By Jeffrey M. Anderson
Writer/director Larry Cohen has improbably worked steadily atHollywood's fringes for 35 years, grinding out dozens of films,including trash classics like Black Caesar, It's Alive and God ToldMe To.
Last year Cohen had his first taste of the mainstream when director Joel Schumacher turned his screenplay into the terrific Phone Booth. Schumacher did everything right: he cast a charismatic star (Colin Farrell), shot economically over the course of about two weeks and stuck closely to Cohen's script.
On the success of that film, Cohen sold a follow-up screenplay, Cellular. Unfortunately, the people behind the new movie have done just about everything wrong. Director David Ellis (Final Destination 2) cast a pretty-boy nobody (Chris Evans, from The Perfect Score) in the lead role, put together a rambling, fat-filled enterprise and committed the worst sin of all: he hired someone to re-write Cohen's script. Cohen now only has a "story by" credit. Welcome to the mainstream.
The butchered story now begins with Jessica Martin (Kim Basinger) getting kidnapped and thrown into a moodily-lit, dusty attic. The kidnappers (led by Jason Statham) take the precaution of smashing a wall phone, but they do not smash it completely. By clicking a few wires together, Jessica is able to dial random numbers.
The first person she reaches is Ryan (Evans), a slacker beach boy whose juvenile ways has recently cost him his sexy girlfriend (Jessica Biel). At first he doesn't believe Jessica, but before long he's stealing cars, racing through traffic and smashing things in order to help her.
The bad guys also kidnap Jessica's son and her husband, who has a special videotape that the kidnappers desperately want. Meanwhile, a sad-sack cop (William H. Macy) stumbles upon the case and lends a hand.
While Phone Booth was relatively tight and explored nearly every possible scenario that could have spun from its simple premise, Cellular ignores reason. First, we have no idea what makes Ryan suddenly believe Jessica and try to help her. Second, the bad guys -- crooked cops, it turns out -- are just about the stupidest creatures ever put on film. They leave every conceivable opportunity for the good guys to win.
Third, the very logic of the cell phone scenario doesn't really work. In one scene, Ryan stops climbing an interior staircase for fear of losing his tentative cellular connection, but in a later scene, he scuttles right up another staircase without a thought.
In another scene, a jackass lawyer and his mother accidentally intrude on Jessica and Ryan's wavelength, and Ryan is able to pick up the signal again by stealing the lawyer's phone.
Instead of actually coming up with ideas that work, the filmmakers have decided to quickly barrel right over them in the hopes that the audience won't notice.
At least Ellis had the foresight to cast two such excellent performers as Basinger and Macy. These actors do their level best and very nearly save the film, but their characters are far too limited. Poor Macy has to contend with the fact that his character's domineering wife wants him to quit the force and start a day spa with her.
The shockingly beautiful Basinger mostly gets to scream and shiver and fret in addition to taking several vicious blows from her captors, but she manages all this with a certain class and dignity.
However, it's hard to believe that Ellis used any kind of common sense or skill in casting his film. If he was so careless with the screenplay and the lead actor, he may as well have pulled the other names blindly out of a hat.
I'm inclined to believe that he didn't even know who Larry Cohen was. Virtually any younger filmmaker should have welcomed the opportunity to work with a living legend, but it's a huge disservice to ignore their lessons and wisdom in exchange for brash, unfeeling condescension.