Mercury Rising" won't raise many viewers' temperatures. A somber suspenser with an oddly disconnected assortment of characters and a lack of freshly conceived action, this tale of a maverick FBI agent who takes on malevolent government forces to protect an orphaned autistic child serves up some dramatic moments but never legitimately convinces.

Mercury Rising” won’t raise many viewers’ temperatures. A somber suspenser with an oddly disconnected assortment of characters and a lack of freshly conceived action, this tale of a maverick FBI agent who takes on malevolent government forces to protect an orphaned autistic child serves up some dramatic moments but never legitimately convinces. Pic will be one of Bruce Willis’ modest performers in between more muscular outings.

Character of Art Jeffries seems tailor-made for Willis: A tough, no-strings-attached specialist in undercover work, the man is not afraid to stand his ground even in the face of official censure and demotion, which he receives when he rips the behavior of colleagues who, in the opening scene, blow away some bank-robbing militia fanatics just as Art has convinced them to peacefully surrender.

As Art treads water, eavesdropping on wiretaps in Chicago, focus shifts to Simon (Miko Hughes), an autistic 9-year-old who, in a remarkable leap of insight, is able to decipher a code hidden within an innocuous children’s magazine puzzle. Reaching government functionaries when he calls to collect a prize, Simon sets off alarm bells at the highest levels of the National Security Agency: According to NSA heavyweight Nicholas Kudrow (Alec Baldwin), the code protects American agents covertly in place all over the world, and the fact that it has been penetrated endangers them all.

Intent upon stemming the breach, Kudrow sends an assassin to eliminate the kid and his parents; the latter are gunned down, but Simon escapes, only to soon be taken in tow by Art, who has little trouble imagining the worst on the part of the NSA.

Remainder of the film consists of a rather dispiriting, and increasingly far-fetched, cat-and-mouse game, as Art drags Simon all over town while trying to break through to the emotionally unpredictable kid, and Kudrow’s hitman appears in a number of guises and locations to menace not only the fleeing duo but others who might be helping them out.

Principal action setpieces include Art and Simon’s nocturnal escape by hijacked ambulance down a crowded expressway, which turns into an unlikely stalking episode on an el train; a shootout and pursuit in the midst of big crowds outside the Wrigley Building and along the river; and a climactic life-or-death battle atop a skyscraper heliport as Art and Kudrow struggle for the kid.

But none of these sequences has been thought out with any particular originality or sense of surprise, nor is any ambiguity brought to the issues being fought over by the opposing sides, despite the ample opportunity for same. Willis’ rogue agent is purely good, especially since the life of a kid is involved, while the FBI and NSA are peopled by two-faced no-accounts at best and murderers at worst. Kudrow’s repeated claim that the code’s having been broken jeopardizes thousands of people around the world is never either challenged or amplified, leaving its veracity an open question, and some of the dramatic conveniences indulged in by screenwriters Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal are just that, notably Art’s dragooning of a perfect stranger (Kim Dickens) into watching Simon so he can fly off for some mano a mano with Kudrow.

By making the tale’s most vulnerable figure an autistic child, filmmakers are loading the picture up with considerable additional weight with which it is frankly unable to cope. On the one hand, giving Simon this condition makes for a more unusual character than one expects in a stock action context. But once you introduce such a seldom explored trait, it behooves you to deal with it in some meaningful, if not illuminating, manner.

Alas, director Harold Becker does nothing with Simon’s autism other than to mildly milk it for obvious sentimentality and for the suspense of never knowing exactly what he’s going to do. And on a purely experiential level, audiences are bound to be made highly uncomfortable by the repeated sight of Willis literally tucking the flailing, screaming kid under his arm while eluding the latest threat.

Willis’ star aura and ability to project street smarts and resolute willpower are about all the film has to pull the viewer through it. Baldwin expresses high-sheen venality as a government official who considers himself beyond reproach, while vet kid actor Miko Hughes is convincing enough as the boy who is both afflicted and gifted.

Tech work is well tooled, with the exception of some artificial visual effects here and there, and John Barry’s score has some pleasant riffs.

Mercury Rising

Production

A Universal release of a Universal and Imagine Entertainment presentation of a Brian Grazer production. Produced by Grazer, Karen Kehela. Executive producers, Joseph M. Singer, Ric Kidney. Co-producers, Maureen Peyrot, Paul Neesan. Directed by Harold Becker. Screenplay, Lawrence Konner, Mark Rosenthal, based on the novel "Simple Simon" by Ryne Douglas Peardon.

With

Art Jeffries - Bruce Willis Nicholas Kudrow - Alec Baldwin Simon - Miko Hughes Tommy B. Jordan - Chi McBride Stacey - Kim Dickens Dean Crandell - Robert Stanton Leo Pedranski - Bodhi Pine Elfman Emily Lang - Carrie Preston Peter Burrell - L.L. Ginter Martin Lynch - John Carroll Lynch Shayes - Peter Stormare Lomax - Kevin Conway Jenny Lynch - Kelley Hazen Supervisor Hartley - John Doman Edgar Halstrom - Richard Riehle
Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision widescreen), Michael Seresin; editor, Peter Honess; music, John Barry; production designer, Patrizia von Brandenstein; art directors, Jim Truesdale, Steve Saklad; set designers, Jeff Adam, Karen Fletcher (Chicago), Andrew Menzies (L.A.); set decorator, Maria Nay; costume designer, Betsy Heimann; sound (DTS/SDDS/Dolby digital), Kim Ornitz; visual effects supervisor, Michael Owens; special visual effects and animation, Industrial Light & Magic; associate producer-assistant director, Tom Mack; casting, Nancy Klopper. Reviewed at Universal Studios, Universal City, March 31, 1998. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 112 MIN.

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