Writer Larry Cohen seems to have an obsession with telephones! His last film Phone Booth featured Colin Farrell spending most of the running time of the film stuck in a phone booth talking to a terrorist who was threatening to kill him if he left the booth. What sounds like a disaster on paper (a man talking to a phone for 90 minutes??!!) turned out to be one of my favourite films of 2003, so I was looking forward to this 'variation on a theme' follow-up from the same writer, which has been available in stores for a couple of years now, but which I only discovered last weekend.
The scenario, this time around, is that kidnapped housewife Jessica Martin (Kim Basinger) finds herself with a damaged phone that is only able to make a call to a random stranger (Chris Evans). Evans' character, who's just been ditched by his girlfriend (played on and off-screen by his real-life girlfriend Jessica Biel) because of his immaturity and inability to commit, is the unlucky recipient of that call. As a result he spends most of the film running around Los Angeles as various events unfold around what the kidnappers are after and what they've done in the past.
The first thing that needs to be said, particularly if your interest in this film is largely down to the afore-mentioned Phone Booth is that although Cohen is credited as writer, the screenplay is credited to Chris Morgan, and it's fairly obvious from the extra's that this involved some pretty major surgery on Cohen's original script, to the point where one wonders if it's just the title and very basic kidnapping premise that's been kept. The end result of these rewrites is that the film lacks the weight or seriousness of Phone Booth, often coming across more as a Crank-style send-up.
Whether you think this less naturalistic style is an improvement over the more serious traditional style will ultimately boil down to whether you like your thrillers to be 'real world' or full of laughs and slightly out-of-whack, as this one undoubtedly is.
I err towards the latter when the end-result is as well-executed as this one is. Undoubtedly the film is a lesser work than Phone Booth, but it's a fun 90 minutes and very enjoyable for all that.
Male lead Chris Evans (best known as Johnny Storm in the Fantastic Four movies, and most recently seen in Danny Boyle's fundamentally flawed Sunshine) is pretty enough to play the lead in a film like this, although for me the jury's still out as to whether he has the depth and ability to become what one female producer rather laughingly calls 'the new Tom Cruise'. OK, the guy has nice pecs and all, but let's not get carried away based on a single, relatively 'easy to play' role. The young actor is certainly easy on the eye, but one can't help thinking that his agent's seeming insistence that he be shown half-naked in every film he's made since this one is going to saddle him with a 'himbo' reputation that can only detract from any real acting talent he may (or may not) have.
The stand-out for me, acting wise, is Kim Basinger in a role that's a real revelation. I hadn't understood why the actress was given an oscar for a pretty average performance in the above-average L.A. Confidential, but here she pulls out all the stops in a difficult 'weepy' role that must have been torture to film.
William H Macy is as effortlessly brilliant as ever, having the film's best comedic lines which, if the included 'Making of' documentary is to be believed, he wrote himself. As a retired cop who encounters Evans character early in the film, he becomes the moral core of the film, desperate to find out if a wrong has been committed before retirement from a job that's had no excitement or thrills for over 25 years.
Given the similarities between this and Crank, it seems odd to have chosen Jason Statham as the lead baddie (again! playing himself again!), but as this film predates Crank it may well be that Cellular is what inspired that film, rather than vice-versa.
Director David R. Ellis delivers visually on a thrill-ride popcorn movie that never lets up the pace. Several pretty outrageous laugh-out-loud moments help release the tension on this almost non-stop on-the-edge-of-your-seat basic chase movie, with some clever lines and scenarios that are clearly giving a knowing wink to those familiar with the general format of the chase genre or just the general nightmares of dealing with modern technology items like the mobile phone.
Weaker movies would set up ludicrous scenarios to enable the 'hero' to escape. Cellular takes more of an approach of 'let's make sure that everything that COULD go wrong DOES go wrong', with some clever plot points based around how mobile phones work (or don't, particularly when you REALLY need them to). It's fun stuff if you can get your head around the intentionally humorous skew and occasional breaking of rules in a film that for the most part had set you up thinking it would follow the usual formula for the genre.
Picture quality on this transfer is superb, and surround sound - when it does feature - helps put you in the middle of the action scenes, of which there are a surprising number, despite the small budget the movie had.
Extra's are fairly generous. The traditional 25 minute 'Making of', Dialling Up Cellular, isn't just the marketing fluff piece it could have been, and is joined by two vaguely associated short documentaries: one on how cellular technology is changing society, the other on the real life 'dirty cop' case that inspired the film.
The director's commentary, mis-credited on the DVD, features the director his 'stunt co-ordinator' sister and 'producer' daughter talking through the film, with the novel approach of phoning up other luminaries (who include New Line CEO Bob Shaye and actor Chris Evans, as well as a whole host of technical crew members) on their cell phones to make comment. It's a lively commentary, albeit one that feels slightly intrusive, as those called up share minutiae of what they're doing at the moment or what they're currently working on with their director/friend, seemingly forgetful that everything is being recorded live for a DVD. One of the most interesting points that comes out is that the DVD commentary was recorded before the film had even been theatrically released.
Cellular is never going to win any academy awards. But for a Saturday night popcorn movie, assuming you can latch onto its self-effacing, and at times too-knowing humour, it's perfect.
Cellular is probably not a DVD you're going to need to own, but it's certainly worth a weekend rental. Recommended!