Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Wait . . . Didn’t We See This Last Year? The Numbers Station Is Hardly Original.

The Good: Decent acting, Good direction
The Bad: Much of the characterization sounds like exposition, No interesting character quirks, Very formulaic plot progression.
The Basics: The Numbers Station is a surprisingly low-key thriller that seems like it is trying to be this year’s Safe House.

Last year, moviegoers who were looking for an intelligent thriller got a pleasant surprise at the end of winter. Ryan Reynolds and Denzel Washington appeared in Safe House (reviewed here!), a thriller that managed to live up to the hype and was even better than the trailers made it seem. This year, in advance of Summer Blockbuster Season, Image Entertainment is distributing The Numbers Station and it is hard not to make some comparisons. Certainly, Image and the British producers of The Numbers Station would love for the film to be positively compared to Safe House and gross somewhere in the ballpark of last year’s film. Given that the hook for The Numbers Station is decryption and (potentially) numerology, The Numbers Station seems like it would have far less potential.

Where Safe House had a sprawling chase quality for most of the film, The Numbers Station is a largely claustrophobic, intimate picture where the protagonists spend most of the movie in a single building. Safe House had Reynolds, Washington and a decent support cast; The Numbers Station puts the burden of keeping the viewer engaged on John Cusack and Malin Akerman. It’s tough to view that as a fair trade-off of talent, but for the most part, they do what they need to. But without any comparisons, The Numbers Station suffers because it lacks a distinctive hook. Almost immediately, The Numbers Station begins to feel like an absolutely typical thriller and I waited for the movie to surprise me with something new, but it did not come.

Opening with Emerson intercepting a transmission and executing several people, but not killing an innocent civilian who witnesses him murdering her family, the American intelligence agent is shocked when his partner/superior, Gray, finishes the job for him. Gray [Which is spelled "Grey" in the credits, but "Gray" on the screen in the actual film] assigns Emerson to England and two months later, Emerson is no more satisfied with his life. Acting as a glorified security guard to a numbers agent at the station in England, Katherine, who has no idea what the chains of numbers she decrypts and transmits actually mean. The next Monday, Emerson picks Katherine up and, arriving at their nondescript bunker, they are shot at by assailants who have raided the facility for Katherine’s work.

Keeping Katherine safe, Emerson and his charge witness assassins kill and coerce the numbers transmitters within the facility. Emerson, after removing a significant piece of shrapnel from Katherine’s leg, learns that Gray is one of the subjects of the infiltrator’s transmissions. As he and Katherine wait for their extraction team to arrive, they witness the infiltrator’s torturing and killing the remaining agents inside the facility. When one of the agents makes a comment that they overhear (using the internal security system), Emerson realizes the organization is compromised and back-up will not be coming, forcing him and Katherine to work on their own to escape and survive.

The Numbers Station seems like it might have a compelling bit of character to it when Emerson is ordered continually to kill Katherine and he resists. Part of the problem, though, with The Numbers Station is that viewers do not really care about either character at that point. Emerson is a character who is fairly easy to empathize with, despite being a government assassin. But, the problem on the character front is that much of the characterization for Emerson – outside seeing what he does – comes from Katherine, a woman in shock who resents her sudden dependence upon the government agent. As a result, the form of characterization (characterization by what other say about the character) comes from kneejerk reactions layman’s psychoanalysis. Even worse, these monologues from Katherine sound like exactly what they are; exposition disguised very thinly as dialogue to take the place of genuine character development.

Conversely, the acting in The Numbers Station is not bad and the direction is actually fairly good. John Cusack (who knew?!) plausibly plays a coldblooded government assassin who is methodical and smart. As Emerson, he is given an initial character to play that is human and more humane than he is supposed to be. Cusack plays the sense of internal conflict very well. From the “oh shit” slump he does with his shoulders in his very first mission on screen when the civilian girl shows up to the stiff, efficient manner he has for his bearing when holding his weapon and presenting himself as a trained operative, he seems perfectly realized in the role of Emerson. I thought his next potentially-great performance would be Adult World, but he is actually quite good in The Numbers Station.

Malin Akerman, Cusack’s co-star as Katherine, is forced into the unenviable role of providing much of the film’s exposition and acting as the human conduit for receiving an explanation of the plot events. One might not think that such a basic, straightforward, thriller would need much in the way of explanation, but director Kasper Barfoed and writer F. Scott Frazier shake-up the simple plot with a nonlinear narrative technique. So, as Emerson and Akerman uncover information, the film constantly flashes back to, for example, how each of the bodies they find ended up dead on the respective floor upon which they find them. Akerman plays a woman in near-constant pain very well. Katherine is hit by shrapnel and wounded very early on. As she suffers more wounds, Akerman has to play the character with a heightened sense of fatigue and stress and she pulls the role off with a plausibility that makes it easy for viewers to believe in her character, even if it remains virtually impossible to emotionally invest.

As it is, most of The Numbers Station is a very standard thriller in a tight location, much like a haunted house film. The chase around a single building as Emerson puts together who arranged the attack and comes to understand the typical things about betrayal from those he trusted or institutions he believed in that are common in this type of genre film is hardly original. The Numbers Station suffers, at the end of it, for simply being obvious and typical as opposed to shining in any noticeable or original way.

For other works with Malin Akerman, please check out my reviews of:
Couples Retreat
The Proposal
27 Dresses


For other film reviews, please visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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  1. Great review. Thanks for putting in the effort. I actually watched TNS yesterday and thankfully came away feeling satisfied, but my investment in the experience was next to nil - so low expectations were easily met.

    1. Glad you liked the review! Thanks for reading and thanks for the comment!