The film may be called Mercury Rising, but that title doesn't describe the trajectory taken by this motion picture, a routine thriller that combines government cover-ups with a cloying and poorly-motivated buddy story. The hook that is supposed to make Mercury Rising unique is that the young protagonist is autistic. However, aside from giving actor Miko Hughes a chance to win raves for his performance, this particular aspect of the film comes across as nothing more than a convenient plot device. Those expecting to see even a semi-thorough exploration of the condition will be disappointed. Mercury Rising treats autism with the same degree of efficiency that many action thrillers accord to alcoholism.
The script for Mercury Rising is exceptionally tiresome and hard-to-swallow. I don't know whether the problem is in the original book, Simple Simon, or in the screenplay adaptation, but this movie easily exceeds the intangible threshold beyond which a suspension of disbelief is no longer possible. Once again, certain standby plot elements -- the high-level government conspiracy and the maverick law enforcement agent -- are recycled, and not to good effect. While Bruce Willis can play the action hero as well as anyone in Hollywood, this particular outing leaves him marooned in situations that are characterized by too little tension and too much nonsense.
The story begins with a formulaic sequence in which The Tough FBI Agent with a Heart of Gold, Art Jeffries (Bruce Willis), is confronted with his own failure. Unable to resolve a hostage crisis in time, he is forced to observe as two teenagers are shot to death. The event weighs heavily on his conscience and heavy-handedly establishes his motivation for protecting 9-year old Simon Lynch (Miko Hughes) when he discovers the autistic child hiding in a closet after his parents have been gunned down by The Evil Hit Man Who Looks Like an Ex-Football Player. Soon, Art and Simon are on the run from seemingly everyone -- fleeing for their lives and bonding at the same time, with The Evil Hit Man Who Looks Like an Ex-Football Player always just a step behind them. Along the way, they are helped by The Best Friend Who Defies Orders to Help Out His Buddy (Chi McBride) and the Supporting Female Who May or May Not Become a Love Interest (Kim Dickens).
Why is Simon in danger and why were his parents turned into Swiss cheese by The Evil Hit Man Who Looks Like an Ex-Football Player? Apparently, the government has spent millions of dollars developing an ultra-secret code called Mercury. To make sure it can't be cracked, they do the most intuitive thing possible: place a sample of it in a nerds' puzzle magazine. Of course, no one can solve it -- no one except autistic Simon, that is. When he calls the phone number listed in the solution, he gets the NSA. As a result, The Cold-Hearted, Sneering Government Man (Alec Baldwin) decides that Simon has to be eliminated -- for the good of the country, of course. But he hasn't counted on The Tough FBI Agent with a Heart of Gold, even though everyone in the audience has.
It's hard to get worked up about a routine thriller that doesn't do anything exceptionally well, and does quite a few things rather poorly. For those who are desperate to find elements of this movie to like, Mercury Rising manages to manufacture tension from time-to-time, but even the most exciting scenes (such as the one where Art and Simon are crouched down, avoiding passing trains) aren't that pulse-pounding. The climactic struggle is a real ho-hum affair which leads to a finale that is painful in its obviousness. Overall, director Harold Becker is constantly struggling (and failing) to generate even a moment that isn't derivative or obligatory.
Bruce Willis' star seems to be fading. This is his fourth straight lackluster outing, following Last Man Standing, The Fifth Element, and The Jackal. Willis isn't terrible, but this is the kind of role he can sleepwalk through, and often does. Alec Baldwin, combining elements of his characters from Glengarry Glenn Ross and Malice, does some scenery-chewing, but his performance is surprisingly lacking in menace. The film's real star is young Miko Hughes (Heather Langenkamp's son in Wes Craven's New Nightmare), who does as good a job as Dustin Hoffman playing an autistic individual, but is about 50 years younger.
Mercury Rising joins the likes of Hard Rain, The Replacement Killers, and U.S. Marshals on the heap of pallid 1998 thrillers. For those who like action and adventure in the theater, this has not been a good year. Hopefully, the advent of summer will change that. Until then, the best choices (for Bruce Willis or any other action hero) are on video. And, if you're determined to see Mercury rising, check out the morning sky in early May.