It’s always slightly unfortunate when the first moments you spend with a new film are spent remembering something similar. It’s even more unfortunate, when the similarities emanate from a film starring the same actor. The Numbers Station begins with John Cusack picking up where Marty Blank left off in 1997’s Grosse Pointe Blank – as a dispassionate hitman who develops a sudden attack of conscience. Fortunately, Cusack’s character Emerson is neither on his way to a high school reunion, or smitten with Minnie Driver. But it’s a coincidence Kasper Barfoed‘s film could have well done without.
Strictly speaking, though, The Numbers Station isn’t a film about Emerson’s new-found compassion. Or at least not directly. But when faced with dispatching a young, innocent target, it is this very compassion that sees Emerson taken out of “field work” – and reassigned to protect cryptologist Katherine (Malin Akerman) at a remote CIA broadcast bunker. These thought to be abandoned bunkers – known as number stations – are used to make untraceable government broadcasts across the globe.
Of course, what is originally billed as a glorified vacation for Emerson rapidly descends into something far worse than his day job. Shot at while waiting for the routine changeover with David (Bryan Dick) and Meredith (Lucy Griffiths), Emerson and Katherine seek refuge in the bunker – only to find no sign of David and Meredith; no clear way out; and an enemy all-too-willing to drill their way in.
From this point on, The Numbers Station settles happily into a less than elegant amalgam of 2002’s Panic Room, and a quintessential late 90s/early noughties tech-thriller. True to form, the techno-babble comes thick and fast, yet – much like the stratagem of the enemy trying to infiltrate the bunker – little of it is contextualized to any great effect. Meanwhile, any sense of genuine claustrophobia is all but lost by Barfoed’s decision to allow the use of a bunker that appears at least as big as a three bedroom flat. The red, furnace-like afterglow doing little to disguise its spaciousness.
But what The Number Station lacks in claustrophobia and invention, it at least partly makes up for in controlled pacing. Coming in at a streamlined 85 minutes, Barfoed’s direction leaves us with few wasted frames, and The Number Station greatly benefits from a clear, watertight brief and lack of impetus to wander off task. Cusack, meanwhile, might be on cruise-control – having inhabited numerous variations of this character before – yet, still manages to covertly shine as tortured soul Emerson. Even if his character is little more than a Hollywood composite.
Tightly-wound, with production values to match, The Numbers Station appears to hit most of the right notes. It’s just a shame it doesn’t find a few more notes of its own. Barfoed’s film does little truly wrong, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that underneath the sea of ciphers and bulletproof encryption, The Numbers Station is a by-the-numbers thriller in more ways than one.