The Numbers Station

The Numbers Station is a surprisingly tight and challenging film, with unique characters and John Cusack in one of his most effective roles. This is another film that was not given its due. In fact, you should consider yourself robbed if you are a fan of John Cusack and thoughtful action flicks.

Here’s a trailer that makes the flick look more ‘shoot-em-up’ than it is. It’s got more human drama than most actioners:

The deets:

Released April 26, 2013

Written by F. Scott Frazier

Directed by Kasper Barfoed

Starring Malin Ackerman, Lucy Griffiths, John Cusack, Bryan Dick, Liam Cunningham, and Richard Brake

Rated: R

*     *     *     *     *


Emerson Kent (Cusack) has been a wetwork agent for the CIA for as long as he cares to remember. During one operation, a witness sees him execute a mark and escapes, so Kent and his handler, Gray (Cunningham), have to hunt down the witness and tie up the loose end.

But in cleaning up the mess, Kent has an attack of conscience and a breakdown, so he is given one last chance to not be a mess that needs cleaning up. He is assigned to a Numbers Station, which is a secret fortress where code analysts receive and broadcast orders through code to agents all over the world. Kent is put in charge of security for Katherine (Ackerman), who fills half of the shifts at the station. The other team is made up of David (Dick) and Meredith (Griffiths), with David acting as Meredith’s security. These two are also in a relationship.

One day, Kent and Katherine show up and everything goes to pot. The station comes under attack and Kent has to follow protocol and secure the station and the code. Now he has to decide if he is willing to do what protocol requires to secure the code, while at the same time he has to find out just how human he is and how far he is willing to go to remain true to what he knows is right.

Meanwhile, Katherine realizes just what it is the attackers are trying to do in taking over the station, so she determines that she has to stop the coded message that they were able to send out.

Thus, Katherine and Kent have to use surveillance audio files, their wits, and their grit to piece together what is going on and try to stay alive, while also doing what they can to keep the world from descending into chaos.


The Numbers Station provides characters who are in no way larger than life and who make lame jokes and who live and talk just like regular people. Pain slows them down, as do remorse and uncertainty.

And that is one of the main reasons that this movie is actually a pleasure. Ackerman portrays, particularly well, a woman who never thought she would be in such a dangerous, tense situation and who was simply doing a job that paid well. Cusack plays the guarded, cynical, somewhat imbalanced agent very well and unself-consciously.

It also helps that the film takes place in a fairly cramped setting, heightening the tension and adding to the conflict. With what amounts to a ticking clock (the attackers are drilling through the armored door and Kent and Katherine have to decode a message in time to save a bunch of world leaders), some unexpected character issues for Kent, and no silly romantic entanglements, this is a fairly crisp, involving thriller.

A few things make the film not as good as it might have been. Too much shaky-cam, at times too-dim lighting, and a villain who was not as convincing as the film needed. What’s more, we never fully understand why the villains entered the station, did their code thing, and then departed, leaving only one operative inside. This is a plot convenience thing that weakens the story somewhat.

However, all-in-all, The Numbers Station is worth a rent. It’s not an edge-of-your-seat thriller, but is very engaging and satisfying with solid performances all around.

Content warnings: Salty language and moments of violence.

Writing: 3.5          Acting: 4          Overall: 3.5

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The Last Stand

The Last Stand depends entirely on Arnold Schwarzeneggar’s ability to carry a fairly formulaic action flick on his shoulders. Luckily, he’s still got great timing and charm to spare. This is a fun film.

Here’s a trailer:

The deets:

Released January 18, 2013

Written by Andrew Knauer

Directed by Kim Jee-Woon

Starring Jaimie Alexander, Christiana Leucas, Arnold Schwarzeneggar, Luis Guzman, Zach Gilford, Forest Whitaker, Johnny Knoxville, Peter Stormare, Harry Dean Stanton, Eduardo Noriega, and Genesis Rodriguez

Rated: R

*     *     *     *     *


Ray Owens (Schwarzeneggar) is a former LAPD vice cop who left the big city scene after a traumatic experience, moving to Sommerton Junction to become the Sheriff of the tiny border town. He has three deputies, Sarah (Alexander), Mike (Guzman), and Jerry (Gilford), and lives a fairly peaceful life.

Agent John Bannister (Whitaker) is the FBI agent in charge of transferring a terrifying drug cartel kingpin named Gabriel Cortez (Noriega) from a holding cell to another location. But Cortez escapes custody in an imaginative way, taking Bannister’s fellow agent Ellen Richards (Rodriguez) hostage in the process. Now Cortez is in a souped up, faster-than-a-helicopter car, heading for the border, living his dream of being a race-car driver and Bannister can’t catch up, because Cortez has planned for everything the FBI might do.

Meanwhile, Owens is dealing with two suspicious truckers who made his spidey-sense tingle. One of these is Burrell (Stormare), who it turns out is working for Cortez and is making a way for the drug kingpin to cross the border right outside Sommerton Junction. When Owens sends his deputies Sarah and Jerry to figure out what’s happening on a farm outside of town, things hit the fan. Then Bannister calls Owens and tells the tired sheriff that there’s a bad guy on the way and that Owens needs to get out of the way or face death.

But Owens has reason to fight and he recruits a couple of locals, one of whom is a gun nut (Knoxville), to help batten down the town and prepare for war with Cortez and his baddies.  Luckily, the town is mostly empty due to an out of town football game.

This, of course, leads to an explosive showdown that involves fast cars, lots of guns, and appropriately timed zingers.


Starting with what The Last Stand gets right, it makes sense to discuss Arnie. He’s getting on in years and is simply nowhere near as powerful-looking as he used to be. But he’s still got a square jaw and his acting has only improved. It helps that the movie makers accept his age and slowed-down state openly and use it to enhance the scenes where he is required to be physical. In his fights, he doesn’t depend on speed or special moves: he uses brute strength and sheer meanness and determination to win.

So Arnie is still a win due to his charm, presence, and simple professional action hero resume.

Add to Arnie a pretty good supporting cast who has to fill out the formulaic roles as well as possible. Zach Gilford is particularly enjoyable as the deputy with his eyes on a big-city cop prize, with Jaimie Alexander delivering a performance that truly helps the audience see these small-town folks as totally over their heads in their conflict with sophisticated, ruthless, and better-armed bad guys.

Luis Guzman could use some better material, as he keeps ending up playing something of a goofy sidekick, but at least he’s good at it. Whitaker also does well as a frustrated, growing-desperate agent who can’t figure out why he can’t catch the drug kingpin.

Then there’s the writing. Setting aside rather convenient timing issues when it comes to geography and distances, the film builds the tension well, allowing viewers to get a feeling for at least the principal characters, as well as to gain an appropriate distaste for Cortez, the bad guy. Cortez’s escape is creative and Sheriff Owens’ group is also creative and true to their characters in their attempts to stop this bad guy. Owens does as much as he can within the law and only goes all Terminator on these guys when they force his hand.

If for no other reason than to see Arnie back in, literally, action, The Last Stand is worth a watch. Action fans will particularly like the movie, as there is plenty of eye candy with the ultra-fast car, some nifty fight scenes, and heroism all around. 

Content warnings: plenty of salty language and violence, some of it bloody

Writing: 4          Acting: 4          Overall: 3.5

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Unknown is generally an interesting movie, with effective suspense, a somewhat believable storyline, mostly good actors, and a finale that more or less satisfies.

Here’s a trailer:

The deets:

Released February 18, 2011

Written by Oliver Butcher, and Steven Cornwell, based on the novel Out of My Head by Didier Van Cauwelaert

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

Starring: Diane Kruger, January Jones, Liam Neeson, Aidan Quinn, Bruno Ganz, Frank Langella, and Sebastian Koch

Rated: PG-13

*     *     *     *     *


Martin Harris (Neeson) has just arrived in Moscow with his wife Elizabeth (Jones) for an important conference. But he leaves a briefcase at the airport by mistake and leaves his wife to check into the hotel by herself. On his way to the airport, the cab he’s in is in an accident and he nearly dies, although the lady driver rescues him.

He wakes from a brief coma with some partial amnesia. He remembers that he’s in Moscow with his wife for a conference, but when he goes to the hotel and finds Elizabeth, she doesn’t recognize him and a different man (Quinn) is Martin Harris. Nobody recognizes him; it seems his life has been erased or usurped.

Harris tracks down the cabbie, Gina (Kruger), and she recognizes him, leading him to realize something nefarious is happening. Now Harris has to uncover what is happening to him, but the truth is far beyond what he expected and he also ends up having to save the life of a terrorist target.

Everything culminates in a showdown between the two Martins, and that fight is kind of epic. How could it not be? Two aging Irish actors beating the tar out of each other is fine holiday fun.


The single worst aspect of Unknown is January Jones. She is bland, dull, flat, and altogether off-putting. Every time she’s on screen, her energy-suckness removes the viewer from the film. This person needs to get out of entertainment and perhaps take up a career in carpentry.

Otherwise, Unknown is an intriguing concept that is explored well. The writing is certainly nothing stunningly fresh, and the action film unfolds in a generally formulaic fashion. But with a lead like Liam Neeson, and with Diane Kruger very convincing in her cabby with a conscience role, this is an enjoyable film. Frank Langella makes a late entry and he makes the most of an enigma of a role.

The most redeeming factor of how this movie unfolds is that the real Harris, while he does have to get physical, uses his brains to overcome the baddies. Sure, the likely medically unfounded amnesia is a little convenient, but Neeson pulls it off.

Content warnings: plenty of action violence, some swearing, a little sensuality

Writing: 3.5         Acting: 4          Overall: 3.5

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Fire With Fire

Fire With Fire might have been a straight-to-DVD release, despite the talent in the film. And this would be unfortunate, as it is, despite the by-the-numbers unfolding of the story, a pretty good film that is elevated by solid performances. Vincent D’Onofrio is particularly good.

Here’s a trailer:

The deets:

Released August 21, 2012

Written by Tom O’Connor and Lowell Cauffiel

Directed by David Barrett

Starring Rosario Dawson, Josh Duhamel, Bruce Willis, Vincent D’Onofrio, Vinny Jones, 50 Cent, Bonnie Somerville, Richard Schiff, Kevin Dunn, and Julian McMahon

Rated: R

*     *     *     *     *


This is a story we’ve seen before. Regular, kind of a loser guy who is good with the ladies, is pushed into a perilous situation, reevaluates life based on true love, and is forced to do terrible things to keep his loved ones safe.

There’s not a lot of fresh about this movie’s storyline. But what Fire With Fire gets right is that these are regular, recognizable people and they behave like they should based on how their character’s goals and the story push them to behave.

Jeremy (Duhamel) is a bit of a hotshot firefighter with a couple of best friends, one of whom regularly prompts Jeremy to settle down and have a family. But Jeremy likes his life too much  to make any changes. One night after a massive fire, Jeremy and his pals go drinking and Jeremy stops into his neighborhood convenience store to pick up supplies. Three mean-looking Aryan Brotherhood-type men show up, led by Hagen (D’Onofrio). Hagen does horrible things and Jeremy barely escapes and is convinced to go into witness protection so that he can testify against Hagen, who is a sadistic crime boss.

Talia Durham (Dawson) is the US Marshall assigned to keep Jeremy safe- and she tames his wild heart. Cella (Willis) is the determined cop trying to nail Hagen and who also wants to keep Jeremy alive.

But Hagen finds Jeremy and now Jeremy has to take matters into his own hands if he’s going to keep those he loves safe. Fire With Fire, as you would expect, ends with a fiery, surprisingly tense climax.


This is a relatively formulaic action flick. Regular guy with bachelor values is forced into a situation and he turns a corner and must confront evil, using whatever resources he can get his hands on and relying on determination to get him through.

But Fire With Fire is not satisfied with the template. It makes sure that Jeremy really is a normal guy. This guy gets hurt, has the tar beaten out of him, and has a lot of trouble becoming a hero. When he inevitably does kill someone, he reacts strongly. He gets out of breath. Not wanting to be a hero and very scared for his safety, the woman he falls in love with becomes the leverage that pushes him to step into the darkness.

All of this is convincingly played by Duhamel. This is a human hero, really similar to Bruce Willis’ John McClane, making it very appropriate for Willis to be in this movie. Willis is far more laid back than in most roles, looking thin and haggard from the get-go. He is also very much by the book.

That is what Fire With Fire does well: it doesn’t take the easy way out, instead making sure that each character is true to him or herself. The heroic characters have flaws, make stupid mistakes, and have to scrape victory right out of the jaws of defeat. The bad guys are mean, but are human in their speech and behavior.

And the performances are very good. Vinnie Jones is a very good sardonic bruiser. D’Onofrio is excellent as a sadistic, terrifying madman. Peter Schiff adds realism and heart to the character of Hagen’s lawyer. Even 50 Cent is believable as a gang leader.

You know what else? These people get wet in the rain.

Fire With Fire is a strangely overlooked film. Not the best film ever, uneven in its pacing and transitions, and a little overwrought, but it’s enjoyable and very nearly believable.

Content warnings: some graphic violence and plenty of salty language and a little bit of sensuality

Writing: 3.0          Acting: 4.5          Overall: 3.5

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