Fri, Nov 19, 2004 - Page 16 News List

Teaching, the art of how not to kidnap and cellphones

`Cellular' is a breezy Los Angeles movie that stars Kim Basinger as a teacher with phone problems

By A. O. SCOTT  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Jason Statham plays the bad man, quite effectively, opposite Kim Basinger.

PHOTOS COURTESY FOX MOVIES

One of the many virtues of Cellular, an improbably enjoyable new telecommunications action thriller, is that it wastes very little time on preliminary exposition. Kim Basinger, looking glamorous in a black dress and sunglasses, is walking her young son to the school bus. Their conversation lasts just long enough to establish the crucial information that Basinger's character, Jessica Martin, is a science teacher.

The extra wave goodbye that she and her son exchange is a signal that something bad is about to happen, and a minute later some bald, black-denimed kidnappers kick in the kitchen door of Jessica's elegant Brentwood home, shoot the housekeeper dead and drag Jessica away to a remote safe house in the hills above Los Angeles.

All of this happens before you have time to ask how a science teacher can afford a brand-new Porsche Cayenne and a Brentwood mansion with live-in help, or why, on a day when school is in session, this particular science teacher is not at work. (You may also wonder why none of your science teachers looked or dressed like Basinger, but never mind.) But to pose such questions -- and others that arise during the diverting, implausible 89 minutes of Cellular, which opens today nationwide -- is to miss the point and spoil the fun.

Directed by the talented David Ellis with the same combination of breeziness and rigor that he brought to the underrated teen-scream fright-fest Final Destination 2, Cellular is the kind of movie that has become all too rare in this age of self-important blockbuster bloat. It's an honest, unpretentious, well-made B picture with a clever, silly premise, a handful of sly, unassuming performances and enough car chases, decent jokes and swervy plot complications to make the price of the ticket seem like a decent bargain.

Film Notes

Directed by David Ellis

Starring: Kim Basinger (Jessica Martin), Chris Evans (Ryan), Jason Statham (Ethan), Eric Christian Olsen (Chad), Noah Emmerich (Jack Tanner), William Macy (Sergeant Bob Mooney)

Running time: 89 minutes

Taiwan release: Today


When the chief bad guy, whose name is, of all things, Ethan (Jason Statham), throws Jessica into her attic holding cell, he makes sure to smash the wall phone with a sledge hammer. It's a sturdy old rotary-dial machine, though, so it still works well enough for Jessica to place a random call, which reaches the cellphone of Ryan (Chris Evans), an affable, carefree surfer busy researching bikini styles on the Santa Monica Pier.

According to his ex-girlfriend, Ryan is shallow and self-centered, but he shows remarkable decency and steadfastness in agreeing to help Jessica by staying on the phone until he can find the police.

Needless to say, helping her turns out to be a much more dangerous and complicated proposition, thanks to the vagaries of cellular technology and the unreliability (to say the least) of certain members of the Los Angeles Police Department. Through a series of accidents and misjudgments, Ryan finds himself speeding all over the west side of Los Angeles, from Los Angeles International Airport to Century City and beyond, in a series of borrowed and stolen cars, on the trail of an elaborate and nefarious conspiracy. He also repeatedly collides with the officiousness, selfishness and bad manners of his fellow Angelenos, who force him to take desperate measures like holding up a cellphone store and carjacking an obnoxious lawyer whose vanity license plate is one of the movie's many pieces of whimsical, if somewhat obvious, satirical humor.

Another source of amusement is the presence of William Macy, who plays a henpecked, world-weary veteran cop planning to open a day spa after 27 years on the force. His character may remind you of Robert Duvall's in Falling Down, one of several movies that Cellular either delicately echoes or boldly rips off. Its most obvious resemblance is to Phone Booth, which is hardly a coincidence, since Larry Cohen, the Hollywood renaissance man who wrote that movie, receives a story credit for this one. The script, a model of efficient, on-the-fly exposition, is by Chris Morgan.

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