There are a few actors I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to. A very few. They’re the guys and gals I’ll watch doing pretty much anything just because it’s them.
Sci-fi musical starring Cate Blanchette as a cartoon bunny? Sounds ridiculous but I’ll give it a shot because Cate’s great. Nine-hour experimental film about a man’s response to pizza deprivation starring Denzel Washington? Bring it on. A sequel to Taken starring Liam Neeson? Why on earth would anyone want to do that? Ah well, Liam’s always worth watching, I’ll get comfy on the sofa.
Also on the list is John Cusack. No matter what the circumstances – grifting with family, assassinating at high-school reunions or driving away from lava at the end of the world – Cusack is always effortlessly cool and eminently watchable.
Which is why The Numbers Station seems like a reasonable risk to take. What could possibly go wrong with a tale of a burned-out CIA spook who gets caught as the last line of defence between an elite codemaker and some vicious terrorists in a secret military base?
A lot, it turns out.
A gigantic screw-up sees the improbably named Emerson Kent (Cusack) taken out of the field and consigned to a remote part of Suffolk for a babysitting detail.
The ‘baby’ in question is an expert cryptographer, Katherine (Malin Akerman), who spends her days compiling codes and sending instructions to US agents over shortwave radio.
And so it goes for Kent – boring detail, envisaging ways to kill everyone he meets in case it becomes operationally necessary, nights spent drinking himself unconscious while reliving his recent career mishap.
Until the pair discover their base is compromised and the other pair of spooks that are missing are presumed the victims of a terrorist plot.
The set-up for The Numbers Station is actually pretty clever. A two-person show for a large part of the time, the bulk of the action plays out through the recordings the pair recover on the station’s database.
With the whole place wired for sound, they overhear the fates of their co-workers and try to work out what plot is being enacted, if they can stop it and whether or not someone’s still out there trying to kill them.
Oh and the good guys seem to want Emerson to permanently retire his cutesy cryptographer as part of the standard clean-up procedure too.
There’s plenty of potential suspense, paranoia and claustrophobia but, instead of riveting thrills building to a nail-biting climax, the sluggish pace means it comes across like a Human League video from 1987 shown in slow-mo.
Oh the what-might-have-beens.
Cusack is, as always, a pleasure to watch. He’s gone from Lloyd Dobler’s irrepressible optimism to an expert at portraying a world of crushing disappointments with a forehead rub or the flick of a cigarette.
His weariness is well matched by Akerman, who plays Katherine as an intelligent but legitimately frightened young woman. She ain’t no damsel in distress but neither does she develop an improbable streak of badassness in the third act and start jumping across rooms sideways shooting two guns at bad guys.
The rest of the cast, fleetingly used, are of sufficient quality to neither upset proceedings nor mark themselves out as particularly comment-worthy.
The Numbers Station is a clever idea drawn out too long with far too little meat on its bones. To be honest it might make a better basis for a play – given the bulk of the action takes place in the same few rooms of the base – than it does a film because without either a shorter running time or more incidents during its 90-minute run, it’s just not worth doing more than reading the back of the box and then putting it back on the shelf.