RLJ Entertainment // 2013 // 89 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // June 4th, 2013
The code has never been compromised. Until now.
Perhaps the most vulnerable moment in any clandestine world is when communication occurs. The higher-ups need to know that their messages are getting through to their agents, and agents need to know that their orders are valid. Face-to-face meetings ensure validity but also expose everyone to risk, so other forms of communication are preferred. One of those is the so-called "numbers station." In a predetermined location on a predetermined radio band, a voice announces a series of numbers. To you or me they sound like a string of random digits, but to the trained operative with the right codebook they reveal a world of hidden messages and sets of instructions. It's in everyone's best interest to keep these numbers stations secure -- agents have to trust the numbers and so do their handlers. It's against this clandestine (and mostly fictional) backdrop of number stations that have been the fodder of conspiracy theorists for decades) that The Numbers Station is set. Though it contains some game performances from its leads, the film is bogged down in formula from the beginning.
Emerson (John Cusack, Better Off Dead) is a black-ops agent who's been assigned to babysitting duties at a numbers station after he loses his mettle in the field. He's assigned to guard Katherine (Malin Akerman, Watchmen), a numbers station worker. Unlike most bodyguards, though, Emerson's real task is to protect the code, not Katherine. When their station comes under fire, Emerson has some hard decisions to make.
The watchword for The Numbers Station is simple: modesty. Nothing about the film really tries to aim for the fences. Unlike many low-budget flicks that try to pepper their narratives with stunts and shenanigans outside their budget, The Numbers Station takes a simple premise, a few good actors, and some low-key twists to blend up a decent B-level thriller.
It all starts with a simple, fairly effective premise. On the one hand, we've got the bodyguard storyline: Emerson is disillusioned, Katherine is still wide-eyed, but we don't know what they'll do under pressure. Emerson's job is to protect the code, but we don't know if he's still loyal enough to the job to pull the trigger (and neither does Katherine, which works in the movie's favor).
The other main component of the storyline is the siege plot. It doesn't take long before everything moves into the bunker that is the titular numbers station. After that it becomes the usual game of cat-and-mouse, with Emerson and Katherine on one side and the psychopath villain on the other. Siege plots have structured countless movies (from Rio Bravo to Night of the Living Dead to Assault on Precinct 13), and The Numbers Station makes a virtue of its limited location. Despite being limited to a handful of rooms, director Kasper Barfoed continually finds ways to keep things interesting. However, the true benefit of these "limitations" is to keep the focus solely on the interplay between Emerson, Katherine, and their opponent, Max.
That limited focus is not a problem because of the cast. John Cusack may have grown up playing goofy, rubbery faced teens in the eighties (think Better Off Dead or Say Anything), but he can be surprisingly menacing when he turns down the charm and lets a cold gleam slip into his gaze. The fact that he looks like he should be charming and approachable only makes him more effective as the world-weary but deadly Emerson (revisiting, in a more dramatic fashion, his character from Grosse Pointe Blank). Malin Akerman hasn't been given many opportunities to show her range as an actress; she's usually relegated to the bubbly best friend role. However, she makes that work for her here, as Katherine is the opposite of Emerson's closed off, weary operative. She's all spark and go-getter attitude which means the two play off each other well.
The flick is also well-served by The Numbers Station (Blu-ray). It was shot on a high-end digital camera (the Arri Alexa) and that born-digital look is preserved well on this 2.40:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer. Like the film itself, the image is modest. There are lots of grays, blues, and whites to be found in the bunker, and black levels are deep and detailed throughout. Though modest is a keyword, there is an abundance of detail is closeups, with lots of fine object detail and good skin tones. The few outdoor scenes shine as well, with bright, clean images that showcase the range of this transfer. Perhaps the only place where The Numbers Station goes overboard is the aggressive DTS-HD 5.1 mix. Bass is all over the place, dialogue is in-your-face, and the surrounds get a workout for both atmosphere and directionality. It's a solid mix that definitely enhances the film.
Extras start with a 15-minute making-of that includes interviews with Cusack and Akerman as well as behind-the-scenes footage. It's not terribly in-depth, but it's a decent little extra. Sadly, the film's trailer is not included.
If you're not interested in modesty, then The Numbers Station is probably not for you. Those looking for big explosions, twisty plots, or outsized battles for the fate of nations will find the more limited goals of this film a bit too limiting. Obviously Cusack and Akerman are front-and-center for most of the film. If you don't like them, then chances are you won't like The Numbers Station.
The Numbers Station may be indicative of the future of filmmaking. It debuted on iTunes before a limited theatrical run which culminated in this home video release. As tentpole flicks become the bread-and-butter of Hollywood, raising the bar too high for many filmmakers, we'll likely see more and more modest films like this one gathering some big names and talent behind the camera. If The Numbers Game represents the future, then the future isn't too bleak. What we've got here is a decent little B-level thriller that leverages its cast and location to tell a minor variation on the siege plot. Fans of the actors or thrillers should probably check it out, though you might wish for a few more extras.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: RLJ Entertainment
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 89 Minutes
Release Year: 2013
MPAA Rating: Rated R