Friday, April 26, 2013

The Cinema File #164: "The Numbers Station" Review

I've only ever had a vague notion of what numbers stations are from my casual interest in cryptozoology and urban legends. From what I understand they are the source of mysterious broadcasts, seemingly random or at least as yet indecipherable sequences of numbers sent from secret locations, their purpose unknown and disavowed by all world governments. There was an episode of Fringe that focused on them and the cult of people obsessed with figuring out the pattern in the numbers, and I have to imagine the Numbers from Lost were somewhat inspired by them as well. The new film The Numbers Station uses perhaps the most widely held theory surrounding this phenomenon as a springboard for a fairly rote and cliche action thriller about black ops spooks and the women they love. I'd say it was a by the numbers plot, but then I don't want to be that guy.

The Numbers Station posits that the numbers are in fact secret messages encoded with assassination targets for CIA wet works operatives, one of whom develops an unfortunate conscience and finds himself benched at the titular out of the way facility as a glorified bodyguard for the monotone girl that once gave him his orders. When the station comes under siege by enemy agents seeking to use the broadcasts to send false transmissions, the unlikely pair find themselves trapped inside, forced to piece together what's going on while not knowing who they can trust. When I say this movie is cliched, I mean it, but unlike the last Cusack movie I reviewed, the lackluster procedural The Factory, that doesn't necessarily translate to bad. Its well paced and sets up its characters well enough that I was invested in their plight until the end, even if most of the action was fairly predictable.

The core of the movie is in exploring the psychology of government trained killers, human beings broken and re-formed into amoral machines, doing things men should not be capable of doing without feeling, long past the point where God and Country is a believable justification. For what little time is spent on this in between the action beats, its a fairly callous and unsentimental take on the concept, which I appreciated. Or main character is a killer who has momentary flashes of a desire not to kill, and to protect the innocent rather than reject the entire notion of innocence. When this struggle presents itself under duress, as every impulse within him says the way out is to take out the women he's come to know and care for, its just enough to be thoughtful without being schmaltzy.

Cusack is good at stoic, or possibly just phoning it in so lifelessly that it works in spite himself, and Malin Ackermann plays the station operator as the kind life-loving ying to her co-star's brutal emotionless yang. To the film's credit, it never goes so far as to suggest any real romance between them, but rather more of an informal father-daughter relationship, and if anything, their chemistry in the film is to a fault, leaving me unable to believe that he would ever be willing to kill her, or that she would ever believe he would. The action is passable, despite my not really buying Cusack as a Steven Segal type, and it wraps up simply enough, or maybe even too simply, lacking the kind of twists one would expect in a movie about secret agents and international espionage.

Maybe I sound more conflicted than I am, and I don't want to leave the impression that this film made any real impression on me whatsoever. Its not bad, but its not really good either. It just is. Its every straight to DVD action thriller from the 90's only with John Cusack and a somewhat inexplicable theatrical release. I can't bring myself to muster up enough excitement to recommend it, but its watchable enough that if you happen to come across it, I wouldn't caution you to avoid it either. If you've got nothing better to do, The Numbers Stations is a perfectly acceptable way to spend some time.

They're probably not going to put that non-committal quote on the poster, but there it is.

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