Claustrophobic and repetitive, “The Numbers Station” is a numbingly tedious would-be thriller that wastes the considerable talents of John Cusack.
He plays Emerson, a demoralized US intelligence agent, a recovering alcoholic who hits rock bottom after completing his latest mission, in which he wastes the entire population of a bar before trailing a witness home and eliminating him and failing to save the man’s innocent wife from execution by his boss Grey (Liam Cunningham). It’s a far cry from the far less conflicted that Cusack played so memorably in “Grosse Pointe Blank,” and frankly the actor looks as uncomfortable as the character—not a testimony to his identification with Emerson, but his apparent ennui.
At the base, a concrete bunker sort of thing in northern England where encrypted messages are dispatched to agents and received and decoded in turn, Emerson is partnered with Katherine (Malin Ackerman), a pretty blonde who’s there out of a sense of duty to her country. But arriving for work one morning the find themselves—and the whole place—under assault from a squad of bad-guys. The rest of the running-time is devoted to their effort to stay alive and hold out until reinforcements arrive.
It’s a tedious business, not invigorated by what feels like a good deal of padding despite a short (88- minute) running-time. The action is frequently interrupted by scenes of other workers in the facility being brutalized and killed by the invaders, and there’s a fractured quality to these, which are sometimes shown in real-time, and elsewhere in flashback snatches. The effect is disorienting in an unnecessarily arty way.
Still, from a technical standpoint “The Numbers Station” is competently made for the most part. Ottar Guttnason’s cinematography is atmospheric, and Ged Clarke’s production design does what it needs to. The picture’s faults like primarily on the narrative side, with a script (by F. Scott Frazier) that isn’t distinctive or surprising enough and direction by Kasper Barfoed that’s on the flaccid side. As for the cast, apart from Cusack Akerman has the only meaty role, and she does well enough showing her mixture of vulnerability, strength and pain (since she’s seriously wounded early on). That’s true even though she’s saddled with some monologues that rather clumsily deliver expository material that might have been handled more cannily. The villainous interlopers all seem to have come out of central casting.
In sum, “The Numbers Station” is a wearyingly ordinary attempt at a confined-space thriller that doesn’t so much take advantage of its locale as reflect its limitations. By the time it finishes, you’re likely to feel as exhausted and out of sorts as Emerson (or Cusack) looks.