'Cellular': No Hang-Ups

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By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 10, 2004

There ought to be a small place in heaven for movies like "Cellular." Now they almost never make them, but from the '30s through the '60s they were a Hollywood staple: efficient programmers, taut, tight killer B's, churned out in the hundreds, unstudied and unloved, but perfect on the undercard of a double feature, then gone forever in a week.

I doubt "Cellular" will last much longer than that (though, of course, movies now have afterlives on tape or disc) but I enjoyed every one of its 89 minutes. It's so brisk it's like a whiff of ammonia after a month in a treacle factory.

The premise: Stay on the line or somebody dies.

In Los Angeles' Brentwood neighborhood, a middle-age woman (played by Kim Basinger) is brutally kidnapped for reasons that make no sense to her. She is, after all, a science teacher married to a real estate agent. Her abductors take her to a safe house, then ask her over and over where "it" is, and she has no idea what they are talking about. Then they set out to pick up her son and her husband. Before her kidnappers seal her in the attic, they smash a phone on the wall.

She's a science teacher, remember? She understands a little about wires. So she tries to reassemble the phone, splicing this exposed copper end to that and ends up somehow getting a random call out to . . . a surfer dude (Chris Evans).

Like, excuse me, lady, I have, you know, a life! Yeah, you're kidnapped like I'm a movie star. Uh-huh. Now, surf's up, time to hang ten, and . . . oh, please, the crying, come on, you don't think I'm going to fall for that?

The movie is built around the fragile transmission, an apt metaphor of our fractured age. It's about people talking on the phone, but always at risk: The technology itself or the emotional connection between conversants is dangerously volatile. Joe Bob Briggs, the legendary outlaw movie reviewer, once said his highest accolade for a horror film was that "Anybody can die at any moment." This is the cellular version of that profound concept: Any call can be cut off at any moment, and when that happens, pretty lady in attic, then her son, then her husband, all will be dead, and it all hangs on this silly kid with the pecs and the tattoos and the 20-year-old's horndog lust for anything with breasts.

The plot is the brainchild of old pro screenwriter Larry Cohen (first credit: 1947), who is reported to have pointed out that it's exactly the opposite of his last movie, 2002's "Phone Booth." In that one, a guy was on the phone, but couldn't go anywhere. In this one, he's on the phone but he can go everywhere; he just doesn't know where he should go.

He goes to the cops, which brings a retiring desk officer named Mooney into the story, well played by old pro William H. Macy (first credit: 1978), under a shellac of perfectly cut and sprayed cop hair (where do the guys get those haircuts and why do they all have them?). Moon, as he is called by his supervisor, approaches the mystery from the policeman's angle, trying to track the woman through traffic records, trying to make sense of mounting discrepancies, trying to get it to add up.

Both Basinger and Evans are good as they cling to each other through the airways, but what's so brilliant about the concept is how it turns on the feebleness of the most ubiquitous piece of technology in America today. These little plastic beggars always let you down, and everyone knows it. Treachery is their nature, their point, their only thrill in life. They live to fail, and up in cell-phone Valhalla they drink grog, chase wenches and laugh at the trauma they've caused. That little beep signifying Low Battery: It always comes on the one call per month that really matters. The movie plays expertly with that anxiety.

The director, new pro David R. Ellis (first credit: 1996), working from Chris Morgan's screenplay from Cohen's idea, manages the action exceedingly well, as through thin and thick, poor Ryan must above all keep the phone alive. The movie lays out his ordeal by dying battery against the frustrations of everyday life, so he's always fighting traffic, lines in stores, construction projects, rude jerks in Porsches, tunnels that will smother the signal, to keep the signal hot. ("Speed" had much the same underlying idea: The bus had to stay at 50 mph.)

Meanwhile, as Ryan races across the blighted precincts of Los Angeles trying to warn first Jessica's son and then her husband, he comes closer and closer to the very bad people behind it all, particularly the Brit brute Jason Stratham, who always makes a nasty villain.

This unpretentious little bit of superior craftsmanship will be utterly mesmerizing to two kinds of people in particular: those who love cell phones and those who hate them.

Cellular (89 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 rated, but seems very close to the R line in its violence and psychological brutality.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company

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