U.S. Release Date: September 10, 2004
Distributor: New Line
Director: David R. Ellis
Writer: Chris Morgan
Producer: Dean Devlin
Composer: John Ottman
Cast: Kim Basinger, Chris Evans, Jason Statham, William H. Macy, Jessica Biel
Running Time: 1 hour and 35 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for violence, terror situations, language and some sexual references)

When a Stranger Calls
by Scott Holleran

Director David R. Ellis proves that even a plain plot and a bunch of stock characters are more thrilling than an army of flashy X-Men, tormented Spider-Men and noisy Terminators in New Line Cinema's gripping Cellular starring Kim Basinger. The mobile telephone is merely the means to the movie's relatively low-tech purpose.

Packed with a woman in peril, a typical twentysomething, a good cop and a gang of thugs, Cellular's straightforward action proceeds from a simple moral dilemma: whether to risk one's life for the sake of a stranger. After some standard bad guys kidnap Basinger's biology teacher, she manages to establish a tenuous telephone connection to a young man with the intellectual depth of a Frisbee (Chris Evans). Basinger's Brentwood Barbie—with her life, her husband and her son at stake—is at the mercy of one of those dispassionate, distant youths for whom technology has replaced real, human action. She's in trouble, she knows it and it seems her one pitch at survival has landed in the hands of a loser.

But she can't hang up and dial 911. For several convoluted reasons, she must stay on the line, keep the signal active, and try to avoid the fate of her housekeeper, who was pumped with bullets during the snatch. The action is swift, not frantic, with a lot of Los Angeles car chasing, as Evans's character chooses to put his cocky attitude to the test to help a stranger. A few lines about altruism as a moral obligation do not spoil Cellular's sense of decency; it's about good people uniting against bad people for the sake of their values, not for the sake of others.

With a subplot involving William H. Macy's veteran policeman, the screenplay by Chris Morgan combines situational humor with several episodes that lead to the final conflict and the result, while far from perfect, is fully engaging. Basinger is sufficiently desperate, Evans is affable and Macy plays an ordinary cop like a fiddle. The heavies are fine, too, though one of them looks like he walked off the set of a Backstreet Boys video, and the plot twists enhance the intensity. Cellular is an unpretentious mystery thriller with interesting characters and clear contrasts.

Occasionally, the movie goes to voice mail. Plot discrepancies abound—a she-devil with the bad guys is used, discarded and never explained—and, in its slower moments, one tends to contemplate alternatives to driving around L.A. like a lunatic. The prolonged conclusion is anti-climactic and Morgan's tight script has its rough spots: Basinger's biology teacher borders on hysterical, a running gag with a lawyer is distracting, and the Evans character competes with Macy's policeman for center stage.

Nevertheless, Cellular is a tense, plot-based thriller; a harmless indulgence free of ear-splitting explosions, choppy shots and grating anti-heroes. What's more, when the tension subsides, the conventional Cellular finishes with an increasingly rare sensibility: that the good guys—connected by shared values and the will to act on those values—are much more interesting than the bad guys.

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