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by: Scott Renshaw

There comes a time in a critic's life when he simply has nothing to say about a film as gruellingly generic as Mercury Rising, but he's got space to fill so he keeps on talking anyway. This is the kind of action film where dogs jump out of nowhere to spook an audience, where glass shatters in slow motion, and where children are placed in jeopardy. It's the kind of action film which underwent a handful of name changes - from Simple Simon to Simon to Mercury Falling to Mercury Rising - but may as well have been called Bruce Willis Action Film Project 1998. It's a hero with a gun, a villain with an attitude, a woman with nothing to do but cringe in fear and a script with time to kill. It's competent, business-like and utterly uninspired.

I suppose Mercury Rising deserves an ounce of credit for trying to make its protagonist a human being. Willis plays Art Jefferies, an undercover FBI agent thrown into a depression when a Waco-like shootout results in the death of two teenage boys. Re-assigned to penny ante detail, Jefferies stumbles upon an apparent domestic murder-suicide which turns out to be more than meets the eye. The surviving family member is a 9-year-old autistic savant named Simon Lynch (Miko Hughes) who has unwitting broken a top-secret government code called Mercury, hidden by its creators in a puzzle magazine as a test of the "geek factor." When NSA nasty Lt. Col. Nick Kudrow (Alec Baldwin) orders the boy "erased," only Jefferies puts his life on the line to save Simon. Thus begins a rather one-sided paternal bonding experience in which Jefferies tries to redeem his previous failure (underlined in grainy flashbacks that haunt his dreams) and connect with Simon between spurts of gunfire and saving the boy from speeding commuter trains.

Nice try, bad idea. I don't know who thought it was a brilliant notion to remake Rain Man as a gritty thriller, but it's a combination that falls completely flat. Though Willis is a cut above his action hero contemporaries as an actor, he still can't work miracles with a character reduced to purposeful stares and hoarse whispers as he vainly struggles to befriend his troubled charge. It's not just that he doesn't connect with Simon, which is sort of the point - he doesn't connect with anyone. Willis moves as though on auto-pilot - exchanging dialogue with his supposed best buddy (Chi McBride) as though they were in different rooms, earning his paycheck though unclear how this film is different from the last action film he did (The Jackal) which also included a scene where someone ends up caught between two trains speeding in opposite directions.

It's that kind of creative deja-vu which makes it such a chore to sit through Mercury Rising. It's not that it's a terrible film; in fact, director Harold Becker's pacing is a cut above recent genre cousins, the narrative never actively insults, and the performances are solid all the way around. Baldwin, in prime arrogant S.O.B. mode, even gets off a sharp little inside joke when he tells a macho-posturing Willis "you've been watching too many of those 4-wheel-drive commercials" (Baldwin himself being the television voice of Chevy trucks). But those are the kind of moments you grasp for when you've seen the same film a dozen times a year for the last five years, when you've written about the same film a dozen times a year for the last five years. If your objective in watching a film like Mercury Rising is to spend a two hour block which will immediately become an indistinct blur intermingled with previous two hour blocks, you've found a winner. You may even have something worth saying about it. If so, I've got a couple of column inches you could help fill.

On the Renshaw scale of 0 to 10 Mercury poisonings: 5.


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