Cellular is the best and smartest action movie to come out of Hollywood for a long time. Based on an inspired premise, that the only hope for a kidnapped woman is the stranger whose mobile phone she's managed to call, it grips you right from the beginning and packs an enormous amount of suspense, wit and excitement into its tight, 94-minute running time. You don't even have to switch off your brain to enjoy it. Together with last week's sleek thriller, Collateral, it makes a welcome change from the numbing special effects shows which have recently passed for action cinema. It's disappointing that Cellular hasn't performed better at the box office but I predict it will find a large audience on DVD.
The story begins with a brutal kidnapping. High school science teacher Jessica Martin (Kim Basinger) is grabbed in her kitchen by armed thugs who shoot her housekeeper and take her to a deserted old house. The gang's leader, Greer (Jason Statham) wants something of her husband's but she doesn't know what and he doesn't believe her. Locked in an attic while the criminals go after her husband and son, she has only one hope: a shattered telephone which still works but only by tapping wires together to generate random phone numbers.
After much tapping, Jessica finally reaches the mobile phone of aimless young slacker Ryan (Chris Evans), who is down at the pier trying to win back his ex-girlfriend (a cameo by Jessica Biel). Believing at first that he's on the receiving end of a prank, Ryan is soon convinced of Jessica's sincerity. He agrees to take the phone to the police, but after talking briefly to Sergeant Mooney (William H Macy), circumstances force him to forget the cops and try to help Jessica by himself. Mooney, who is working his last day on the job and should be looking forward to his retirement, can't get the kid's story out of his mind and he tentatively begins an investigation of his own.
Dark in places and uproariously funny in others (I loved that LA lawyer!), Cellular deftly blends thrills and comedy. Its makers have obviously studied Alfred Hitchcock's jauntier movies, North By Northwest for one, together with more modern thrill-rides like Speed and Die Hard. One thing it borrows from Hitchcock and one of the reasons it works so well is the unheroic, everyman nature of its three main characters. Neither Jessica, Ryan or Sgt Mooney is any kind of action hero. Poor Ryan fails most of the missions he sets himself but he keeps hanging in there, while Jessica is just a terrified mother fighting panic and Mooney is torn between his desire to leave his career behind and his instincts that tell him he's needed. It's a huge kick to watch these likeable, ordinary people rise to the occasion and fight back against the bad guys. Wisely the script never lets them perform Schwarzenegger-style feats and they're required to solve problems with their brains as well as their physical abilities. One delicious moment of black comedy is provided by Jessica's use of a piece of information gleaned from a biology textbook.
Cellular is directed with bags of energy and no shortage of style by David R Ellis. He showed some talent on his last film, Final Destination 2, which suffered from a weak, repetitious script but did feature some impressive set-pieces, notably the freeway pile-up at the start. The work he does here places him in the front rank of Hollywood action directors. The script, which should be a model for aspiring screenwriters, is by Chris Morgan, based on a story by Larry Cohen, who also wrote last year's telephone-related thriller Phone Booth.
Kim Basinger makes a sympathetic damsel in distress and up-and-coming young actor Chris Evans, from Not Another Teen Movie and The Perfect Score, shows a lot of promise as a leading man. He'll be playing the Human Torch in next summer's Fantastic Four movie so fans of the comic may want to check him out. Jason Statham still hasn't mastered an American accent but this time it doesn't matter. He makes an effective and intimidating villain and does his best work here since Snatch. Best of all is William H Macy, who gives one of his finest performances as a nerdy little cop who surprises everyone. Macy is far from the first person you'd think of for this part - casting him was a stroke of genius.