cast: Tessie Santiago, Chris Bruno, Frank Whaley, and Bart Johnson
director: Tim Iacofano
94 minutes (18) 2009
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
EIV DVD Region 2 retail
reviewed by Mark West
I’ve never seen the original The Cell (2000) which I thought might impact on my enjoyment of this film, but within 20 seconds I realised it wouldn’t make any difference. That’s how long it takes to see a CGI Jennifer Lopez fall to her death and gravely voice-over man explain about her before saying, “but there’s another one with the gift.” And that’s us into the new film, introduced to FBI agent Maya (Tessie Santiago), who can see into the memories of others. She and her team are on the trail of ‘the Cusp’ but they’re too late – the victim gets her heart ripped out, The Cusp escapes and everyone blames Maya – ignoring the fact that the task force, led by agent Skylar (Bart Johnson), was running over snow-covered ground whilst dressed head to foot in black.
A year later, Maya is now in private practise, looking for people’s lost pets, when FBI agents turn up. The Cusp is back and only Maya can help. In fact, he already has his latest victim, who we were introduced to via a completely gratuitous (and topless) love scene. She’s also the local Sheriff’s niece, a fact Sheriff Harris (Chris Bruno) helpfully imparts to his deputy, Duncan (Frank Whaley).
Maya, it transpires, knows the Cusp. His MO is to kill his victim, and then resuscitate them, six times – the seventh is when they get their heart ripped out. Maya was his first victim, he thought he’d properly killed her and dumped the body but she wasn’t dead. In fact, all that to-ing and fro-ing had released so “many endorphins and chemicals in her brain” it awakened a deeply buried ability to be able to see people’s memories. This ability manifests itself as a kind of trance, where Maya wanders up and down a railway platform, looking into the windows and picking up memories on wobbly bits of ‘something’ (the actual word used by the visual effects’ crew in the DVD extras).
There’s a car chase – which ends with Harris stalling the police 4×4 and not being able to get it re-started, whilst the Cusp escapes in a crappy old sedan. Forensic evidence places Harris at the scene of the crime, so Skyler arrests him. They escape, endure the slowest foot-chase ever and go to a safe house, where Maya goes into another trance.
She sees the Cusp unmasked and so do we – and it’s exactly who we thought it was when the actor first walked onscreen. He’s not a scary monster at all; in fact, with his incessant chatter and penchant to explain everything to his victims, he comes over as nothing less than a thoroughly irritating twat.
With some incredible police-work (by the coroner), Harris gets an address and goes straight there, but the Cusp escapes back to his lair (an abandoned mill). Maya figures out where that is, but Skyler turns up and captures Harris leaving Maya to go on her own (the Cusp got to the location in minutes, Maya leaves in the dead of night and arrives in daylight). She’s captured by the Cusp who drugs her and somehow (I didn’t follow it and, for once, the filmmakers didn’t repeat an explanation a half dozen times) they meet up in his head, where he continues to torment her. Except by doing so, he reveals that he’s scared of the dark.
In the real world, first Skyler, then Harris advance on the Cusp, whilst in his head, Maya is in purgatory in his ‘expanded consciousness’ and I shared her torment. She gives herself a pep-talk – “he’s afraid of the dark, take back the power, scare him” and fights back, which is represented with weird optical effects and odd sound design – otherwise, it looks like two people standing in a strangely lit factory. The Cusp – a wily card – escapes in the FBI helicopter (who knew he was a pilot?), but Harris jumps on and very soon, it’s the end and Harris and Maya kiss happily.
This is a very strange film, thoroughly deserving of its direct-to-DVD status, that’s inept in so many ways it makes you wonder how nobody noticed as things were going along. There are a couple of plus points – of course – the key one being the location, a very snowy Salt Lake City, which is well used and visually different. It gives the film a nice tone, before most of the action relocates to inside an abandoned mill that could be anywhere.
Whilst I’m on the pluses, the character of the coroner (Paul Kiernan) is very good. When we first meet him, he gets to deliver this classic line to a corpse on his table – “Young lady, you’re going to talk to me. Well, not talk to me, but give me some DNA” – before fantasising about the book and film deals he’ll get when he helps break the case.
And so on to the negatives… The acting is never more than competent, with no-one imbuing their character with much depth – the script doesn’t help there either, reducing virtually everyone to a plot point or device. The direction is flat and lifeless, with only a couple of shots making this seem like a feature film, rather than a TV movie-of-the-week. The visual effects are generally poor – the railway platform sequences really highlight the gap between the filmmakers’ vision and the abilities of the visual effects crew. Make-up wise, for a film about a serial killer who cuts peoples hearts out, there’s so little gore I think they probably got away with Ribena.
In addition – and worse – the film takes its own internal logic and just throws it out of the window. The Cusp decides to bleed out his victim, telling her that most of his victims don’t come back from this one. After a brief cutaway, we see the same victim gamely escaping and fighting and running, with no seeming ill effects. The identity of the Cusp, apart from being completely obvious, doesn’t make any sense in the wider sense – how hasn’t anyone rumbled him before?
The other key problem is with the pacing. During the initial strike, we get to see the helicopter and task force trucks racing to the victim’s aid and this goes on and on. Then, just when you think there isn’t another angle to capture, we get more of the racing along – originality be damned. The same issue crops up during the film, particularly each of Maya’s trances which feature her stumbling along the platform, as if it’s the first time she and we, the viewer, have ever seen it. We also get far more of the Cusp than is good for his character.
With regards to the pacing, I don’t know if it was a requirement for the filmmakers to deliver a 94-minute product because for this little film, we get 11 minutes of end credits! That’s surely as long as the last Lord Of The Rings film, which had about 20 times as many people involved with it. These credits intersperse title cards with nice views of Utah (though you can see the rotors of the helicopter in most shots), then a couple of stretches of B-roll – one for the car jump, another for Harris’ stuntman jumping on the helicopter. The credits do yield one big surprise though – this film had four credited screenwriters!
The Cell 2 is a poor film in every sense of the word, squandering an intriguing idea, what could have been an intriguing killer, and superb locations, to make a bland little film that appears to have very little ambition or a desire to try anything new. I certainly wouldn’t want to sit through it again.
My screener copy had one featurette, a 30-minute ‘making of’ which is unintentionally very funny. The producers are incredibly proud of their film (poor misguided souls – they’re also two of the writers), everyone loves everyone else and the fact that the film was made on a very tight budget and schedule is mentioned as often as is humanly possible. This may well be the case but tight budgets and schedules are no excuse for what we’ve just sat through. The remainder of the featurette features the visual effects’ men trying to remind each other what it was they did and the sound designer explaining what he does, but doesn’t think to speak with the composer – perhaps his little Casio keyboard had run out of batteries that day. To be honest, it was a struggle to watch this featurette through to the end.