Time off for good behaviour means every now and again, I watch a film where there’s at least half a chance I’m going to enjoy it. Will John Cusack and Malin Akerman and their tale of spies be as good as, say, “Snow Shark”? Let’s see.
Cusack and Liam Cunningham, one of my favourite actors and currently killing it as Davos Seaworth in “Game of Thrones”, are partners in some endeavour or other (but they’re probably CIA agents). Cusack is cracking a code, or using a cypher, while Cunningham attempts some banter – tricky when your friend is an emotionless assassin. Assassin? Ah, yes. They’re given some orders and Cusack proceeds to wipe out everyone in a bar – all besides one, and when they track him down to finish off the job, Cusack discovers a sort of morality when he’s unable to murder his target’s daughter, as per protocol. Cunningham has no such trouble, and knocks Cusack out in the process.
Due to his sudden inexplicable case of compassion, Cusack is judged unfit to go back out into the field, so is given a job as babysitter to a “broadcaster” at a numbers station in England. Now, “numbers stations” have been around since the end of WW2, and although they’re officially not recognised by our governments, they’re apparently used to transmit orders to people in the field, for whom emails and phone calls might be spied on. They just broadcast streams of numbers, most often using a computer-generated female voice, and the most well-known one according to Wikipeda is called “Blackleg Miner”, in England, and that’s where this film is set.
Cusack’s broadcaster is Malin Akerman, because otherwise this film would be about John Cusack learning to love a computer, and the film leaves her pretty much a blank slate while Cusack’s life is fleshed out – sitting in silence for days at a time while at work, drinking himself into oblivion while at “home”, thinking about the dead teenager. When he changes shifts and sees the other team entering the base, the male agent with his hand low on his female broadcaster’s back, he stares, partly out of surprise at seeing human warmth, partly because he maybe wishes he’d thought of doing that too.
Inevitably, this stasis in their lives cannot last, and they go to work for their shift to find the base has been invaded by a group of three people, and the other shift has been killed. Although I’d not really considered it to this point, the film’s obvious low budget starts to become apparent – at least two-thirds of the film is just Akerman and Cusack, running round the base, trying to both fight off the people who came in, find out why they did it and stop their plan (which involved cracking the code and broadcasting their own message). The CCTV feed has been cut, but they still have recorded sound, so they get the story of what happened before they arrived, parcelled out as they get closer to some resolution.
I had the thought while watching this that if it was black-and-white, and French, “people” would be a great deal more excited about this film than they were (it sank without a trace, critically and commercially speaking). But then I thought that was just my prejudice, and realised the film would have had some issues, no matter the colour palette or language. There’s no double cross or twist, leaving it feeling rather old-fashioned – several aspects of “The Numbers Station” feel like red herrings, or plot threads left in from an earlier script draft. For instance, along with them finding the audio footage, the viewers get to see what happened. Now, aside from being a throwback to films like “The Conversation”, the only reason to have audio, not video, is so it can be manipulated to leave a false trail, or to show their impressions of it were wrong, or something. But it’s just a straight re-telling of what happened, which is a bit jarring.
Talking of the video, the bad guy is so ludicrous that you’re praying for his character to be twisted into something more interesting. But if you’ve seen one well-read, erudite but utterly cold murderer, you’ve seen ‘em all. And that’s the problem with this film. I really believe the filmmakers wanted to make something really interesting – a character study of the people who are twisted by their immersion in the world of espionage and assassination, but it was either heavily rewritten at the last moment or someone hacked an hour off its running time (it comes in at a shade under 90 minutes). Now, if a film isn’t going to tell you who the bad guys are, and why they’re doing what they’re doing, then it had better make sure you’re kept interested in some other way, and I think this film falls between being a genuinely interesting piece of cinema and a straight-up thriller, and sort of fails at both.
I haven’t mentioned Malin Akerman much, sorry. While I don’t hate her quite as much as the people who blame her for “Watchmen” being a failure, I just don’t buy her as a cinema leading player. She’s fantastic on “Childrens Hospital”, the 15-minute comedy series on Adult Swim, but not here (and it’s horribly obvious by the end that the filmmakers don’t have a clue what to do with her either, which doesn’t help). There’s a bit where she says she was recruited straight out of college, by a company that made apps for phones. Now, this leads me to believe they wrote the parts for two younger actors, then recast but didn’t bother rewriting – Akerman is 35, so when she was graduating from college mobile phones would have been bulky things with no apps of any kind.
For fun, see if you can piece together a timeline that puts this movie and “Grosse Pointe Blank” in the same universe – maybe instead of rescuing Minnie Driver at the end of that, she died and he threw himself into his assassination work. Well, he has the same hangdog expression, the same clothes and the same moral flexibility. Saying that, Cusack seems to be happy playing variations on this role in a lot of movies in recent years (the driving one with Thomas Jane springs to mind too).
Lastly, maybe next time the CIA is hiring for a job like this, pick people who stand less of a chance of falling in love with each other (two straight people of the same sex, two gay people of different sexes, for example) and messing up your incredibly complex and expensive plans.
Rating: thumbs in the middle