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Mercury Rising

movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4

*Also starring: Miko Hughes, Chi McBride, Kim Dickens

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

In David Lean's 1957 blockbuster "The Bridge on the River Kwai," a British colonel played by Alec Guinness builds a bridge while held as POW by the Japanese in World War II. The bridge will greatly help the Japanese war effort by enabling them to transport supplies and is therefore a prime target of Japan's enemies. When fellow prisoners played by William Holden and Jack Hawkins plot to destroy the overpass, Guinness perversely seeks to preserve it. The moral: if you create something and take great pride in your workmanship, you will do anything, however self-destructive, to keep it vital.

Like Guinness, another Alec (Baldwin) has created a masterwork--a supercode for the United States National Security Agency, a cryptogram considered so impenetrable that he is praised mightily by his superiors and is a man on his way up. When a mere nine-year-old kid cracks the code, an autistic boy no less, the obvious thing for its creator to do would be to announce its defeat and scrap the failure. But its architect has become so bound up with his innovation that he will not throw in the towel. Instead, he resolves to eliminate the "enemy" who has thwarted him and all individuals connected with that betrayer.

This is not to say that "Mercury Rising" approaches the caliber of "The Bridge on the River Kwai" however similar the theme. David Lean's expansive drama is crammed with the tension created by a psychological battle of wills, exploits the stirring music of the Colonel Bogey march, and is conclusively more believable given the fact that the lines were clearly drawn between the opposing camps. "Mercury Rising" is involving enough as are all slickly-made thrillers with top- drawer performers, but ultimately it's a by-the-numbers paranoid thriller highlighting the struggle between opposing forces within the U.S. government.

Released at about the time of two other "disease" movies-- "Niagara, Niagara" (La Tourette's Syndrome) and "Go Now" (Muscular Sclerosis), "Mercury Rising" focuses on an autistic nine-year-old, Simon (Mike Hughes), a diehard fan of crossword and other puzzles, who inadvertently cracks the supercode by intuiting a phone number buried on a page of cryptography. When two middle-level workers in the National Security Agency report their taped conversation with the kid, the code's designer, Nicholas Kudrow (Alec Baldwin), orders his hit men to "erase the tape." They catch his drift. The rest of the story combines buddy genre with road movie as Kudrow and his lackeys go after young Simon, who is protected by FBI special agent Art Jeffries (Bruce Willis) and Jeffries' one pal in the bureau, Tommy B. Jordan (Chi McBride).

Whether or not the viewers become mesmerized by an ambulance chase, a dramatic rescue of the wandering kid on railroad tracks, building roofs and dangerous Chicago sidewalks, they will absorb some information about autism. As played out by young Miko Hughes who spent considerable time studying the antics of youngsters afflicted with the severe emotional disturbance, the disorder is characterized by an inability to connect emotionally or even to look other people in the eye, a repulsion of physical contact, and a craving for routine. When Simon comes home from his special school, for example, he automatically heads for the jar of Swiss Miss cocoa and, when preparing to drink it, repeats by rote his mother's advice to sip the hot liquid slowly. When touched by a stranger, he wriggles and screams like a spoiled brat and when playing with toys he is altogether absorbed in their mechanics. He displays one trait which is not uncommon among people with his ailment: he is a savant--in his case one who can automatically decode the most intricate of cryptograms.

Harold Becker, who directs the action, takes care to show why agent Jeffries takes such an interest in the boy: when acting as an undercover agent caught in a standoff between bank robbers and the FBI, he begs the authorities to give him a few more minutes to effect a surrender of the gunmen. When the authorities ignore him and rush the bank, they kill a young, impressionable man of about the age of 19 who had been influenced by the hardened adults, who was ready to come out and surrender, a needless gunning down of a man in his prime. Other aspects of the story are less than believable, principally the naming by the NSA of one particular man whom the code is designed to protect--one Rashid Halabi, an agent placed by the U.S. Government among Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard. Would the very careful Kudrow have gratuitously given out this specific information? Yet another scene which is hard to swallow deals with Stacey (Kim Dickens) who, having done a favor for a complete stranger (Jeffries) by watching the kid for a few minutes in a downtown shop, opens the door to him at 2 a.m. wearing only a flimsy slip--even while thinking that the man's FBI identification is a $5 certificate that anyone could forge. Stacey's role, we might add, is a bit of an "in" joke. In her last movie, "The Zero Effect," she assumes the role of Gloria Sullivan who lines up for a physical therapy session with a suitcase by her side. A private detective played by Bill Pullman looks at the suitcase and determines her profession-- a paramedic. In "Mercury Rising," Jeffries and Stacey meet when the former "accidentally" trips over a very similar suitcase in order to arrange an introduction.

Mike Hughes joins the ranks of superior child actors, having mastered the tics and gestures of autism, performing his role with the prescience and expertise of a talented young man indeed. Alec Baldwin is underutilized: sporting his signature pompadour and exuding his usual refinement he turns in a conscientious performance as a guy who is intoxicated with his success and determined to let no one stand in his way. In what is now the standard practice of Hollywood pictures, he is reviled for his wealth: Willis has a ball knocking over an entire section of the precious wines from Baldwin's well-stocked cellar.

The movie does not shirk from the extreme violence that audiences have come to expect from the genre, but the car chases, chopper rescues, U.S. government malcontents and adorable kids are mixed together with no trace of an original point of view.

Copyright 1998 Harvey Karten

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