Every now and then, there's a small picture that somehow manages to escape anyone's attention when it plays theatrical. Typically, this happens when the said movie doesn't quite have a storyline that'll appeal to the biggest, boldest demographic: kids ... or younger adults with disposable incomes. Sadly, if it doesn't have an alien or a Transformer or a superhero or a laser or a car crash or maybe an accent or even Leo DiCaprio in some role, then it doesn't play to the masses; and a film like THE NUMBERS STATION ends up playing it all too safe by-the-numbers. It isn't so much a disservice - one could make a strong case that the lack of any clearly drawn characters holds STATION back from being a property worth greater acclaim - but I've always believed there's something to be said for a film that knows what it is, knows what it wants to be, and just delivers on that premise.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters. If you're the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I'd encourage you to skip down to the last two paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you're accepting of a few modest hints at `things to come,' then read on ...)
Veteran CIA black ops agemt Emerson Kent (played by the reliable John Cusack) ends up incapable of completing a `hit' job in the field, and, as punishment, he's relegated into a dead end position as the supervisor to a distant numbers station - a facility dedicated to dispatching clandestine orders to agents in the field. However, when his station is compromised, it's up to Kent and his broadcaster Katherine (the equally reliable Malin Ackerman) to avoid assassination, figure out just what the terrorists were up to, and correct it if it isn't too late.
THE NUMBERS STATION - which is a smart first script from F. Scott Frazier directed by Kasper Barfoed - defies traditional descriptions. It feels very much like a Cold War thriller, only there really are no specific adversaries named; there's just the U.S., and someone who's intent on spoiling U.S. interests. It also feels very much like a locked-box mystery, wherein the protagonists - Emerson and Katherine - are trying to uncover what happened and whether or not the events are fixable. But it also feels as though it desperately wants to make some kind of political statement on the nature of hidden agendas ... and one has to wonder if all of these threads were too tightly woven to do the resulting picture any good.
If one throws all of that aside, then you're left with its most satisfying impression: an old-school thriller. It's the kind of picture Hollywood used to churn out before so many vanity projects pushed political messages into the theatrical mainstream. On that front, I thought STATION achieved a good balance - there's just enough characterization for audiences to enjoy the lean 90-minute flick and not have a message hammered home. There's a respectable amount of action, a palatable amount of intrigue, and an appreciable return on the investment made in the entire affair.
Why this one didn't register with audiences when it played in the multiplexes is a mystery to me. Cusack - when he stays apolitical - is a known commodity though he hasn't had a hit in some time, and one has to wonder how much longer Ackerman will have to flourish in obscure pictures before she breaks through to wider acclaim. My best guess is the STATION was somewhat dismissed by critics who saw it largely due to the fact that, in today's event-driven environment, a smaller and quieter picture that ends up not necessarily indicting any government just isn't up-to-snuff. One can almost hear film historians collectively screaming, "If we're not openly trashing the U.S., then what are we doing?" STATION takes only a parting shot at an regime, and it's numbly voiced in a single line by Cusack's veteran black ops character: "It's gotta stop." Even then, he's not talking so much about a government as he is a specific practice, and that's not moving enough for Hollywood intelligentsia to wrap their thick skulls around.
THE NUMBERS STATION is produced by a whole host of partners, up to and including ContentFilm International, Echo Lake Productions (I), Piccadilly Pictures, and many more (check out the complete list at IMDB.com if you're that interested). DVD distribution is being handled through RLJ Entertainment. As for the technical specifications, the picture is smartly photographed, and the sound mix is particularly impressive given the fact that sound plays a key element in the unfolding plotline. As for the special features, alas there's only a fifteen minute obligatory `making of' short that makes slim use of John Cusack; I don't know if he wasn't all that interested in the finished product or what, but he just didn't seem all that interested in being there. Shame on you, Mr. Cusack; not every film has to carry a weighty message.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. THE NUMBERS STATION has a smart script that maybe - just maybe - takes the audience for granted one times too many. It didn't receive much notice in its run in theatres, but I'd strongly encourage viewers to give it a go as a rental. Cusack has played a hitman before (in the stellar GROSS POINTE BLANK); his Emerson Kent here is just a world-weary, but the consequences are far dire. Ackerman turns in another winning performance, and, together, they maintain a solid chemistry even though some of the paces feel a bit too rehearsed.
In the interests of fairness, I'm pleased to disclose that the fine folks at RLJ Entertainment provided me with a DVD copy of THE NUMBERS STATION by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.