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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The Cell was generally greeted with poor reviews upon its release in 2000, but there are those of us who feel director Tarsem's thriller is a modern classic in the genre. (I had it at #7 on my list of the best films of the year.) For that reason, I was very intrigued by the possibility of the sequel, The Cell 2, which premieres on DVD June 16. The fact that stars Jennifer Lopez and Vince Vaughn didn't return wasn't an issue for me; the concept, more than anything, was the draw. Unfortunately, The Cell 2 has little or no similarity to the original, other than sharing a title.

Tessie Santiago (apparently cast for her resemblance to J. Lo) plays Maya, a psychic who is helping the FBI locate a lunatic known as "the Cusp." The guy's modus operandi is to kidnap women, kill them via medical procedures, then revive them. In what has to be the most inane, laughable explanation for a character's extrasensory abilities in the history of cinema, we are told that Maya was the only woman to have survived the Cusp's torture; he killed and revived her seven times, which caused her brain chemistry to give her psychic powers.

The Cusp's latest victim is the niece of small-town Sheriff Harris (Chris Bruno). He naturally wants to help in the investigation, much to the consternation of a territorial FBI agent named Skylar (Bart Johnson). Character actor Frank Whaley co-stars as a mild-mannered deputy who also helps follow the leads provided by Maya.

The Cell 2 takes one of the most original and disturbing horror movies of recent years and turns it into a generic torture porn flick. The original was about a psychotherapist who underwent an experimental procedure that allowed her to enter the actual psyche of a deranged lunatic. Her adventures, which led to clues as to where his victims were being held, involved experiencing - and trying to psychoanalyze - all the torment and madness that rattled around his brain. It was the ultimate Freudian nightmare. This story, in contrast, is just about trying to find a guy who operates out of a stereotypically rusty basement and locks women in weird-looking torture contraptions, including encasing their heads in boxes. And, unlike the Jennifer Lopez character in the original, Maya is just a psychic. She doesn't really know anything special that could be useful in taking down the Cusp.

Also missing is the darkly beautiful visual style Tarsem created for the first picture. He dramatized the killer's dysfunctional psyche through a series of disturbing hallucinogenic images designed to represent complete, unrepentant insanity. All we get this time is a hallway that Maya walks down with "pictures" on the walls to represent what the Cusp sees. It's far less effective, and it also betrays the movie's low budget. You get the feeling, at times, that this wasn't even conceived to be a sequel to The Cell - that perhaps there was a script that bore some mild resemblance, so they changed the title to increase audience interest.

Having said that, my dislike of The Cell 2 isn't entirely (or even primarily) based on the fact that it doesn't live up to the original. The fact is that this is a bad movie, no matter how you cut it. The premise is silly, there's no real suspense, and the performances are generally pretty bad, especially the one from Tessie Santiago. Also, since Maya is tracking a killer whose face she can't see, astute viewers will know this means one thing: the Cusp is one of the other characters from the film. If you can't figure out who it is from the get-go, then you have probably never actually seen a thriller before.

I'd have been okay with a lower-key or less elaborate Cell sequel; I realize that this is a DVD debut and won't necessarily have big stars or a huge special effects budget. However, those things aren't vital when a film tells a good story in a creative way, which this one does not. In every way, The Cell 2 is simply an exercise in incompetence.

( out of four)

DVD Features:

The Cell 2 arrives on DVD on June 16 in widescreen/fullscreen format. A digital copy is also included.

There is one bonus feature: a lengthy making-of documentary that has interviews with the actors, the writers, and the director, as well as technical people such as stuntmen and sound designers. While generally pretty extensive, I didn't find it particularly interesting since I thought the film itself was so bad. It's kind of weird to hear everyone talking about what a great movie they are making when you know how it actually turned out. If you happen to enjoy the movie, you will probably find the making-of to be more enjoyable.

The Cell 2 is rated R for language and violence. The running time is 1 hour and 34 minutes.

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