The Cohen Case Files: Cellular (2004)

Story by Larry Cohen

There’s a subtext to Cellular that is inadvertent and generally more interesting than the actual movie.  Even though the filmmakers weren’t trying to make a film that points out how quickly technology changes and becomes obsolete, the space of a few years has turned the film into just such a story.

The surface plot of the film is as disposable as the technology at its heart.

Jessica Martin (Kim Basinger) is a high school biology teacher living a charmed life.  She’s married to Craig (Richard Burgi), a successful real estate agent.  They have a stereotypically cute little boy named Ricky (Adam Taylor Gordon), who she walks to the school bus in an early scene as clichéd as it is dangerous to diabetics.  The point is made abundantly clear: Jessica has a perfectly ordinary and comfortable life, so logic states that nothing unusual should ever happen to her or those she loves.  But real-world logic has no place in studio action films, so it’s no surprise when chaos and destruction in the form of Ethan (Jason Statham) crashes into Jessica’s life.

Breaking into her house with a crew of interchangeable (and therefore, disposable in the third act) thugs, Ethan unceremoniously shoots Jessica’s housekeeper and kidnaps our hapless heroine.  Thrown into the attic of a strange house with no chance of escape, Jessica turns to her only means of contacting the outside world: a wall telephone that Ethan shatters into a thousand pieces.  Using the scientific talents she picked up from her training as a biology teacher (I am assuming this is the case, because no other explanation is given for how she has the knowledge to pull off such a trick), Jessica connects some wires in the phone to dial a random number.  The party on the other end of that random number is Ryan (Chris Evans).

To put it bluntly, Ryan is a cipher–even more so than Jessica.  When we first meet him, he’s glumly wandering Santa Monica pier on a beautiful day, ignoring his best friend Chad (Eric Christian Olsen) as he goes on about the amazing video function on Ryan’s new phone (and if you don’t think that video function will come in handy by the end of the film, you’ve apparently never seen a mainstream Hollywood thriller in your life).  You see, Ryan is sulking over a break up with his girlfriend.  And that’s all we know about Ryan.  We don’t know what he does for a living, if he has any siblings, if he’s a nice guy who didn’t deserve to be dumped, or if he’s a jerk who deserved getting the heave-ho.  Nope, all we know about Ryan is he has just been dumped, has a cool new phone that can shoot videos, and apparently has a job that allows him time to wander the beaches of Santa Monica, possibly stalking his ex-girlfriend.

Thankfully, once Ryan answers Jessica’s call, the film’s creaky plot starts rumbling forward at a pace that makes character development (and logic) a moot point.

When Ryan’s initial plan of just turning the panicked call over to a cop (William H. Macy, in a typically scene-stealing turn) fails because of the bureaucracy of the police department and a fading cell phone signal (Did I forget to mention Ryan can’t disconnect the call because he might not ever be able to reconnect to Jessica’s number?), he’s forced to take matters into his own hands.  From trying to prevent the bad guys from snatching Jessica’s son from school to finding her husband before the villains, Ryan is sent racing across the greater Los Angeles area with a cell phone pressed against his ear for most of the film’s running time.

Cellular is a film that is better than it has any right to be.  Yes, the plot is far-fetched, the twists contrived, the characters nothing more than personality types to be moved around as the plot dictates, and the sentimentality is ladled on with a shovel.  But the flick moves like a Ferrari on the Autobahn.  Much of the credit for this propulsion goes to the director, David R. Ellis.  A veteran stunt coordinator and second-unit director of studio comedies and action films, Ellis has mostly worked as a director on dreck like Snakes on a Plane and the Final Destination sequels.  Given that background, it’s not surprising that the early, expository scenes feel so clunky and disjointed.  But Ellis understands that the film is all about its pulpy plot.  At its essence, it’s a perpetual motion machine that Ellis keeps moving at a zippy pace to gloss over the more ludicrous moments.

And there are plenty of ludicrous moments.  From Ryan car-jacking a sleazy lawyer to his use of a construction debris chute to escape the bad guys, the script serves up one ridiculous action cliché after another.  But the tongue-in-cheek tone created by Ellis, a likable turn by Evans, and Macy giving dignity to a throw-away role make the rote action and silly plot twists go down easy as they combine into a satisfying whole.

Surprisingly, for a film based on a Larry Cohen idea, the script is the weakest component of the film.  Given the success of the thriller aspects, maybe it’s too much to ask for at least a few decent lines of dialogue to elevate the proceedings, but the script seems to have no time for such niceties as wit or subtlety.  This is especially a shame, given how much fun is otherwise had with the film.  Basinger, in particular, is forced into some truly awful exchanges that lead to some of her worst work ever put on film.  In seemingly every scene, she delivers a slight variation on the line, “You have to hurry, Ryan!”  Maybe a better performer could have done something with this dialogue or come up with a different, more engaging way of whispering into a telephone in panic, but I doubt it.  The script does no favors to its leading lady and she, in turn, literally phones in her performance.

Also missing is the satirical undercurrent in the best Cohen projects.  Phone Booth, another film working from a Cohen idea (although he was credited on that one as the screenwriter), has an inverted premise of Cellular with a protagonist who is also on the phone, but is literally stuck in one place.  While that film shared the slick thriller atmosphere of Cellular, it at least attempted to add on a shallow look at a man being forced to find his soul and treat other people in a more respectful manner.  That idea leads to the obvious question of whether the protagonist’s redemption is earned or if it is invalid because it was forced on him.  Granted, this isn’t the headiest philosophical question, but at least that film tried to be a little more than a rote studio thriller.  Cellular is not interested in an intended subtext or character arcs.

While the film works surprisingly well as a thriller and very poorly as a showcase for Basinger, I found myself increasingly fascinated by the rapidly changing nature of technology accidentally on display.

Released in 2004, the film still looks very modern.  The automobiles look like the vehicles I see every day on the street; the clothing and hairstyles, while generic, would not be out of place today; the homes and businesses look up-to-date.  What does look hopelessly dated–just eight years after the film was released–is the technology at the center of the film.  While I’m sure Ellis, Cohen, and credited screenwriter Chris Morgan weren’t trying to make a film that commented on the disposable nature of cell phone technology and how we evolve with it as a culture, that’s what I will remember the most about Cellular.

Take Ryan’s phone as an example.  Just on looks and style alone, it is incredibly out-of-date.  Beyond that surface detail, there is Chad’s fascination with a phone that can shoot video.  The lack of Internet access, GPS, or other features which are now common on cell phones and would have been useful for Ryan as he raced around the city became readily apparent as I wondered why he failed to use these tools before realizing that they were not regular features on phones when the film was made.  Even more interesting to me was a moment in the third act as Ryan is talking to Ethan on the phone, while blending into the crowd at Santa Monica Pier.  There are too many people to spot him easily and Ethan tells one of his henchmen to look for young men talking on cell phones.  The henchman’s response is to complain that everyone’s on a cell phone, which is an accurate detail for 2004.  But would that be the case in 2012?  Most likely, everyone would be texting and Ryan would be an easy mark because of his use of a cell phone for what it was originally intended: talking.  For a movie that consists of more scenes of people talking on cell phones than The Departed, I am stunned that I cannot remember a single incidence of a character sending or receiving a text message.

Even if you don’t have my fascination with basing a film around instantly dated technology, Cellular still works surprisingly well as a mainstream thriller.  It has its rough spots and much of the plot fails to hold water if too much thought is given to it, but the film works as one of the rare examples of studio filmmaking rules elevating a script that’s only competent.  As it turns out, sometimes all you need is a high-concept idea, a likable lead, a name to put above the title, a supporting cast of good character actors, and an experienced action director who can organize the chaos into a coherent story.  I still don’t endorse this type of thinking when making a film, but Cellular is the exception that proves the rule.

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