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An operative deals with occupational hazards in ‘The Numbers Station’

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Emerson John Cusack

Katherine Malin Akerman

Grey Liam Cunningham

Rachel Hannah Murray

Image Entertainment presents a film directed by Kasper Barfoed and written by F. Scott Frazier. Running time: 89 minutes. Rated R (for violence and language). Opening Friday at Streets of Woodfield 20 in Schaumburg.

Updated: May 28, 2013 6:38PM

Once again John Cusack plays a killer with issues. Like his characters in “War, Inc.” (2008) and “Grosse Pointe Blank” (1997), his Emerson Kent in “The Numbers Station” is a professional assassin with occupational angst. Come to think of it, this is a line of work that screenwriters find handy for dramatizing on-the-job dilemmas.

“The Numbers Station” deprives Emerson of the therapy that Cusack’s two earlier characters got. Nonetheless, this routine thriller makes room for three disaffected CIA agents to deliver variants of the line: “You do something long enough, and you can’t think of doing something else.”

The first is an ex-agent tending bar in New Jersey, who Emerson is assigned to terminate. He then pursues a witness of the hit to a suburban home and shoots him. The victim’s onlooking daughter tearfully asks, “Why? Why did you do that?” Not only does Emerson not shoot her, he tries to stop his superior, Grey, from shooting this other witness, apparently per CIA protocol.

Unable to answer the teen’s question, Emerson is deemed unfit for his usual duties. So he is assigned to protect Katherine (Malin Akerman), a cryptographer at a covert shortwave radio station in the English countryside. Neither of them know what’s in the transmitted messages — coded in strings of numbers — that she reads into a mike for agents around the world to decipher. Katherine also has no idea that it is Emerson’s duty to terminate her if the CIA code is compromised.

“You don’t have to think about killing everyone you meet,” offers Katherine. When she probes the cryptic Emerson about his career path, he repeats the line used by his last target about “doing something so long.”

There is a flicker of ro­­­mance, but the plot is more about what happened on another shift. Who got inside the facility, killed two other employees and transmitted 15 different orders to 15 different operatives?

The two learn that Emerson’s own boss Grey is on the list, along with his “boss’ boss’ boss.” Is someone targeting upper management using the agency’s own lethal agents? “If you kill these men today, you won’t recognize the world when you wake up in the morning,” warns Emerson.

Director Kasper Barfoed defaults to intense replays of surveillance audio recordings, frantic strokes on computer keyboards, and standard-issue chases. In the end, one more operative will echo the “doing something so long” lament and fault bosses who “turn us into these awful things.”

Bottom line: taking lives is no way to make a living.

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