Review: ‘The Numbers Station’ Suffers From a By-the-Numbers Plot, Is a Zero Sum Game and Just Doesn’t Add Up
Two men sit in a car having a seemingly casual chat, but while Grey (Liam Cunningham) rambles on about the dollar value associated with all of the various minerals in a human body, Emerson (John Cusack) is recording numbers being spoken on the radio. He writes them down, enters a bar and kills the three people inside.
They’re wet work agents tasked with cleanup duty, but when their latest hit goes awry Emerson is reassigned to an underground Numbers Station in England to babysit a civilian named Katherine (Malin Akerman), whose sole job is to transmit numerically coded messages over the shortwave radio to agents in the field. She doesn’t know exactly what’s in them, but she trusts they’re helping in the war on terror. Emerson knows otherwise, and his growing angst and existential concerns are what landed him this temporary demotion to a boring post in the middle of nowhere. The tedium doesn’t last long though, as a group of assassins have found the bunker, and they won’t stop until they accomplish their own mission.
Why doesn’t John Cusack play characters who get to smile anymore?
The Numbers Station opens with text stating that governments have used these untraceable shortwave codes since WWII and that while they deny they’re still in existence, the numbers can still be heard occasionally on shortwave radios today. It’s unclear if that’s actually true, but the simplicity of the system on the surface belies a complexity in its execution that the script by F. Scott Frazier only hints at. Veracity aside, it allows for a setup that echoes (in minor ways) the classic and far more thrilling Three Days of the Condor. It lacks that film’s personality, and while director Kasper Barfoed proves capable of shooting some solid (if small) action sequences, the energy suffers elsewhere.
The film’s biggest single issue is scale and location as most of the run-time takes place in the underground bunker. Ideally it would serve to build a claustrophobic tension, but instead it just bores with a repetitive series of poorly-lit rooms. The film tries to break things up with audio recordings of other characters brought to life through flashbacks, but they still take place in the same damn bunker. It’s a budgetary issue to be sure, but the locale doesn’t necessitate a lack of excitement as evidenced by the slightly better Crawlspace (which looks to have been shot in the same bunker).
The script isn’t quite as generic as the setting, thankfully, but it still doesn’t bring much originality to the table. The revelations and plot turns are expected if not obvious to some degree, and while a small surprise factors into the ending, the whole thing concludes quite light on thrills overall.
Cusack seems to be enjoying (?) a new career as a direct-to-DVD star, and that’s unfortunate. The matter is worsened by the fact that his film choices have been so dull and drab. Did he simply have his fill of rom-coms and decide to go dark? That would be understandable, but ideally he’d find better material to satisfy his desire for low budget intrigue and action. All that said, he does well with the little he’s given here and maintains a flat, emotionless tone until his character is called upon to feel something. Akerman shows some spunk, but it’s a thankless role all around.
The Numbers Station tries to compensate for its budget and scale with recognizable faces and some minor excitement, but it never succeeds in passing the flat-line of mediocrity. The acting and script are competent enough, but the film lacks anything resembling energy. Ultimately, much like most of the math I learned in school, the movie is doomed to be quickly forgotten.
The Upside: Cusack and Akerman give it their best; some small but well-staged action sequences; short run time
The Downside: Single location works against the possibility of suspense or thrills, and the script doesn’t compensate; by-the-numbers plot
On the Side: Per IMDB, John Cusack currently has at least ten films (including this one) in various stages of production for release in 2013