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It’s “Die Hard on a cell phone”

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: The sequel to blatant Die Hard knockoff Olympus Has Fallen hits theaters Friday, so let’s look back on some other Die Hard knockoffs, all of them much better than Olympus Has Fallen.

Cellular (2004)

Around the late ’90s, locations for Die Hard ripoffs were starting to run out. The formula of a lone man trapped into action against nefarious plotters had been applied to increasingly narrow confines: an airport, an airplane, a train, a bus. The bumper crop was dying off before anyone could figure out how to mount Die Hard on rollerblades and achieve maximum ’90s.

Cellular, then, was probably not pitched as a Die Hard ripoff. It may not have even occurred to the filmmakers that there was much relation between their film and the John McTiernan action classic—in part because in some ways, there isn’t much relation. The lone man isn’t a humble law enforcer of any stripe, just an initially callow and self-centered bro in a car who gets a call on his 2004-vintage bar-style cell phone from kidnapped Jessica (Kim Basinger) trapped in an attic. Neither the car nor the attic functions as the Die Hard location, though; the cell phone does. Jessica is speaking into a mostly smashed landline, and cannot call anyone else; the bro, Ryan (Chris Evans), must stay on the line, taking it upon himself to run, drive, and scrap his way around greater Los Angeles because circumstances dictate that he may be the only one who can save her. Evans, in his first major film role not explicitly meant to be a teenager, is a long way from his future as Captain America, but exposes some appropriate bedrock decency (as well as bedrock abs) below Ryan’s Californian dudeness.

The Die Hard movie Cellular most closely resembles is actually Die Hard With A Vengeance—the third (and second-best) installment that sends John McClane tearing around the whole of Manhattan in a mad dash of chases, stunts, and puzzles. No one is playing puzzle games with Ryan; the chief baddie is played by Jason Statham, more of a charismatically glowering henchman than a charsimatically oily mastermind. But the mad dash is similar, and tethering Evans to the cell phone has a pleasingly confining effect on the action. (This is also why the more logistically tricky cell-centric first hour is better than the final stretch.) That’s not to say the movie is particularly intimate. Director David R. Ellis, a stunt coordinator and second-unit director turned New Line hired gun who would later make Die Hard on a plane with snakes, choreographs all manner of vehicular mayhem, with Evans often emerging improbably unscathed. But Ellis also has fun with the camera, as in a shot where he parks it inside a cell phone store as Evans runs out to grab a gun and race back in, or an extreme close-up of a phone plummeting to its doom.

Ellis, who also made the even-numbered Final Destination movies, died in 2013, and the silly but propulsive Cellular remains his best film, the purest expression of his B-movie energy. The wrong-man-wrong-time ticking-clock story forms a sort of missing link between ’50s Alfred Hitchcock and ’90s Die Hard knockoffs, with nearly enough now-retro touches—bar phones, the old New Line Cinema logo, Jessica Biel—to kickstart ’00s nostalgia.

Availability: Cellular is available on Blu-ray or DVD from Netflix or your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased from the major digital outlets.