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Harold Becker's 'Mercury Rising,' Less Than Thriller

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 3, 1998

  Movie Critic

Mercury Rising Bruce Willis plays an FBI agent on the run with Miko Hughes, whose character is autistic. (Universal)
In "Mercury Rising," the mercury may rise but pulses never do. A promising thriller with tough guy Bruce Willis wearing an ever-more radiant tapestry of bruises on his face, the film ultimately surrenders to the entropy of stale plotting and familiar formula.

It's set on a solid premise, however, and not without a certain admirable higher ambition to use the thriller form to get at provocative ideas. It's a kind of "Rain Man" with guns: A 9-year-old autistic boy has the weird gift of being able to "see" into codes. Think Dustin Hoffman out decrypting the World War II Enigma machine instead of counting toothpicks. The child, Simon, well played by Miko Hughes, solves a code hidden in a puzzle magazine that commands him to call a certain number. Obediently he does, thus alerting
Harold Becker
Bruce Willis;
Alec Baldwin;
Miko Hughes;
Chi McBride;
Kim Dickens;
Mark Collins
Running Time:
2 hours, 10 minutes
Typical blood and gore; a child in danger may unsettle some adults
the puzzle kings of Fort Meade's National Security Agency that the new billion-dollar Mercury code, which was being tested against the geek factor (human minds that work in very strange ways), has been penetrated. A nasty superpatriotic section chief, played with oily, reptilian charisma by Alec Baldwin, thus dispatches killers to take the boy out and seal the code off forever.

A few of those helpful coincidences that enable thriller writers to live like maharajahs later ensue, and soon a burned-out, p-o'd FBI agent – Willis, as Art Jeffries – is on the case, quickly bonding with the now-orphaned boy. The two begin what is essentially a re-creation of Hoffman and Tom Cruise's journey across the landscape, except that men with guns keep trying to kill them. As they go, the sullen, embittered, loner agent – he was unable to save the lives of some teenage bank robbers in a pre-credit sequence – is rescued from his stoic isolation and learns to care again. I love it when that happens. Plus Willis throws one guy off a train and another off a building. I love it when that happens, too.

The movie is set in a less fantastic universe than most big-budget thrillers. For one thing, Simon's autism is never over-sentimentalized; he's frequently extremely annoying and difficult to manage. But more than this, a low body count, a lack of extravagant and unbelievable set pieces and some extremely proficient but controlled performances suggest that the film takes itself seriously as drama. There is ritual Washington-bashing (Baldwin gives one of Hollywood's de rigueur arch, swank, precious Georgetown parties). But the film also throws the hard high inside question: We have a democracy but we pay unpleasant, tough men to do nasty things in our name, and we agree not to look too closely in the name of security. But what happens when, in the name of security, they come to take themselves too seriously and target the people they are supposed to protect: that is, gulp, us?

Baldwin, playing an NSA mandarin named Nicholas Kudrow, is particularly good at embodying this possibility. He's slick and charming and seems sure to have a big Georgetown future before him, if he wants one; his eyes beam with the blue of intense moral certainty. But he also gets a true believer's slight edge of hysteria and inflexibility, and when he proclaims he's the man who has to make the "hard choices," he suggest that he enjoys it a little too much. He's great fun, and a scene with him and Willis in a Georgetown wine cellar – the wine stands for the prissy effeteness of the ruling class – is sublimely enjoyable.

But that's a high point. The too-frequent low points are completely routine plot connections and coincidence. Within the NSA, a cell of "good" types – meaning harmless, nerdy, lovable – try to reach Willis and do so with astonishing ease. Things are missed by bad guys and found by good guys with more astonishing ease. Willis meets a young woman in a coffee shop who becomes – with astonishing ease – his protector, even to the point of blowing a career assignment. Even the mechanics of the premise seem forced: Why would government killers bloodily massacre the unsuspecting child and his family, thus opening up a police investigation and press scrutiny? Wouldn't some kind of hit-and-run accident be far easier to manage?

It doesn't help that journeyman director Harold Becker is unable to give even the low-key action sequences any particular rhythm or signature, or that at the climax he manages to break every sheet of Plexiglas in the Midwest. The climax, as a matter of fact, isn't anything extraordinary. Becker also seems to think that Washington is a suburb of Chicago, when everybody knows that Chicago is a suburb of Washington.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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