Any Kim Basinger movie whose first words are, "Mommy, will you still be a science teacher when I get to high school?" knows it's stupid. And so starts the mother-son chat in the first scene of "Cellular," a ludicrous little abduction thriller that boasts an entertaining cocktail of gunpowder, suspense, adrenaline, and cheese. I just couldn't hate this movie, and I really, really tried. It's tightly made and well written in deceptive ways that don't reveal themselves until past the halfway point.
The minute after Basinger's Jessica Martin, a biology teacher, puts her son on the school bus, three tough-looking thugs burst into her Brentwood, Calif., fortress, kill her maid, promptly throw Jessica in a car, and then lock her up in a great big attic, where the lead thug (Jason Statham) smashes the phone mounted on the wall. Basinger's face looks ready to melt. Nobody's told her why she's suddenly Olivia de Havilland in "Lady in a Cage." But Jessica's husband is in danger, her son, too. So she does what any frantic abductee with a working knowledge of biology would do: rub together the wires on a broken landline until she gets not just a dial tone but the cellphone of an actual person.
Her hopes for survival rest with a slacking pretty boy named Ryan (Chris Evans) and a strong signal. Before she called, he was at the beach, trying to fix things with his fed-up girlfriend (Jessica Biel). Why, he wonders, if Mrs. Martin is in such peril has she called him and not the cops? Well, if he's going to ask that, then he ought to ask why she's wearing fishnets to frog dissections, but never mind. Her desperate, pleading voice and his overhearing her chief captor yelling at her have Ryan convinced that something is up.
So the movie turns into a race against time as well as a dead battery. Ryan has to stop the thugs from doing heaven knows what to Jessica's family. He holds up a store for a phone charger, steals a Ferrari when a truck hits his other stolen car, and runs out to the Los Angeles airport to warn Jessica's husband. The movie, which David R. Ellis directs, works up a lot of laughs and a lot of suspense, usually at the same time. One of several cleverly plotted sequences happens at airport security, where Ryan has to figure out what to do with the gun in his pocket. (Please, don't ask how he got it. This movie raises more tough questions than the SAT.)
Evans is part of the movie's fun. He's like the Luke Wilson that would show up to install your cable or put your sofa in the moving van. As Ryan continues to be surprised by his own ingenuity, his likability grows.
"Cellular" was written by Chris Morgan and is based on a screen story by the B-movie artist Larry Cohen, whose last script was "Phone Booth." What's so absorbing about "Cellular" is the way it taunts you to laugh at it, when, really, it's in on all the jokes. Jessica's son's name? Ricky. Ricky Martin, which Ryan can't believe. The movie also busts up the tension with a sideplot that drags the reliably good William H. Macy, as a very nice cop, into the action. Naturally, it's his last day on the force. (Danny Glover must have been unavailable.) But the movie puts its cliches in a headlock: The Martin family's mysterious nightmare happens to affect Macy's character personally, and the annoying first half cleanly dovetails into the juicy second.
"Cellular" is a dumb "Collateral" or a talky "Speed": a movie that has hilariously resonant ideas about the wild social and urban matrix that is Los Angeles. The city in these films becomes a weird metaphor for the world and a place whose personal history exists in a sort of infinite entertainment repeat, which is perfect for a movie that plays like an aerobic "Night Gallery" rerun.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Directed by: David R. Ellis
Written by: Chris Morgan
Starring: Kim Basinger, Chris Evans, Jason Statham, Noah Emmerich, Jessica Biel, and William H. Macy
At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs
Running time: 91 minutes
Rated: PG-13 (violence, terror situations, language)