Screenplay : Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal (based on the novel "Simple Simon" by Ryne Douglas Pearson)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : Bruce Willis (Art Jeffries), Alec Baldwin (Nicholas Kudrow), Miko Hughes (Simon Lynch), Chi McBride (Bizzi Jordan), Kim Dickens (Stacey)
"Mercury Rising" has numerous flaws, but there is one that really stands out: its central plot device is unnecessary. That's right. The major aspect of the film, that which is supposed to make it different from other routine government conspiracy / action flicks could be dropped from the beginning, and the movie would turn out exactly the same, if not better.
This central device is the fact that a nine-year-old boy is autistic. His name is Simon, and an evil government bureaucrat named Nicholas Kudrow (Alec Baldwin) wants him dead because he unknowingly cracked a supersecret government code slipped into the back of a puzzle magazine by its programmers just to see if someone could beat it. Simon is intended to be the heart and soul of the film, and we are supposed to feel for him because he is a poor handicapped child thrown into a violent, unfair world against his will, with only a renegade FBI agent played by Bruce Willis to protect him.
The fact that he is autistic does nothing for the emotional intensity or the plot necessities of "Mercury Rising." I suppose the original novel upon which the movie was based did much more with this aspect of Simon's character and his relationship with Willis, but here it is lost. Miko Hughes, the young actor who plays Simon, goes through the prescribed motions of being autistic: he walks slowly, drawls his words, kicks and screams when he's touched, and has a hard time looking at other people. It's a difficult role for an adult, much less a young child, to play, and unfortunately Hughes never convinces us that he isn't playing like he's autistic. Unlike Dustin Hoffman's performance in "Rain Man" or Leonardo DiCaprio's in "What's Eating Gilbert Grape," we are always painfully aware that Hughes is acting.
However, unlike "Rain Man" which used its character's autism in unique and interesting ways to build a credible and touching story, "Mercury Rising" could go right about its generic, predictable plot with Simon being simply a really smart but really shy kid. Hell, he doesn't even have to be shy. In fact, the movie might have been more interesting if he had had a more active role, rather than just being carted around under Willis' arm.
Willis' character, Art Jeffries, is a disillusioned FBI agent who has been removed from undercover work and is now doing menial tasks like listening to wiretaps with rookies who are happy to be doing anything. He becomes involved with Simon when he is called to check out a murder scene at Simon's house, where his father has apparently shot his mother in the back and then committed suicide.
Of course, we know that isn't the way it happened happen because we saw an evil, square-jawed government hitman with a mean-looking crew-cut knock off the parents. Simon was able to get away, and Jeffries finds him hiding in a secret compartment in a closet, which the rest of the Chicago police department had overlooked. Jeffries -- who is accused by several characters at different times of being paranoid although his actions never suggest it -- knows there is something more, and he makes it his personal mission to go against everything and everyone in order to protect Simon. This is quite a task because that same hitman who knocked off Simon's parents is crawling everywhere, attempting to kill Simon at the hospital, on the highway, and every other place he goes.
Late in the movie, Jeffries is forced to enlist the aid of a pretty young woman named Stacey (Kim Dickens) who he meets at a coffee shop. Of all the hard-to-believe aspects of the movie, this is the worst. I can believe in the decency of the human heart, but Stacey's character is far too accommodating. Not only does she agree to watch Simon while Jeffries runs off to solve the mystery, she lets him into her apartment at two o'clock in the morning when she knows the police is after him, and then lets him leave Simon in her apartment which means that she has to forgo a business trip that is desperately needed to pay the rent. The grinding squeals of the rusty plot machine are almost overbearing at this point.
The movie might have been redeemed by some good action sequences, but even here "Mercury Rising" doesn't rise to the challenge. The movie was directed by Harold Becker, who has made some good suspense films including "Sea of Love" (1989) and "Malice" (1993), but his talent is nowhere to be found in this latest excursion. There is one fight on a streetcar between Jeffries and another hitman (played by Peter Stormare) that is so ineptly directed, shot and edited, that I had no idea 1) exactly where they were on the streetcar, 2) who was hitting who, and 3) where this hitman came from and how he knew where Jeffries and Simon were. The grand finale takes place on the roof of a tall building, and features a harrowing (yawn) scene where Simon walks along the very edge of the building, not because he has to, but because it's more suspenseful that way.
Taken as a whole, "Mercury Rising" is an tepid, confused movie that lacks style, wit, and any traces of a sense of humor. Usually Willis brings his personal brand of understated humor to his roles, but here he is too straight and serious. This is because the movie wants to be an action flick and a heartfelt drama at the same time, but it ends up failing on both fronts. Maybe the book was better, but the way it's handled here is a perfect case study in formula filmmaking guaranteed to bore.
©1998 James Kendrick