Wry sarcasm, a gloomy demeanor, and boyish sensitivity come naturally to John Cusack. But if his persona often suggests that of the guy at the party who refuses to smile and has a wisecrack for everything, the actor is at his best when that sad-sack attitude gets directed to comedic ends. The Numbers Station, in which Cusack plays a hitman turned bodyguard who brings to mind his role in George Armitage’s Grosse Pointe Blank, unfortunately does quite the opposite. Following its protagonist’s cue, the film sticks strictly and seriously to business, allowing no room for playfulness and falling short in any humor that could properly counteract Cusack’s despondency.
Emerson (Cusack), a guilt-ridden secret government agent, gets assigned the relatively relaxing job of protecting a broadcaster, Katherine (Malin Åkerman), at a secret base in England whose job it is to send out assignment codes to foreign agents. The “Numbers Station” is some equivalent to the C.I.A. or MI6, or the KGB, and the film, like Skyfall, though far less successfully, trades in an anti-establishment attitude, portraying Emerson as an agent ruthlessly used by his bosses and left emotionally empty and devoid of human empathy for the sake of the job. After plenty of alone time with Katherine, though, you can tell Emerson’s allegiances might be shifting slightly from the company to the girl, an inner conflict that gains sudden urgency when the base comes under attack from assailants who want access to the codes within. Emerson and Katherine manage to seal themselves in the compound, but with security compromised, protocol demands that the bodyguard protect the information and retire the broadcaster.
Once the two are confined, The Numbers Station transforms from an action film into a waiting game, in anticipation of one of two occurrences: the arrival of a rescue team or the attackers’ successful effort to drill through the compound door. If Emerson and Katherine’s persistent flirting weren’t so forced and humorless, or if the attackers’ motives, revealed in flashbacks, weren’t so vague as to forfeit any chance of interesting the viewer, maybe director Kasper Barfoed’s attempt to foster dread rather than move from one fight scene to another could have been deemed passable, maybe even celebrated. But the film is miscalculated at every step, and it’s at its most maddening when Emerson and Katherine discuss each other’s psychological profiles—a brazen stand-in for character development that’s unforgivable. Emerson’s sulky disposition, meanwhile, is unflagging throughout and, along with the film’s basement setting, which is all empty hallways and flickering fluorescent lights, ensures that The Numbers Station sits awkwardly between shoot ’em up and psychological thriller without offering the excitement of either.