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The Numbers Station

Theatrical Review

Image Entertainment; 89 minutes

Director: Kasper Barfoed

Written by on April 25, 2013 

If John Cusack doesn’t watch out, he’s going to become Nicolas Cage. OK, maybe it’s unlikely that the amiable and snarky Cusack will ever achieve the wild-eyed nuttiness or equally eccentric hairpieces of the Cage-meister; that questionable mane in The Raven still can’t compete with the stoic wigs of Bangkok Dangerous or Season of the Witch. However, if he doesn’t start doing quality control, Cusack might very well face a similar career fate as his Con Air co-star, his mug splattered on the cover of every fifth entry on Redbox or Netflix while spending his limited theatrical time playing back-up or doing animated voicework. Take The Numbers Station for example; there’s no clearer signpost for direct-to-video land than this glum, cramped action hodgepodge.

Cusack has never been one to simply phone in a performance, even if that amounts to trying to outrun the end of the world in a Roland Emmerich movie. Unfortuantely, his character in Station, a gloomy government agent downgraded from assassin to babysitter, is completely the wrong role for his particular set of gifts. Sure, Cusack’s late-90’s return calling-card was Grosse Point Blank, where he also played a fed-up hitman, but the difference there was that the actor’s sarcastic self-deprecation gave the character a makeover that sold the movie.

As the emotionally detached Emerson, Cusack has been frustratingly castrated. He must prolong every forlorn stare, expand every exhausted gesture, and commit a titanic effort of acting to conceal that signature twinkle and smirk that has been earning its pay since Say Anything. A star who made his name with lively, winsome performances is never allowed to lighten up here, even when this would-be espionage thriller downsizes to just he and Malin Akerman waiting it out in a handful of dingy rooms and poorly-lit basement sets.

Cusack’s Emerson is the textbook discombobulated ‘dark’ hero, a government killer who has been abused and used by his employers until there’s barely a psychological shell of the man left. When he botches a hit because of his reluctance to shoot-down an innocent, his superior, an under-utilized Liam Cunningham, sends him to a secret base in England on a low-stress job protecting Katherine (Akerman), who is responsible for broadcasting mission codes to field agents. When the station comes under siege by a group of unknown attackers, the duo must hunker down, reconnect with their bosses, and strive to keep out the invaders. Along the way Emmerson warms to Katherine and finds himself balking at his orders to dispatch her in order to protect the intel.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with The Numbers Station, unless you have seen at least one action movie in the past five years. In that case, everything here will not only feel familiar, but tired and frayed as well. The existential weariness of the hero is hanging from every frame of the film, failing to shrug off its apallingly stiff script. Akerman and Cusack have to play their predicament sober and sullen, and there’s absolutely no chemistry mustered between them, which prevents the central relationship from sticking. Since the gist of the film is a close-quarters ‘survive the night’ sort of ditty, it’s a fatal blow to dramatically hobble the two lead characters.

The action scenes never establish tension or gravity and it’s hard to forgive the fact that Emmerson and Katherine do spend a good bit of the movie in downtime, trading psyche profiles—a lame excuse for character building—and preparing for the assault to start again. Even the villains are wasted by the screenplay’s odd structure, which shuffles motivations into flashbacks and background dialogue. With no urgency, there’s extra time to contemplate how stale it all feels, especially those deserted hallways with flickering lights, awaiting video game assailants who will soon pour from the shadows. Despite Station’s intended pressure-cooking setting, The Raid: Redemption it’s not.

Helmer Kasper Barfoed may be the latest casuality of Hollywood chewing up promising foreign directors, but  he keeps the movie jumping through every inane hoop it’s asked to go through. Of particular note is his ability to manage the shifting narrative tones and inject the set pieces with a tumultuous atmosphere that gives the movie what little emotional grounding it has. All of this is just wasted effort, because The Numbers Station was dead in the water the moment it started taking itself seriously, which was back at the pitch meeting. As for Cusack, it’s time to go hunt down some passionate collaborators and commit to a project that’s more than a paycheck. Otherwise, he might end-up headlining Ghost Rider 3.

The Numbers Station hits theaters on Friday, April 26th.


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