Cellular: roamin' holiday.

Cellular: roamin' holiday.

Cellular: roamin' holiday.

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Sept. 9 2004 6:59 PM

Roamin' Holiday

A thriller without any hang-ups: Cellular.

No, I don't want to switch long distance providers
No, I don't want to switch long distance providers

The gimmick of the crackerjack thriller Cellular (New Line) is hilariously suited to our mobile-communications age, and for the epicenter of mobile blabbing, Los Angeles. A Brentwood woman, Jessica Martin (Kim Basinger), gets brutally kidnapped and tossed into an attic. There's a phone on the wall up there—why, I can't tell you: You don't dwell on stuff like that in a good thriller. But just when she's about to pick up the receiver, the chief kidnapper (Jason Statham), a hulking guy with a buzz cut, strolls in and smashes it to bits with a sledgehammer. (I'd have just slid it off the wall and brought it downstairs—but you don't dwell on stuff like that in a good thriller.) Jessica hears a dial tone and realizes that the connection hasn't been broken, so she taps the wires against each other, hoping to get through to someone—anyone. And she does: to the cell phone of Ryan (Chris Evans), a studly good-for-nothing on the Santa Monica Pier surrounded by oodles of babes on roller skates. He's not a guy who'd normally buy a line like, "Help me, I've been kidnapped, I think they're going to kill me"—but hearing Basinger whine for, like, five minutes without stopping for breath is impressive enough to halt anyone in his tracks.

Speaking of not stopping for breath: The 75 minutes that follow are relentless. If thrills and spills like the ones in Cellular have been the stuff of melodrama since Pauline was tied to the tracks, mobile phones give a filmmaker more opportunities for cross-cutting and more weird hurdles to jump. Ryan goes up a police-station stairwell to the robbery-homicide division—and he's on the verge of losing that precious signal! The cell phone flashes "low battery"—and he's on the verge of losing that precious signal! He drives by an obnoxious lawyer and he does lose that precious signal—but the lawyer picks it up on his mobile phone, and Ryan steals not only the twerp's deluxe Nokia but, after his battered vehicle is promptly crushed by a semi, his new car. Then Ryan promptly takes off into a tunnel—oh, no! A tunnel! Time to back up into onrushing traffic. …

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A thriller like Cellular is a kind of exquisite torture machine, a contraption engineered to deliver pleasure and pain in just the right proportions. You get squeezed, then tickled, then jolted. You think you're going to suffocate; then you can breathe; then you find that the grip has suddenly gotten tighter. That all sounds rather kinky, I know. But a thriller that isn't kinky isn't much of a thriller. And Cellular has the best kinky phone gimmick since Sorry, Wrong Number (1948).

This new model converts to a gun
This new model converts to a gun

Larry Cohen thought it up. He's the visionary exploitation maven (It's Alive! [1974], God Told Me To [1976]) who also wrote the script for Phone Booth (2002), the one about the sniper who kept Colin Farrell on the line for 90 minutes: fun for half an hour but obviously stagebound, and with an outrageously lame payoff. As rewritten by Chris Morgan, Cellular has more balls in the air and more (and better) climaxes. The irresistible William H. Macy plays a hangdog desk sergeant with a brush mustache: He's preoccupied with opening a beauty salon—or, as he insists, a "day spa"—but he can't stop thinking about the freaky kid with the cell phone who tried to tell him a woman had been kidnapped. There's texture galore from an army of bit players caught on the fly (and left in the dust). And I'd love to have been the extras casting director on this movie: Almost every shot is teeming with nubile California lovelies in minimal dress.

Cellular is exciting without being assaultive. As Ryan hurtles from the pier to downtown L.A. to LAX and back to the pier, finally tussling himself with the bad guys, the action is amazingly fluid. The director, David Ellis, isn't some young punk: He has been a stunt coordinator and second unit director on some big features. I'm grateful to A.O. Scott for alerting me in 2003 to Ellis' Final Destination 2, a remarkable piece of craftsmanship—and remarkably cruel, too, full of intricate and splattery set pieces. There's nothing so sadistic in Cellular, but Ellis has the same knack for making a Rube Goldberg machine in which no cog turns, no lever twists, and no ball drops quite where you expect it.

Although Statham—veteran of assorted overdirected Guy Ritchie films and the hero of The Transporter (2002)—has real charisma, managing to be magnetic and threatening in the same instant, the MacGuffin is forgettable. And so is newcomer Evans as the hero: He's fine from moment to moment, but I doubt I'd recognize him on the street. But Basinger hits some shuddery notes of grief when the bad guys go after her little son: It almost makes up for her bad-mother turn in The Door in the Floor (2004). Her sobbing pleas via that slender silicon fiber give Cellular its core of humanity. You could almost believe that it's more than a rollercoaster ride, that it's about our miraculous modern interconnectedness. Until the cell phone of the jerk at the end of the row goes off. …

David Edelstein is the chief film critic for New York magazine and a film critic for NPR’s Fresh Air.