When director and renowned stuntman David Ellis died this January, we were all taken aback. The 60-year-old filmmaker was right in the middle of pre-production for his upcoming anime adaptation Kite, and certainly seemed to be in excellent spirits when I interviewed him for Shark Night, which would turn out to be his last movie as a director. Ellis was a populist filmmaker, churning out one great genre film after another, and while they weren't all classic (Shark Night certainly had its fair share of problems), he did make what I and a few other critics are comfortable calling one great movie: Cellular. For that reason, John Pavlich of Sofa Dogs (which whom I recently recorded commentary tracks for all the theatrically released Spider-Man movies) and I decided to record a commentary track for this underrated and profoundly clever potboiler.
When Ellis passed away, most outlets were quick to remind us that David Ellis directed the heavily promoted but only modestly successful action-comedy Snakes on a Plane. I love that movie a lot, actually, and it deserves to be remembered as an excellent piece of light entertainment, but Cellular was the film in which David Ellis worked with the very best material. It was another "b-movie," certainly, but it was a b-movie in the way that Alfred Hitchcock's Rope was a b-movie: it was entirely built around a single gimmick, but it used that gimmick to maximum effect and, in the process, told an engaging story with thoughtful subtext, excellent performances and a great deal of craftsmanship.
Cellular was originally released on September 10, 2004, opposite Resident Evil: Apocalypse, which won the box office that weekend. September is not generally considered a good month for quality motion picture releases, and although the film made money, Cellular went on to relative obscurity. It is now perhaps best known as that movie in which future Captain America star Chris Evans fought The Transporter himself, Jason Statham, before either of them had become recognizable stars. The film centers around a kidnapped high school science teacher named Jessica Martin, played with simultaneous strength and vulnerability by Kim Basinger, who manages to dial a single phone number at random using a broken landline in the attic where she's being held. She winds up calling Ryan Hewitt (Evans), a young man who has just been challenged to prove he can handle responsibility by his ex-girlfriend, Chloe (played by a young, relatively unproven Jessica Biel).
Cellular was written by Chris Morgan (who would later go on to write the last four Fast & Furious movies), from a story by famous genre filmmaker Larry Cohen (It's Alive), who had just one year prior seen the release of Phone Booth, a similar-sounding film about a man trapped in a phone booth, unable to leave without being killed by a sniper. Cellular was a reversal of that concept, with a hero able to go anywhere but trapped on a phone the whole time. The cellular phone was used as an all-encompassing plot device, giving Ryan the abilities necessary to save the day (contacting the killers when they least expect it, recording evidence on camera), but also preventing him from performing normal tasks, like driving to an important location because the route he's taking is through a tunnel, which would break his connection to Jessica and doom her forever. Whereas most movies make a point of writing cellular phones out of the storyline as quickly as possible – so that the heroes cannot call the police to save them from a killer, for example – Cellular uniquely acknowledges the ubiquity of the popular device, and uses it to generate brand-new forms of suspense.
There's another similarity to Phone Booth that doesn't often go recognized, however. Both films are about self-involved, for lack of a better word, douchebags. In Phone Booth, Colin Farrell's hero was singled out for victimization not because he was outwardly evil – as most of the killer's victims had been to that point – but because he embodied the selfish tendencies every person falls prey to from time to time, which overall contribute to making the world a worse place to live in on a daily basis. In Cellular, Ryan is stymied at every turn by individuals who are unwilling to consider the greater ramifications of their daily self-involvement. A woman with a loud stereo (future Insidious star Lin Shaye) nearly reveals Jessica's working telephone to her kidnapper (Jason Statham), but rather than turn her stereo down when asked, she turns it louder, making Ryan and Jessica's situation worse. Ryan is the hero because he's practically the only character willing to take ten minutes of out his day to help someone else with their problems.
The irony, of course, is that by driving through Los Angeles talking on his cell phone, violently cutting in line to buy a much-needed charger or ignoring the reasonable demands of an elementary school security guard asking this strange man to vacate the premises (Ryan was trying to protect Jessica's son), he comes across as the same kind of entitled douchebag just about every other character embodies. Context, it seems, is everything, and we all have our own problems. Cellular phone use quickly became shorthand for a character in a movie who is utterly self-involved, and not "present" in any given situation because of their personal preoccupations. Cellular argues that, perhaps, that call is indeed the most important thing in the world, and that we should all be a little more understanding of each other's needs. They could be life or death. Then again, they could be utterly superficial. Knowing the context is everything.
Cellular is readily available on DVD and Blu-ray. I encourage you to fire up a copy and watch this rousing little thriller for what it is: intelligent, fast-paced entertainment from a director at the top of his game. Then download the Sofa Dogs commentary track featuring myself and John Pavlich and try out our musings on the greater quality and perhaps slight social and genre significance of the film. Feel free to leave your phones on. It will be more ironic that way.
You can also download my other commentary tracks with John Pavlich: