A charmingly analog premise involving old-fashioned radio transmissions and pen-and-paper code-breaking techniques does nothing to quicken the pulse in “The Numbers Station.” Sentencing a sad-looking John Cusack and a hard-working Malin Akerman to roughly 90 minutes of solitary confinement in a poorly lit underground bunker, this glum, juiceless spy thriller is a by-the-numbers affair indeed, unlikely to find an audience on any frequency. Already opened in a few overseas territories, the Image Entertainment release will transition quickly to VOD following a brief theatrical run.
As directed by Danish helmer Kasper Barfoed from a first-produced screenplay by F. Scott Frazier, “The Numbers Station” is the latest in a string of indifferent vehicles for Cusack, whose sardonic wit and laid-back comic energy make him a singularly poor fit for the role of a world-weary CIA assassin who decides he’s offed one civilian too many. When Cusack’s Emerson (perhaps he’s yearning for transcendence?) hesitates and nearly botches an assignment, his gruff supervisor (Liam Cunningham) removes him from the field and sends him to work in an abandoned U.S. military bunker on a lonely stretch of English countryside.
Together with Katherine (Malin Akerman), a young, eager-beaver associate who doesn’t realize the true nature of their operation, Emerson is in charge of broadcasting encoded CIA missives via radio waves — an untraceable form of communication that was devised during WWII and, as the film insists at the outset, is still in use today. But Emerson’s break from the field soon devolves into another life-and-death mission, as gun-wielding bad guys of unclear provenance enter the compound and transmit a series of messages with potentially catastrophic implications.
Left alone in the compound with a serious crisis looming, Emerson and Katherine must try to break the code and reverse the corrupted messages. Setup aside, however, the filmmakers don’t seem particularly interested in delving into the tricks and secrets of encryption and decryption, losing the viewer instead in a fairly gruesome but strenuously unexciting jumble of flashbacks, shootouts, explosions and shrapnel-removal scenes.
These are preferable, however, to Emerson’s recurring moral quandaries over whether or not to let his unsuspecting colleague become collateral damage, building to the astonishing revelation that espionage is a brutal, cold-blooded business. “They break us, you know? They make us into men we’re not,” another operative opines late into the proceedings, by which point anyone inclined to pay attention will have long since gotten the message.
Anchoring a solid enough production package, Ged Clarke’s cement-heavy production design and Paul Leonard Morgan’s pulsing score do what they can to dress up a script that, with its isolated two-character focus and rudimentary environs, might have worked better on the stage.