The Numbers Station (2013)

The concept of ‘number stations’ was completely alien to me, before I encountered the use of clandestine communications via ham radio frequencies in a cool episode of Fringe. My curiosity was peaked. I did a lil digging and discovered that this creepy espionage phenomenon does, in fact, exist. The ‘wannabe filmmaker’ gears in my mind started creaking along and I wondered why it was that no one had tackled this particular notion, for a flick. Well, it would seem that someone else out there had a similar thought…only they had access to the resources needed to put together this simple but well-crafted espionage thriller.
I remember that The Numbers Station received a limited theatrical release and in the span of mere weeks, seemingly vanished into obscurity. Ordinarily, one would think that a tense, action-splattered spy movie, starring the likes of John Cusack (Con Air) and the gorgeous Malin Ackerman (Watchmen) would’ve drawn more attention…but this one came…and then went rather quickly. The story focuses on Cusacks ‘Emerson Kent’ character, a a seemingly cold-blooded government assassin on the receiving end of the number stations transmitted codes, who uses them to ID his upcoming targets. Along the way, a young girl is killed during a multi-corpse piece of ‘wet work’. This event pushes his conscience to the breaking point and, on the recommendation of his ‘company’ therapist, he accepts a comparatively easy assignment: Monitor a numbers station on an abandoned American military base in England, while working with a shift partner, a sexy blond civilian named ‘Katherine’. After a couple months of boring monotony, their claustrophobic and highly regimented lives are thrown into lethal turmoil, by a violent ambush that leaves them trapped inside their broadcasting bunker while shadowy operatives try to gain entrance, to exploit the code. Think Finchers Panic Room (2002)…on a larger scale.
And thus begins the tried and true game of deadly ‘cat n mouse’. I’m a fan of most of John Cusacks work and this flick reinforced why. He manages to take a fairly one-dimensional and cliche’d character( the stoic but remorseful operative who drinks, to forget his trespasses) and infuses him with a feeling of rising humanity. When we first meet ‘Emerson’, he coldly and efficiently guns down 5 people, all in the name of The Mission. As the flick plays out, Cusack effectively and subtly shows a man who understands that he must get back in touch with his human side’ before he is found dead next to an empty bottle of booze, with a self-inflicted gunshot to the brain. That aspect reminded me of another films main character, Denzel Washingtons ‘John Creasy’ from Man on Fire(2004). Only in this case, it’s not a precocious 10 year old that ‘wakes’ him up, it’s a woman who just wants to get to know him, as a person, as they do their job. And I don’t even mean romantically (thankfully). Granted, the potential for future romance is skillfully hinted at, but luckily the filmmakers opted for the ‘what do you think happened?’ approach to this element.
As for the (maybe) romantic ‘opposite’, Malin Ackerman makes for an interesting subject. Now, while I fully (and proudly) admit to finding her to be a sexy, sexy beast, I will admit that, at times, her acting ability could benefit from a little added finesse. Watchmen (2009) is one of my favorite films but I can admit that she was the weak link there. When we first meet her character, I saw a hint of her now expected undercurrent of stiff awkwardness, and inwardly groaned. But, as the simple plot moved along, it was as though she became noticeably more comfy in ‘Katherines’ skin. And her character gets put through a couple different shades of Hell in this one.
The story itself is remarkably simple and that, largely, works in the movies favor. There is very little in the way of extra characters and, with the exception of some flashback action, the flick is dominated by Cusack, Ackerman and the number station itself.
The set design was sweet and as the story progressed, the environment became something of a character as well. With all it’s old grey concrete, glowing computer screens, rusty grates and iron doors, the bunker would’ve been perfectly suited for an attack by zombies…or Xenomorphs. I appreciated this.
I also appreciated the solid R-rating that this flick came with. Characters effortlessly drop F-bombs while the bullets fly and the blood sprays. There some tense and exciting action scenes involving loud volleys of gunfire and ‘down n dirty’ fisticuffs. I also sat up and took notice when the film made a rather big and realistic deal over the painful and detrimental effects of a large, nearby explosion. The characters weren’t just tossed through the air, only to stand up, brush themselves off and keep fighting the good fight. They were in pain and dazed for a believable period of time.
On the negative side, there were a couple silly moments that pushed the boundaries of believability. The most glaring, for me, was a scene where Cusack runs around, literally tossing unarmed bricks of C4 plastic explosives around…with no means to detonate. I guess maybe he slept through THAT class at Spy School, not that this lapse in reality has any effect on the resulting series of ‘BOOM!’s.
All in all, The Numbers Station is a refreshingly simple and straight-forward espionage thriller that pulls the viewer along at a decent clip. The flck isn’t perfect as some of the characters could’ve been given a little more backstory and ‘flesh’… but for an admirably crafted, lower-budgeted action movie…it certainly fits the bill.


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