Mercury Rising

(Harold Becker, USA, 1998)


There is nothing especially new or surprising about the Bruce Willis action-thriller Mercury Rising. It stirs the usual generic soup: Art (Willis), an undercover cop, undergoes a Vertigo (1958)-style trauma in the opening sequence, and eventually finds himself framed within a sinister government conspiracy led by the coldly expedient Kudrow (Alec Baldwin).

Memories of fast-paced, paranoid films from Three Days of the Condor (1975) to Conspiracy Theory (1997) jostle with evocations from less typical thrillers with a sentimental side like Gloria (1980) and The Professional (1995) – since Art must team up with and protect a severely autistic child, Simon (Miko Hughes), who is also an unrecognised savant with the uncanny ability to crack even the most seemingly impenetrable Government code.

For all its familiarity, however, this is a very pleasing action film, mainly due to the sure, distinctive touch of director Harold Becker (Crazy for You [1985], Sea of Love [1989]). Peripheral characters – such as the tech-head geeks who populate a security agency – fascinate beyond their strict plot function.

Conversely, Becker wisely downplays the role of standard, predictable figures – such as the potential love interest (Kim Dickens) that Art encounters by chance during his efforts to evade capture.

Amidst and between the expertly handled action sequences, certain details keep teasing and drawing us into the heightened emotional dilemmas of these characters. Art seems rather hooked on his supply of downers. His one ally on the force, Tommy (Chi McBride), wrestles with suspicions that his friend is merely a nut, and fears for the safety of his family.

Even the big baddie Kudrow receives an opportunity to justify his dubious code of patriotism by explicating his belief in the three supreme values: "Diligence, loyalty and absolute silence". Throughout everything, little Simon remains hauntingly withdrawn and incommunicative – eager to wander either back to the home that no longer exists, or into the waiting embrace of death.

It is a staple ingredient of big American action films these days that – perhaps unconsciously – they include some self-preening allegory about the rapt relation of movie audiences to violent, expensive screen spectacle. Mercury Rising gives this tendency an odd, disarming twist, since the stand-in or identification figure for the viewer is clearly Simon: a hyper-sensitive soul who crumples at every gunshot, car collision and loud, wailing sound anywhere in his vicinity.

Is this the state to which Hollywood blockbusters have reduced us?

MORE Becker: City Hall, Domestic Disturbance

© Adrian Martin April 1998

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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