Judge Patrick Bromley wants to know: Can you hear him now?
Our review of Cellular (Blu-ray), published July 25th, 2012, is also available.
If the signal dies, so does she.
I saw David Ellis's Cellular in the same weekend as the Mel Gibson-produced Paparazzi, when both films ran theatrically in September 2004. The two make an excellent double billing, though not because they're both good movies. They're both fairly low budget, "high concept" (that's Hollywood terminology for any movie with a plot that can be explained in a single sentence; most movies don't require even that much) action thrillers, but their executions are very different—one makes the formula work and the other falls apart. In addition to being more than a little sociopathic, Paparazzi is just plain dopey; Cellular, like 1994's Speed, is that rare dopey movie done right.
Facts of the Case
Jessica Martin (Kim Basinger, People I Know), held hostage by kidnappers and fearing for her life, manages to make a random phone call to aimless California boy Ryan (Chris Evans, The Perfect Score), who has to keep her on the line while he finds some way to save her life.
See? High concept.
There's probably not a soul on earth who can accuse the screenplay for Cellular of being very plausible, but that isn't going to stop the movie from being a fast, fun, and, yes, smart thrill ride. Comparisons to Speed are inevitable, in that it's difficult to explain the plot of either with a straight face. Both are essentially extended chase films and both find new ways to convey a race against time: Speed utilized the speedometer on the bus as a stand-in for the old ticking clock, whereas Cellular uses the phone signal. But the similarities don't end there—as someone who's a fan of both films, I can see a number of likenesses in the executions of both films, and that's what makes them both work. Others might disagree, but, of course, others would be wrong.
1. The Characters Never Stop Thinking: In a cinematic landscape where even romantic comedies don't allow for any kind of thought from a single character (most romantic comedies would, in fact, be over within the first twenty minutes if the characters would stop to think for even a second), it's unusual to see a film in which all of the characters—even those in supporting roles—are allowed to think. It seems like such a small thing, hardly even noticeable, and yet becomes surprisingly evident when a movie actually allows for it. Every person in Cellular (even, to a lesser extent, the stock villains—the movie's weakest inclusion) is allowed to think, not just react. As fast-paced as the film is, no one ever simply goes on autopilot; though the characters aren't necessarily planning their moves two or three steps ahead (which would have been all wrong anyway, as this story doesn't allow for such strategy), they are continually forced to be creative in their actions. That leads me to my next point.
2. The Screenplay Keeps Finding New Obstacles: Most films are content to rest on their premises—they establish a situation and run with it single-mindedly until the predictable conclusion. That's not to say that the end results of Cellular (or Speed, for that matter) are particularly groundbreaking, but the journey itself never fails to surprise. New challenges are forever being thrown at the characters (particularly Chris Evans's Ryan)—whether it's a dying battery, a blocked signal (early on in the film, a character winds up practically stuck in a stairwell when going any further would mean losing the call), or even a destroyed phone, the film thinks of and addresses all of them. The screenplay by Larry Cohen (essentially a kind of reworking of his previous film, Phone Booth, forcing its protagonist to stay on the phone but allowing for a great deal more mobility) takes its silly premise and treats it totally seriously, never insulting the audience's intelligence and finding new ways to keep the twists coming.
3. Everyone Does His/Her Job: Again, that may seem like fairly obvious praise—people always do their jobs on movies, otherwise the damn things wouldn't get made (though I could make a case for a number of films where a director, a screenwriter, or a cast member—possibly all three—was out to lunch…anyone see Alien vs. Predator?). Maybe I should revise the statement to "Everyone Does His/Her Job Effectively." Director David Ellis expertly stages all of the action scenes (it doesn't hurt that he's a former stunt coordinator), keeping the movie lean and forever maintaining the focus on momentum—it's a thrill ride that actually thrills. Just as he did on New Line's Final Destination 2, Ellis turns a standard genre film into a clever, funny, and wildly entertaining work that's far better than it has any right to be.
Say what you will about Chris Evans (offering yet another comparison to Keanu in Speed), but he's incredibly well cast in Cellular; he's got a kind of generic charm, making a perfect twentysomething everyman. Had Cellular been a bigger hit at the box office, I'd wager this would have been a starmaking performance. Kim Basinger brings unexpected weight to a goofy genre film, turning what could have been a typical lady-in-danger role into something that transcends the material—she's sympathetic, smart (even her occupation, established in a couple throwaway lines, is given its payoff), and totally believable. William H. Macy (The Cooler), as the ready-to-retire cop who's got a hunch about what's happened to Basinger, does what he does in every film, lending it gravity and credibility and turning what could have been nothing more than a lame supporting role into the best and most memorable character into the film—and getting all the best laughs to boot.
New Line, easily one of the best studios putting out DVDs today, continues its excellent work with Cellular, part of its "Platinum Series" (not to be confused with the annoying "InfiniFilm" design). The film, presented in an anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer, looks stellar—as new as the film is, there are no source defects or visible artifacts in the image. Though a small amount of edge enhancement can be seen, the picture looks great overall—bright, sharp, and clean. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track is effective, too, balancing the dialogue with the more effects-driven sound design—cars race around, gunshots go off, and—of course—phones ring.
There are a handful of extras included on the disc, most of them worthwhile. There's a commentary track by director Ellis, who is joined by his daughter, Tawny (employed as an associate producer on the film), and his sister, Annie (an assistant stunt coordinator). As if the novelty of the three family members discussing the movie isn't enough—and I say that with unusual sincerity—they also call various members of the cast and crew on the phone; it's a gimmick that other audio tracks have used, but given the nature of the film, it works especially well here. The track is infectiously fun; the participants don't take themselves or the material all that seriously, which is probably just the right way to go.
Three featurettes are also included. One, a piece on cell phones, is more a cutesy idea than it is a valuable extra; the second is a standard "making-of" segment. I'm on the fence about the third featurette, a half-hour documentary dealing with the real-life story behind one of the movie's significant plot points. While it's got essentially nothing to do with the film itself, at least it taught me something more than yet another promotional featurette could have; for that, I guess I'm grateful. A few deleted scenes (including an alternate ending, which is really just an extension to the existing ending) are also on hand, all rightly cut out for pacing purposes and demonstrating how devoted the filmmakers were to trimming away all fat and moving things forever forward. The film's theatrical trailer and a couple of bonus trailers are also included.
Not all films have to change our lives; sure, it's always better when movies affect us at our core, but sometimes they need to do nothing more than make us laugh, scare us, move us, or thrill us. Movies just have to work on their own terms—to do what they set out to do well. Cellular does what it does very well.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
• Deleted/Alternate Scenes
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