Larry Cohen, the king of the low-budget high-concept movie, is credited with the story idea behind this thriller about a fellow who takes a call from a kidnapped woman on his cell phone and has to remain on the line with her (and eventually engage in acts of extreme derring-do) if she’s to have any hope of survival. Of course it’s impossible to say what the script by that supreme shlockmeister–written as a sort of mirror image of his “Phone Booth” scenario earlier filmed by Joel Schumacher–did with the premise, but it must have been more clever and mischievously amusing than what Chris Morgan has contrived. “Cellular,” as the picture directed with flash but not much weight by David R. Ellis is titled, isn’t just wireless–it’s also brainless and virtually suspense-less, with plot holes so large you could drive the hero’s lime-green Bronco through them. By its protracted finale, watching the picture has become as infuriating as the failing batteries and bad connections the victim and her hero have to put up with so often as the narrative unfolds. Despite the fraternal connection with Schumacher’s movie, the real precursor here is “Speed,” but that surprise 1994 hit was given far greater excitement by Jan De Bont’s pulsating direction, and it also boasted a romantic element that’s absent here.
Chris Evans, best known (or perhaps notorious is the better word) for his leading role in the execrable “Not Another Teen Movie,” is cast as Ryan, a supremely shallow twenty-something who’s surprised to get a call from a woman he doesn’t know–Jessica Martin (Kim Basinger), a high school teacher who’s been abducted by a band of nefarious thugs headed by nasty Ethan (Jason Statham) and imprisoned in a basement. She’s somehow repaired a phone her captor has smashed and manages to make a random call by tinkering with the wires. At first Ryan thinks the whole thing might be a prank, but goes to the police anyway–but when the effort is disrupted by a mini-riot at the station, he decides for some reason not to try to contact the authorities again and instead devotes his day to doing the job himself, despite the danger. Luckily for the plot, if not the audience, he can hear Ethan and his chums planning their moves over the open line, so despite the fact that as the narrative progresses Jessica’s husband Craig (Richard Burgi) and their young son Ricky (Adam Taylor Gordon) have also fallen into the gang’s clutches, Ryan’s mock heroics, which require him continually to violate the law (a running gag), eventually win out. (Happily one of the unlikely plot twists provides him with a gun, which he uses on a number of occasions, and he also has to hijack a car–but since it belongs to the sort of big-mouthed lawyer everyone loves to hate, that’s perfectly okay.) And, of course, like many of the initially callow men who populate Hitchcock’s films, he matures in the process.
Unlike the master’s protagonists, unfortunately, Ryan is sadly deficient in charm. His major avocation, it appears, involves capturing pictures of nubile beach babes on his video phone while strolling on the boardwalk with his airheaded buddy–which makes him more a minor-league pervert than a guy you want to root for; and his ability to assume the role of quick-thinking, athletically impressive hero comes across as so preposterous that even the infinitesimal smidgen of plausibility a farfetched plot like this needs to work is lacking. Evans manages to make the fellow’s lightweight side completely credible, but not the rest. Meanwhile Basinger has the thoroughly thankless chore of sobbing profusely into her sort-of phone while waiting for one or another of her captors to come in and rough her up a bit. It’s a dreadful performance, but the fault lies more with the material than with her. Statham does his customary stone-faced scowl as the chief villain, who turns out to be a depressingly familiar figure in crime stories having to do with Los Angeles, and the remainder of the supporting cast are forgettable with the exception of Rick Hoffman as that utterly odious lawyer and William H. Macy, who makes the stock character of a cop, inevitably on the verge of retirement, who joins Ryan to save the day at the close so likable that you smile with pleasure whenever he appears, no matter how implausible the circumstances (and how beneath him the role is). “Cellular” has been given a spiffy production, with decent cinematography by Gary Capo and solid stunt work (the coordinator was Freddie Hice, though it’s difficult to differentiate between what constitutes a stunt and what a visual effect). But while John Ottman’s background score tries to pump up the tension, it doesn’t succeed.
“Cellular” isn’t as bad as some of the action flicks Hollywood is mass-manufacturing nowadays, and viewers willing to park their brains in the lobby may find it a tolerable time-waster. But it’s an empty shell of a movie, nothing more than a chain of recycled cliches. As Barbara Stanwyck might have said, “Sorry, Wrong Number.”