Friday April 3, 1998
And this week, it's Harold Becker's "Mercury Rising," the latest formula thriller out of Hollywood, starring Bruce Willis as a dog-housed FBI agent; a slumming Alec Baldwin, as a murderously zealous National Security Agency official; and young Miko Hughes, as the 9-year-old autistic savant whose ability to decipher a top-secret Pentagon code makes him the target of government assassins.
Actually, calling "Mercury Rising" a formula thriller suggests notes of complexity that aren't here. The script, by Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal ("Cop and a Half," "The Beverly Hillbillies"), from the novel "Simple Simon" by Ryne Douglas Pearson, is more like a recipe for simple syrup. Mix a boy, a hero and a villain in a bowl of overheated sentiment and lap it up.
The ingredients are laid out with a nonchalance bordering on parody. In the opening scene, Willis' Art Jeffries is on an undercover job when overeager colleagues jump the gun and kill five people, including a teenage boy to whom Jeffries has formed a paternal bond. Jeffries' subsequent outburst gets him reassigned to stakeouts.
Meanwhile, the autistic Simon Lynch, while paging through a puzzle magazine, reads an encrypted message and calls its 1-800 number, alerting the startled Pentagon computer geeks on the other end to the fact that the sophisticated Mercury code, as unbreakable as the Titanic was unsinkable, has been broken. They alert their boss, Baldwin's Lt. Col. Nicholas Kudrow, who decides that in order to protect the lives of the spies for whom the code was created, the boy must be "erased."
That's no easy task, once Jeffries divines the conspiracy at work and, against agency orders, appoints himself the boy's guardian, determined not to let another child die on his watch. The rest of the movie is a frantic chase through the streets and over the rails of Chicago, interrupted only by Jeffries' attempts to make an emotional connection with Simon.
Simon's autism is the sole distinction between "Mercury Rising" and the great wad of brainless contemporary action-thrillers rolling off the studio assembly lines, and seems a particularly egregious one. Developmental disorder as plot device.
Though some effort is made to show autistic behavior in a clinically accurate way--the repetition, the fascination with moving objects, the lack of eye contact--it's too much to ask of a child actor to portray.
Dustin Hoffman had it down pretty well in "Rain Man," and won an Oscar for it. Hughes is working so hard to stay in character, all you see is the effort. He speaks in a robotic voice, walks as if battery-operated, and he doesn't just avoid eye contact, his eyes float in the sockets, as if there were no muscles attached. Autistics do have speech and coordination problems, but Simon's problems are related to a more commonly understood condition: bad direction.
Still, Simon is the most complicated character in the film, and Hughes is at least trying. Willis and Baldwin are operating under their own battery power. They add nothing to their good cop/bad cop caricatures, and they don't even share a scene until the movie lumbers into its last, numbingly cliched act.
If James Cameron wants to convince people what a fine writer he is, he should offer "Mercury Rising" as a comparison. Next to this, "Titanic" is Dostoevsky.
Mercury Rising, 1998. R, for violence and language. A Brian Grazer production, released by Universal Pictures. Director Harold Becker. Producers Brian Grazer, Karen Kahala. Screenplay Lawrence Konner, Mark Rosenthal. From Ryne Douglas Pearson's novel "Simple Simon." Cinematography Michael Seresin. Editor, Peter Honess. Music, John Barry. Production design Patrizia von Brandenstein. Art direction Jim Truesdale, Steve Saklad. Set design Jeff Adam, Karen Fletcher, Andrew Menzies. Costumes Betsey Heimann. Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes. Bruce Willis as Art Jeffries. Alec Baldwin as Lt. Col. Kudrow. Miko Hughes as Simon. Chi McBride as Tommy Jordan. Kim Dickens as Stacey.