Saturday, 14 December 2013

The Numbers Station; High concept, meet low budget.

I have written at appropriate length about John Cusack's nearly supernatural ability to be the best thing in a movie he shouldn't have signed on for in the first place, so I won't belabour the point that The Numbers Station is yet another of Cusack's musta-seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time misfires. Just take it as a given that he's the only one not phoning it in, and we'll take a look at the movie around his heroic effort to make a believable character in the middle of an affordable mess.

The Numbers Station looks very affordable; tiny cast, one location, two explosions. The gimmick is in the title. Numbers stations are a real thing; radio stations which broadcast long strings of numbers. The assumption is that they're coded messages to secret agents, though if I was running the CIA, I'd pay someone to read the Brooklyn phone directory over the air all day just for the fun of watching everyone else waste time and money trying to figure out who was supposed to be listening. Meanwhile I'd put all the messages for my own spies into the comments pages on or on Craigslist, since it's lot easier to get on the internet than it is to come up with a good reason for listening to a shortwave radio every day at the same time.

Still that wouldn't make much of a movie, so instead John Cusack is assigned to protect a numbers station, and everything goes horribly wrong. Bad guys invade the station and make the other shift broadcast assassination instructions to off 15 leading spy masters, and it's up to Cusack and his clueless cryptography expert to survive long enough to figure out how to countermand the instructions before the whole world is hobbled by 15 guys no-one's ever heard of not being round any more. The simplest thing wrong with this plot is that if someone sent me a set of instructions to schwack someone I'd never heard of, I'd expect to be pretty busy with that, rather than hovering over my shortwave radio on the off chance that there'd be a follow up saying "LOL, WUT, only joking.". 

The slightly more deep-seated thing wrong with it is just how murder-driven everything always seems to be in the movies. There's about 15 actors in the movie, and only one of them doesn't get shot before the end credits. I know it's not supposed to be a representative day at the office, but even so, if real espionage worked this way, it would be just behind the Sons of Anarchy as a leading cause of death in adults between the ages of 20 and 45. People would notice, I think. Questions would be asked. Sure, it's one bad day down at the office, but think it through. You've got a set up where you can send out instructions to people to carry out fifteen different murders in one day, and you're pretty sure that all 15 are going to happen. That means you've got at least 15 experienced reliable murder teams, on stand by, round the clock. Probably quite a few more, since what are the odds that you're going to have your 15 murder teams conveniently where your planned victims are? The bubonic plague wasn't this deadly.

I grumble about this because this is one of those espionage thrillers going out of its way to be gritty and downbeat and nihilistic, as though that's somehow more realistic than James Bond movies. The most realistic thing about the movie is that John Cusack spends the whole thing looking miserable and fed up with himself, looking for some way to redeem himself from a life spent shooting people just because he was told to. I kept thinking that it must have been easy to get into character; all he had to do was think about how fed up he was of spending his life shooting movies he shouldn't have.

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