Biology teacher Jessica Martin (Kim Basinger) walks her son to the school bus and sees him off, then returns home to get on with her day, but no sooner has she greeted her housekeeper than a group of thugs enter her house, shoot the housekeeper and bundle Jessica off to a location she does not recognise, locking her in the attic. Before she can do anything to call for help on the telephone that is up there, the lead heavy (Jason Statham) advances with a sledgehammer and smashes it to pieces, then leaves, with the terrified woman none the wiser about what she is doing there or what these men want. But then she notices the phone still has a current running through it and realises if she can rig it up properly, testing the wires can result in a call for help...
Ah, remember when mobile phones, or cell phones as they are called here, this being an American movie, were an exciting new novelty and not the ubiquitous and indeed distracting form of communication essential to billions across the globe? And remember when thrillers were faced with a problem, that the characters could simply call for help rather than wait around to be menaced? They solved that by having the technology in the movies either not be able to get a signal, or be destroyed, often with a shot of the hero or heroine looking anguished in response, but here was a Larry Cohen screenplay (albeit worked on by other hands) that embraced that new-fangled contraption.
It did so with an unseemly enthusiasm that dated the film almost within a year of its release, like Sandra Bullock in The Net did for the internet, since it took that short amount of time for the majority of the audience to get their hands on a phone of their own, and become extremely blasé about using them, meaning an entire film revolving around the use of a phone came across as somewhat absurd in an overcompensating manner. It also had the frequent scenes intended to make the audience taken aback that there were so many special features on the equipment seeming often laughable in retrospect. Cellular was the complement to Phone Booth, the other Larry Cohen script to centre on ringing someone up for its thrills, but as it was more ludicrous, oddly it was more entertaining.
If all you wanted from your movie diversion was a silly story with plenty of action, a decent cast and a sense that they knew this was amusing for the wrong reasons, but what the heck, they were going ahead with it anyway, then this was happy to provide those thrills and spills and indeed chuckles. The chap Jessica (not the impressionist and comedienne, as quickly becomes apparent) manages to get through to is Ryan, a beach bum played by Chris Evans in his first big role before breaking out in Fantastic Four the following year (this one did not do huge amounts for his career). He has just bought a new cell phone and he can take pictures on it! It really is amazing what they can do these days (or in those days of 2004). However, when he twigs this strange woman who has called him up out of the blue is in danger, he turns heroic.
That'll impress his girlfriend, who has just dumped him and was notable for being played by Jessica Biel, starting her unbeatable run of undistinguished movies while still somehow managing to remain very famous. But more importantly, William H. Macy was the desk cop thinking of packing it all in to run a day spa who Ryan encounters briefly, but not so briefly that he doesn't wonder who that boy was and whether he was on to something when he implored him to assist with the mystery woman on the phone. Evans was the real star, as Basinger had little to do but hang on her makeshift phone and frequently be pushed around by Statham, essaying a bad guy role he had surprisingly few of in the career to come. The action sequences competently handled by stunt man turned director David R. Ellis, it would be more likely to have you snickering, nay, guffawing at each contrivance to keep the phone at the heart of the plot, but it did pass the time engagingly in its mid-budget thriller fashion. One major drawback: that irresponsible cliché of characters urgently phoning while driving. Music by John Ottman.