Ellis' brisk, no-nonsense approach is immediately apparent. Barely have the credits finished rolling before science teacher and supermom Jessica Martin (Kim Basinger) is brutally spirited from her Los Angeles home by a posse of leather-jacketed thugs. Locked up in an attic for reasons she can't fathom, Basinger's Jessica, her long hair gloriously tousled about her shoulders, makes for a technologically savvy Rapunzel, ingeniously contriving to place a call to a random number.
Jessica gets Ryan (Chris Evans) on the other end, a callow party boy whose girlfriend has just given him the boot on account of his selfishness, and who is thus receptive to Basinger's pleas for help. Perhaps by doing a good deed he can win back the girl. He vows to stay on the line, and from moment to moment is drawn more deeply into a widening series of disasters, as he tries first to prevent the abduction of Basinger's son and husband, and finally to save Basinger herself from a grisly end.
What keeps "Cellular" from degenerating into a series of car chases and gunfights is the gradual, satisfying revelation of just who these abductors are, what they're after, and who's backing them up. Also livening things up is the presence of William H. Macy as a bedraggled cop who stumbles onto the case almost by accident, but whose conscientiousness impels him to follow a few slender clues to the center of the maze. Like Robert Duvall's character in "Falling Down" (1993), Macy is bedeviled by an overbearing wife, and the case offers him a last chance to recapture his manhood. Also on loan from "Falling Down" is the Santa Monica Pier setting of the climax. Originality, in fact, is not the strong suit of "Cellular," and viewers who want what suspense is to be had from it would be well advised not to watch a certain Harrison Ford picture involving the Amish.
For all its humble merits, "Cellular" is no masterpiece. If you're the kind of person who will ever more heedlessly break the law and risk your life for a voice you think might belong to a crank yanker, you'll find the premise of "Cellular" to be eminently plausible. The rest of us will have to swallow pretty hard to get and keep this premise down.
The movies are always eager to latch on to whatever's hip and happening, and if there's anything surprising about a film built around cell phones, it's that it was so long in coming. At one point "Cellular" even makes a joke of its own belatedness, when a bad guy is told how to identify his victim: He'll be the one talking on his cell. The next shot reveals a swarm of California youths, each of them yakking away into one of the shiny little gadgets.
If there's anything other than a damsel in distress that this movie has on its mind, it's our love affair with this irresistible technology, so perfectly in keeping with Americans' notorious will to roam. At last, we can keep constantly in touch while shrouding our whereabouts in mystery. By now it's an everyday paradox, but "Cellular" entertains us by giving it an aura of drama and dread. ***1/2 S
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