The technology has been around since 1947, but common public use didn’t begin until the 1980s. Now it has taken another two decades for Hollywood to offer a thriller based on the cell phone. Cellular is a crackerjack action film, and its plot could not have existed without this gadget. And they say there is nothing new under the sun.
In this 2004 release, Jessica (Kim Basinger) is kidnapped by a gang of thugs, led by the imposing Jason Statham, but she has no idea why. She’s hardly helpless, and by fiddling with the wires of a broken phone she manages to connect to a cell phone owned by Ryan (Chris Evans). Once Ryan is convinced that Jessica’s desperate pleas for help are genuine, he sets out on a monumental quest to find her, performing daredevil stunts and breaking the law along the way. The plot seems preposterous, but the filmmakers manage to keep it grounded in logic most of the time. The plot has a few holes, but these are minor compared with what could have gone wrong. Basinger spends most of the film in a state of hysterics, but this ranks among her best performances. David R. Ellis isn’t the first stuntman to become a film director, but he is the first to make a good movie.
Stu (Colin Farrell) would have been better off if he used his cell phone to secretly call his girlfriend; he could have avoided being pinned down by a psychopathic sniper (Kiefer Sutherland) in 2002’s Phone Booth. He is such an arrogant weasel, lying to both his wife and his girlfriend, that there are times you might side with the sniper. Stu is caught between conflicting orders from the sniper and the police, who think that he is the killer. Phone Booth is taut and concise, and the pacing is strong despite its immobile protagonist.
Gadgets are generally the fodder of espionage films, and Sneakers (1992) is one of the overlooked gems of the genre. Robert Redford heads a team of security experts (Sidney Poitier, Dan Aykroyd, River Phoenix, Mary McDonnell, and David Strathairn) who are hired by the government to steal a computer program. Of course, things are never that simple, and the team becomes the pursued. Sneakers is briskly paced, mixing thrills and humor. You won’t find a more likable movie.
The real masterpiece of gadget movies is Francis Coppola’s The Conversation (1974). Gene Hackman stars as a surveillance expert who is hired to record the conversation of a young couple as they walk through a crowded plaza. The complex job is merely the setup; the tapes reveal a possible murder plot. Few people saw the film when it was released, but its themes of paranoia and the right to privacy should resonate more today as Big Brother Homeland Security continues to constrict us.
DVDs scheduled for release Tuesday (April 5):Sideways, Elektra, Suspect, Spanglish, and The Corporation.