John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson should make a thing of appearing in Stephen King adaptations together. This, their second rodeo, isn’t in the same league as 2007’s underrated 1408, but it gives the tired zombie survival horror subgenre a much-needed recharge and does more than enough to entertain as B-movie fun. The expression ‘throwback’ can be deployed for either positive or negative purposes, but here it’s almost entirely positive. Tod Williams, a journeyman best known for Paranormal Activity 2, has managed to transfer King’s very popular brand of horror with a good deal of success.
Cell is a distant relative to the American author’s own foray into movie-making, 1986’s Maximum Overdrive (automobiles turn against humankind) and his epic of epicness, The Stand. There is also a spiritual kinship with George A. Romero’s satire-heavy zombie mythology. Here, it’s mobile phones and electronic devices which turn humans into hive-mind freakazoids attacking the living and munching on their flesh. Waiting to board a plane at Boston’s Logan Airport, Clay Riddell (Cusack) watches the world fall apart as mysterious phone signal sends folk doolally and into ravenous hordes.
Teaming up with train driver Tom (Jackson) and Alice (Isabelle Fuhrman), the survivors traipse across Massachusetts, meeting various fellow survivors, avoiding the monsters and attempting to get Clay home to his family. Some will find the narrative generic and schmaltzy, but that would fail to recognise melancholic themes and reasons for Clay’s urge to return home, as well as the insinuation what’s occurring is related to his state of mind. It’s a journey into the self as much as a literal journey on foot across America. While plenty of actors would have come across as a touch snooty towards the material, Cusack plays his character with droll and ironic detachment.
Cusack’s deadpan style fits the material and his character very well. The dialogue delivery is good, too. Cusack and Jackson, sharing not just a fine chemistry, but some belting exchanges. Rolling across a field full of sleeping zombies about to be set alight with petrol, while swigging brandy from a glass decanter, Tom quips that his newfound buddy has sank enough booze to get pulled over by the cops and issued with a DUI. Clay immediately fires back that such a charge won’t matter after the mass-murder they’re about to commit in the name of survival.
Martyn Conterio | @Cinemartyn