It took Larry Cohen [1936-2019], the inspired writer-director of B movies including Q – The Winged Serpent (1982), two decades to see his Phone Booth script reach the screen in 2003. Joel Schumacher took care of the directorial duties on that one; the unlikely combination of his slick moves with Cohen’s often surreal plotting turned out to be a winning formula.
The script-to-screen process has mercifully moved much faster for Cellular, an exciting thriller based on Cohen’s story idea, and written by action-genre specialist Chris Morgan. The hook here is that every plot move proceeds via telephones, especially of the mobile (or, as Americans say, cell) variety.
Jessica (Kim Basinger) is kidnapped by a mean, swaggering dude, Ethan (Jason Statham). She secretly rigs up a smashed telephone just long enough to allow her one random call, and thus connects with Ryan (Chris Evans). He is a carefree, and also morality-free, guy who can hardly bring himself to worry about his own girlfriend, let alone a stranger in distress.
But, soon enough, Ryan comes to believe Jessica, and swings into gear to find and save her. From this point on, the movie is a non-stop series of breakthroughs, complications and reversals to rival Speed (1994). Director David R. Ellis carries it all off with the flashy style he made his own in Final Destination 2 (2003).
Cellular offers a curious mix of elements. Its lowbrow jokes and car-chase set-pieces play to male teens, who are obviously being asked to identify with Ryan. Like in 8 Mile (2002), Basinger juices up this part of the movie by incarnating a sexy mother-figure. Naturally, the film tries to convince us that Ryan, as a result of his chance adventure, is on the fast-track to greater maturity.
By the same token, it is full of clever gags about pop culture fads that will appeal to those in the know. The soundtrack, for example, makes good use of Nina Simone in techno remix. But the most intriguing aspect of the project is its other remix – its take on the vision of urban life offered in high-drama mode by Michael Mann’s stirring Collateral (2004).
Like that movie but with more laughs, Cellular portrays the modern city as fragmented, every citizen atomised by virtue of their mobile-phone fixation, and thus anonymous and interchangeable. It is a sign (probably) of Larry Cohen’s innate genius that all the action clinches refer back, often ingeniously, to this theme (forecast long ago by Alfred Hitchcock in key details of North by Northwest ).
Yet, ultimately, these telephones – because of their strict geographic reach – also cohere the action plot, pulling all the fragmented urban spaces and isolated characters together. It is a neat trick for such a fundamentally modest entertainment.
MORE Ellis: Homeward Bound II: Lost in San Francisco
© Adrian Martin February 2005