After watching John Cusack play a cold-blooded Black Ops agent in “The Numbers Station,” I’m convinced that I could probably handle the job. All you have to do is look numb and detached as you walk through the film, taking aim at the bad guys and masking a growing fondness for a civilian code transmitter (Malin Akerman) with a few more semi-straight faces.
Akerman does a better job in the acting department than Cusack, who seems to be going the Steven Segal route this stage in his career. Including “Numbers,” Cusack’s last three films have been mid-tier thrillers.
There are films with more suspense, more action, more originality, better dialogue, and better effects than “The Numbers Station.” Yet, like so many two-and-a-half star action thrillers, this one still somehow manages enough tension to keep you from shutting or writing it off. And in fairness, the “civilian” part is far more interesting and has more range than what Cusack is asked to do.
The first screenplay by F. Scott Frazier seems awfully familiar and lacking in significant twists and turns. It may be a thriller, but it feels like a thrill ride that you’ve been on before. In fact, this 2013 film feels like a cross between “Knight and Day” and “Panic Room.” And a whole lot of other films.
“The Numbers Station” implies that, like the mafia or any street gang, you just don’t quit the CIA if you’ve been involved in Black Ops. Cusack plays Emerson Kent, a field agent whose most recent job is to kill a former agent who quit, established a new identity, and opened a bar. But when his higher-up boss (who, inexplicably, is a ride-along on the job) tells him he also has to dispose of a customer who saw the hit and he does, the man’s daughter sees him and asks, “Why did you do this?”
That question is enough to make him holster his weapon and head back to the car. But when his boss (Liam Cunningham) sees that he left a loose end, he gets the Black Ops equivalent of an assignment in Siberia: he’s teamed with a civilian code transmitter in a work shift at a numbers station in an old bunker with Fort Knox security. We’re told that both sides use such stations because transmissions via short-wave radio are not traceable.
Somehow the bad guys DO find the place, and when Emerson and Katherine arrive for their shift, they’re fired upon. So for the bulk of its 89-minute runtime, “The Numbers Station” is a siege movie, with very little variation. Maybe that explains why it never got a wide theatrical release—debuting instead on iTunes, followed by a limited theatrical release before this home theater version hit the streets.
The film is rated R for “violence and language.”
“The Numbers Station” looks as good as any thriller, though. Most of the scenes are dimly lit or shot at night, and cinematographer Ottar Gudnason does a nice job of capturing the claustrophobic conditions while still managing to flesh out a pleasing level of detail. Thankfully he doesn’t rely on tilted camera shots to manufacture tension, or it would have been too much. But he does make effective use of spot color, and black levels are strong. Skin tones seem natural in these conditions, with edges or people and objects nicely delineated. I saw no issues with the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a 25GB disc.
“The Numbers Station” is presented in 2.40:1 aspect ratio.
The audio is an equally solid English DTS-HD MA 5.1 (48kHz/24-bit) that has a nice heft to it. There’s no rumble in the bass, but it has presence, so when the bullets fly they don’t sound like a boys choir pinging around. I will say that the mix itself can be startling. One scene that stands out is a pool hall shot in which Emerson cues up and the crack of balls coming from the rear speakers sounds more like an explosion. Is that done deliberately, for style, or is it a deficiency? I wasn’t able to tell. But there are at least a half dozen moments when the rear speakers startle like that and seem out of proportion to the mix and spread of sound across the other speakers. Subtitles are in English SDH and Spanish.
Besides trailers for other films, all we get is “The Making of The Numbers Station,” a 14-minute behind-the-scenes mix of footage and talking heads that feels like a preview but gives way too much away. So don’t make the mistake of watching this before you see the film.
“The Numbers Station” is a competent film and it does manage to create some tension. But you’re conscious of the fact that it all feels familiar and wondering why there isn’t a little more to it—why everything in this Black Ops world is so simplistically black and white.