Star power is an amazing thing. Robert Bresson, the master director and unparalleled auteur, famously never used the same actors twice in his films. He didn’t want anything distracting viewers from the content. He didn’t want audiences seeing his films because so and so was in it. He wanted close readings of his films, not TMZ gossip and production stories. In fact, Bresson didn’t call his performers actors: he called them models.
I understand his point. I might not have given The Numbers Station, a direct-to-DVD production, much thought if not for its lead actor, John Cusack. This is not to say that a recognizable name makes a movie better or worse than one without known actors, but it certainly gets your attention.
Cusack’s career is curious. He was an iconic 80s, teen star, playing goofy, vulnerable, and off beat characters wonderfully in films such as Better Off Dead, One Crazy Summer, and Say Anything. He also showed he could take on more serious roles. There was Fat Man and Little Boy, City Hall, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and the bizarre Being John Malkovich. Later, there was tentpole and big comedy, as in 2012 and Hot Tub Time Machine.
Cusack is a go-to actor in multiple genres and always seems to be working. But that’s just it. He’s always working or maybe coasting is a better way to put it. How do you define his career? When he turns up in a one-note role (perpetually gloomy) in a pedestrian spy-thriller, defining his career gets even fuzzier.
I have it on authority the original script for The Numbers Station was far superior than the finished product (and Ethan Hawke may have been attached first), so one wonders what happened along the way and why the producers thought Cusack would make this movie work.
The Numbers Station isn’t a bad movie, but it feels like a missed opportunity. A numbers station is a top secret, CIA installation where code specialists broadcast numbers out to field operatives who translate the codes and then carry out the assignments (mostly assassinations). John Cusack’s character is one of those killers, but he is burnt out by all the murder. To allow him to clear his head, the company assigns him the job of protecting a numbers station. It’s sort of a Safe House in reverse. Instead of bopping around an exotic location, evading killers, Cusack must protect the dank and dark station, as well as a lovely code specialist (Malin Akerman), from invading mercenaries. She is also the only one who can reverse a series of coded instructions said mercenaries have forced another coder to broadcast. It’s not just her Cusack must protect; he has to foil a major plot against the CIA.
The movie becomes slightly confusing at times and some plot holes feel glaring. Why is such a top secret base, which can cause so much harm, literally deserted and protected by only two men (one of whom is killed)? If the Akerman character is the only one who can reverse the kill orders, why do the mercenaries, who seem to be so knowledgeable about the secret base and what it can do, wait to try to kill her when she arrives back from her weekend in London? These people, so it is depicted, have access to vast amounts of top secret information, yet they can’t find Akerman in London when she was unprotected and get her there?
Directed by: Kasper Barfoed
Written by: F. Scott Frazier
Starring: John Cusack, Malin Akerman, and Liam Cunningham
Cliches abound. The jaded and bitter CIA operative. The top brass believing all in the field are expendable. Bad guys making slick speeches. And on…
Despite these shortcomings, The Numbers Station is a fast-moving ride with good chemistry between Cusack and Akerman. It just feels that at every turn the movie could have been deeper and done something different. But instead of being at the vanguard, it opts to march squarely in the pack.
More than anything, I keep coming back to Cusack’s involvement in the movie. He brings his competent acting skills, but there’s little else he could have done with the role as written. In the end, I guess it was really about his name recognition, and as commercial as that sounds it works. They don’t call it show ‘business’ for nothing.