the film, cuz it all makes sense… if you don’t think too much about it. Which you won’t because you get caught up in it instantly, in the anxiety and dread created by what are now everyday occurrences: calls that get dropped when you go into a tunnel, batteries that go dead when you’re on the phone too long. The only scary thing we don’t get to see is Ryan’s face when he gets his phone bill.
If it all sounds like the mirror image of last year’s Phone Booth, well, it is: screenwriter Larry Cohen wrote both films (screenwriter Chris Morgan helped spiff this one up, though Cohen’s original script, from what I hear, had lots more shades of gray and moral ambiguities), and he created Cellular as a deliberate inverse. This new flick isn’t quite as urgently relevant as the first one was, even if it is often quite funny in its sendup of our love of cell phones, but it does cleverly weave Los Angeles’s on-the-go car culture into the warp of the story as effectively as Booth took advantage of New York City’s on-foot street life to up the ante. Credit to director David R. Ellis, who lives down the anti-promise of his previous film, the awful Final Destination 2, for keeping this so tight that we don’t start seeing the plot holes till long after the film ends. But that car chase through wrong-way traffic is still stolen from Ronin.
Who’da thunk Low Signal: The Movie would be so much fun? Chris Evans (The Perfect Score) is wonderfully ingratiating as Ryan, after those initial moments when he’s being that childish dolt. Jason Statham (The Italian Job, Ghosts of Mars) is pretty darn intense as the head kidnapper, like you can believe he might actually do something as un-Hollywood as kill Kim Basinger, and Basinger (The Door in the Floor, 8 Mile) continues to amaze in her mini-comeback, here managing to project both strength and vulnerability as a woman who refuses to be a victim. But the best thing about Cellular might be national treasure William H. Macy (Spartan, Seabiscuit) as a cop who stumbles into the kidnapping case — he’s unflappably dignified even when the movie does its best to demean him. Which may well be the best metaphoric description of the film itself: against all odds, Cellular ain’t the crank call it so easily could have been.