As dramatically slippery as the title element, terrorist suspenser “Red Mercury” will rise or fall on auds’ willingness to accept as entertainment, so soon after the London bombings, a film in which a trio of young fundamental extremists with an explosive device take hostages in a central London restaurant. Though full of mordant humor and social awareness a la Sidney Lumet’s “Dog Day Afternoon” and, particularly, Richard Lester’s 1974 bomb-on-the-boat actioner “Juggernaut,” pic’s precarious timing in the marketplace reps a substantial marketing challenge for a work that is, in the end, a provocatively talky, modestly made “what-if?” thriller.
Though needlessly complicated, opening reels establish the essential conflict: Flushed out of hiding by a snitch, three young Muslims toting the makings of a complicated-looking mystery bomb elude police by barging into a Greek restaurant. Once inside, leader Mushtaq (Alex Caan) and operatives Asif (Navin Chowdhry) and Shahid (San Shella) take the patrons hostage. Chief among them are owner Penelope (Stockard Channing, judiciously wielding a Greek accent), American lawyer Sidney Lowe (Ron Silver), and respected author Neil Ashton (David Bradley).
The police spring into action under the joint supervision of the Gold Commander (Pete Postlethwaite) and counterterrorism expert Sofia Warburton (Juliet Stevenson). Initially known only as the three “Mo’s,” a diminutive of “Mohammad,” two of the three terrorists are, after tedious legwork, discovered to be highly educated British citizens who may have been recruited by fundamentalists at their schools. Most ominously, strong evidence is found that one of them has been boning up on an elusive and highly destructive Russian-produced explosive element known only as “Red Mercury.” To explore this further, Sofia re-establishes contact with her ex-husband Lindsay (Nigel Terry), a former mole who provides additional guidance. She also must deal with delinquent daughter Clarissa (Honeysuckle Weeks), a self-mutilating druggie.
From the beginning of the siege, it’s clear scripter Farrukh Dhondy has more on his mind than a straight-ahead dramatic hostage situation. Shahid impishly takes a telephone reservation, Penelope mouths off to her captors, and repeated efforts to get an accurate head count of the hostages go awry. Growing naturally from this dark strain of comedy is a litany of sociopolitical hot-button issues representing a hodge-podge of ideologies and temperaments.
Despite, or perhaps because of, their social commitment, captors and captives grudgingly bond, and a final meal together begins a chain of events that resolves the crisis. Pic’s overall effect is undercut by sloppy conception, and the final revelation regarding the Red Mercury plays as forced.
Thesps do what they can with sketchy characters. Channing uses the accent sparingly and to good effect, while Stevenson’s cool resolve gives auds someone sympathetic on which to focus. Silver uses his intense irony to good effect, while Postlethwaite exudes more authority than his underwritten character warrants. Caan, Chowdhry and Shella skillfully walk the line between chilling menace and comic ineptitude.
Tech credits are fine, with vet helmer Roy Battersby employing Uday Tiwari’s nervous camera to urgent effect — particularly on the noticeably spare restaurant set.