Sep 22, 2004 at 12:00 am

In Joel Schumacher’s Phone Booth (2002), Colin Farrell is held at gunpoint by a sniper. If he leaves the booth or hangs up, he’ll be shot. Similarly, David Ellis’ Cellular features Kim Basinger as a kidnapped housewife who uses a random call connection on a severely damaged phone to steer beach bum Chris Evans to her rescue. The tagline: “If the signal dies, so does she.”

No, this isn’t the beginning of yet another trend in fiber optic-themed suspense films. Both Phone Booth and Cellular came from the mind of Larry Cohen, one of the schlock genre’s most prolific writer-directors. When it comes to taking low concepts and making the most of them, Cohen has few equals. The concept of these two films — someone trapped on a phone — couldn’t be simpler; but it wasn’t that interesting the first time, and merely switching the plot around doesn’t justify a second go at it.

Cellular is pure formula: a dialogue-heavy script, peppered with wit, violence, and engaging chase scenes. It’s distinguished by the talent of William H. Macy, a few hilarious character bits (scenes featuring the obnoxious lawyer who gets carjacked by Evans are priceless), and the gimmick itself: cellular phones.

While it may be true that in this age of accelerated technological dependence cell phones are as essential to the average person as air or water, Cellular’s obsessive riffing on the phenomenon is as annoying as cell phones themselves. While the film could have easily been a subversive criticism of these gadgets, Cellular’s sarcastic statement never surpasses cheesy sight gags. As cable TV fodder for insomniacs, the film functions on a perfunctory level, but it falls far short of first-run caliber entertainment.

Let’s hope that Larry Cohen is satisfied now that Internet Café and its own rethought doppelgänger Broadband are not forthcoming.

Gene Gregorits writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].