Little by little, year by year, all traces of humor and playfulness have drained from John Cusack’s hangdog features. How can this sourpuss, glowering his way through junk like The Raven and The Paperboy, be the same actor who breathed life into Rob Gordon? Where on his sullen countenance is the charismatic enthusiasm of Lloyd Dobler?
In The Numbers Station, a joyless sins-of-the-government thriller, Cusack sinks to new depths of meditative glumness to play a black-ops agent nursing a guilty conscience. Saddled with the CIA’s dirtiest jobs, the conflicted assassin receives his assignments via numerical codes transmitted over the radio. According to the film’s text-based prologue, intelligence agencies have been employing this message-delivery system since at least World War II. While a less mundane movie might have delved deeper into the process, The Numbers Station displays little interest in the nuances of covert communication. Its real subject is killer’s remorse—a burden Cusack shoulders by staring blankly into space, drinking alone in his darkened apartment, and crouching over bathroom mirrors to dramatically splash his face with cold water.
Most of the movie takes place within the titular bunker, a secret CIA outpost hidden in the English countryside. Transferred there after nearly botching one of his missions—depicted in the film’s opening scene and revisited ad nauseam through flashbacks—Cusack plays bodyguard to a “cryptologist specialist” (Malin Akerman, in a thankless damsel-in-distress role). Because her daily broadcasts determine who the CIA will target next, ruthless terrorists arrive to seize control of the facility. They never register as much of a threat, maybe because their sneering-sadist leader (Richard Brake) seems like a rejected Die Hard villain, but also because they spend the majority of their screen time ineffectually drilling away at an iron door. Beyond that barrier, Cusack and Akerman scramble down a series of dimly lit, identical-looking passageways. The setting is as ill-defined as the characters.
Essentially a twofer, The Numbers Station relies far too heavily on the chemistry between its leads, which is close to nonexistent. The movie’s single point of tension relates to how far Cusack will go to cut off loose ends. Will this company man follow orders and “retire” his asset? Or will his crisis of conscience pull him in another direction? For Cusack fans, there are more pressing matters at hand, such as when this once-engaging performer will retire the sad-sack routine and get back to playing eternal, sardonic adolescents.