There was a time recently when British action star Jason Statham started poking fun at his onscreen persona in projects like The Expendables, Fast & Furious, and Spy and I realized that, despite his rapidly growing fame, I had no real idea who he is. Statham was already a brand worthy of self-satire by the time he registered on my radar at all. I obviously didn’t need to be too familiar with his oeuvre for those jokes to land (any passing knowledge of post-80s Tough Guy action stars of any stripe would do), but I still felt like I was missing out on something. It turns out that the gaps in my Statham knowledge were mostly a string of mid-00s action vehicles like The Transporter, The Bank Job, and Crank, which I’ve been gradually catching up on in recent months while parsing out the persona of this muscly mystery man. Oddly, it wasn’t any of these starring roles for Statham that solidified my understanding of his screen presence. It was instead his minor role as a Tough Guy villain in the 2004 action goof-em-around Cellular that brought home my introspective search for who Jason Statham really is.
It turns out that Jason Statham is a dick, at least onscreen. He even looks like a penis, considering his closely shaved head’s throbbing veins and his penchant for mod-style turtlenecks. Once you grasp that he’s hired to be instantly detestable as screenwriting shorthand, his typecasting become so much clearer in retrospect. In The Transporter, he’s a selfish brute of a nerd who allows his heartless, rules-obsessed professionalism to prevent him from doing the right thing (until a victim of his thuggish clients melts his icy heart). In Spy, he’s a self-aggrandizing blowhard who steamrolls women in conversation and in the workplace. In the Fast & Furious franchise he’s a self-serving, cold-hearted killer who doesn’t know the first thing about Family (until, again, his heart is melted over time). It’s a tradition that stretches back to his bit roles as a growling toughie in Guy Ritchie’s early movies. The brilliant thing about Statham’s casting in Cellular is that he’s only there because of his instant hateability as a total dick. The movie’s plot contrivances are so absurdly over the top that it has no time to invest in fleshing out the character of its central villain, so Statham’s instantly recognizable dickholery is meant to serve as a shortcut. And it mostly works.
Based on a story outline from legendary schlockteur Larry Cohen (who dared to ask, “What if I wrote Phone Booth again, but this time with cellphones?”), Cellular is the exact kind of obnoxious, high-concept nonsense that action cinema junkies are always looking for at the movies. Statham and his army of similarly dickish baddies kidnap a suburban high school biology teacher played by Kim Basinger and terrorize her in an attic for some reason or another. Desperate to call for help, Basinger uses her Science Knowledge to operate the only means of communication left in her newfound prison: a landline phone that Statham smashed to pieces. By tapping the wires of the broken device together to dial random numbers, Basinger miraculously connects to a nearby Nokia brick cellphone helmed by Chris Evans (in total bimbo dude-bro mode here). The original Cohen script was meant as a bitterly cynical social satire about the early days of cellphone obsession, but the version that actually got made is a goofball swashbuckling adventure in which Evans overcomes his carefree Beach Jock life of selfish hedonism to do something heroic for a change. As he gets involved in a series of escalating car chases, gun fights, and kidnapping crises in an effort to save a helpless stranger he has one clear mission: Don’t let the cellphone call drop or she’ll die. That’s quite a premise; classic Cohen.
I wouldn’t necessarily call this a great movie, but it can be a lot of fun as a gimmicky time capsule of quickly outdated tech. The early scenes where Evans is bragging that his brick phone can take pictures is especially amusing, as are later action set pieces where he has to rob an electronics store for a charger or hijacks a stranger’s phone when his all-important call is transferred via a cross-connection mishap. There’s also a very amusing moment where William H. Macy, playing a one-day-from-retirement cop, gets to be heroic in full slow-motion splendor, which is a rare look for him. Even if this is the least interesting execution of a deliriously fun premise possible, it’s still got that Larry Cohen touch of a fully committed gimmick that could just about carry any dead weight you pile on top of it. That might explain why a movie this culturally insignificant somehow inspired international remakes in Bollywood, Tollywood, and Hong Kong. The “Drop the cellphone call and she’ll die!” premise is just that strong. Besides, it has the added lagniappe of seeing Jason Statham’s instantly detestable dickishness being employed for its full villainous potential, which I apparently needed to see to fully understand his deal in general, even if he usually channels that persona into gruff anti-heroes.