also April 3, 1998
MERCURY RISING opened on the same day as LOST IN SPACE, and I skipped it until now, too, despite it starring Bruce. I guess I figured it wasn’t a real action movie, it was some thriller from a director I wasn’t excited about (Harold Becker, VISION QUEST, SEA OF LOVE). I was more picky back then I guess.
He’s taking care of a little boy even though it’s a year before THE SIXTH SENSE. A practice run. It’s very much a transitional work because he basically gets to alernate between Action Bruce and Sad Bruce. Strangely enough it’s based on a book called Simon Says, which is the same name as the spec script that DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE was based on, as well as the name of Pharoahe Monch’s biggest song, which sampled the Godzilla theme, and a GODZILLA remake was released later in the summer of 1998. Isn’t that fucking crazy!? Well, I guess the third one is not really that relevant, and now that I look at it the book is actually called Simple Simon (by Ryne Douglas Pearson, who has story and screenplay credits on KNOWING). So please strike most of this paragraph from the record. I’m sorry I wasted your time.
Bruce plays FBI agent Art Jeffries, who gets the classic action movie introduction of being in the middle of an assignment that goes bad. In this case he’s undercover with a Sovereign Citizens type militia led by Richard Riehle (EXECUTIVE DECISION, OFFICE SPACE, KEN PARK) who are trying to rob a bank in downtown Chicago. Art (who is kind of shaggy and sweaty and flirting with a vague southern-ish drawl) is trying to negotiate peace between the militia and the FBI without blowing his cover, and he’s outraged when they ignore him and gun down everybody, including a couple teenagers. There’s a very effective use of dramatic gore when he’s pushing on a dying kid (Chad Lindberg, Jess from THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS)’s chest and blood is coming up between his fingers. But it’s hard to believe he can then just walk out of there wearing his dirty camo, yelling, and nobody even looks at him. He walks straight to the commanding officer (John Doman, Rawls from The Wire), puts his own gun to his neck and punches him in the face. So he gets demoted.
That’s how a super-agent gets put on the shit assignment of helping look for a 9 year old kid who wandered off after his parents were murdered. The neighbors apparently told them little Simon Lynch (Miko Hughes, ZEUS & ROXANNE) is “retarded,” but we know he’s actually an autistic math genius. He called a phone number that was the solution to a thought-to-be-uncrackable code in a puzzle book. The NSA actually put it out there to test “the geek factor” of whether a math genius could crack the “Mercury” encryption system.
It’s a cool thriller premise. I’m down. Not too absurd for me. What did make me laugh: the computer sound effect they use to simulate Simon’s brain calculating the numbers.
Anyway, the intelligence community is already using Mercury, it’s a little late to stop it now, so scary boss man Kudrow (Alec Baldwin, MIAMI BLUES, THE SHADOW) sent an assassin (Lindsey Ginter, BEVERLY HILLS COP III, PEARL HARBOR) to kill Simon. He just got the parents and then had to flee.
Well, Art figures out where he’s hiding, and at the hospital he realizes that he’s not safe, and takes off with him. He has to learn how to communicate with Simon, how to not scare him, figure out who’s after him and what to do about it, etc. He has a sympathetic friend at the agency named Tommy Jordan (Chi McBride, THE FRIGHTENERS) who believes him enough to give him a little under the table help, but to the world he’s a crazy man who kidnapped a kid. To emphasize this there are a couple mentions of a psychologist calling him paranoid and of him being addicted to pills, but it doesn’t seem like a very in-depth portrait of either of these things.
A good halfway through the movie Art needs to be away from Simon for a little bit to meet with an NSA whistleblower (Robert Stanton, DENNIS THE MENACE, FIND ME GUILTY) and he decides to fake run into a random lady at a cafe in order to strike up a conversation and then ask her if she can watch the kid. Her name is Stacey and she’s played by Kim Dickens, who had made an impression in ZERO EFFECT the same year. Stacey knows Art is full of shit but agrees anyway even though she’s on her way to work or something. And then somehow she doesn’t seem mad when he’s gone for quite a while due to a shooting and chase and shit. As if that wasn’t bad enough, he ends up figuring out where she lives, knocking on her door in the middle of the night and convincing her to let him in to sleep.
This is that part of the movie that’s hardest to swallow. I love Dickens and she’s a good presence in the movie, but it stretches credulity so far that this seemingly reasonable person would allow a random stranger on the run from the police into her house at 2 am just because he has a nice little boy with him. They have her hesitate and question him but when she gives in she just lets her guard down completely and it makes no sense. And it lowers my opinion of Art because he’s endangering this woman and also seems to be trying to court her a little. He kisses her on the cheek at one point. He acts like they’re mommy and daddy. I know he’s Bruce, but she shouldn’t put up with this shit.
There’s this supporting character Emily (Carrie Preston, TRANSAMERICA, True Blood), girlfriend and co-worker of an NSA tech guy (Bodhi Elfman, SHRUNKEN HEADS, COLLATERAL) turned whistleblower. She’s not in it that much, but she might be kinda historic as an early pop culture acknowledgment of the existence of cool “geek girls.” I mean she’s not about to do cosplay, but the glasses, short hair, nasally voice and riding a bicycle are, I think, a 1998 Hollywood thriller way of making her standout from generic movie babes. Unfortunately their attempt at making her talk like a nerd makes me cringe. She’s introduced excitedly talking about how coffee makes her feel like Ricki Lake (?) and “What can I say? I’m the Java Queen!” She mentions Bart Simpson and imitates his voice.
Since The Simpsons was in its ninth season by that time this was not exactly a cutting edge reference. Later she muses “Have you ever wondered what we’re gonna collect when we get old? Plaid shirts and Kramer dolls?” (Seinfeld was in its ninth and final season – it ended before MERCURY RISING left theaters.) When they worry about their emails being seen she walks over to a manual typewriter and says “low tech RULES!” Actually, that I can see somebody really saying like that.
Hughes is an ’80s and ’90s child actor who I never forget because he was Gage in PET SEMETARY and Heather Langenkamp’s son in WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE. You may also know him as the “boys have a penis, girls have a vagina” kid from KINDERGARTEN COP or the homeless kid in SPAWN. This has got to be the most challenging acting he ever did, because he doesn’t make eye contact, often looking sideways, speaks monotonously, often has to scream and wriggle around when people are grabbing him.
But the eye thing does remind me of when he was sleepwalking and possessed by Freddy in NEW NIGHTMARE. And what’s with this kid and traffic? In PET SEMETARY he runs out onto the highway and gets run over. In NEW NIGHTMARE he sleepwalks across a busy freeway. In this one he also has a big scene on foot on a freeway (the Kennedy Express Way), as well as a part where he almost walks out into traffic. (I don’t know if Art would’ve known to bury him in the pet cemetery if it came to that.)
For a lead villain Kudrow is not on screen all that much, but Baldwin goes glengarry on that shit. With his handsome slicked back hair and authoritative voice he is both scary and convincing as someone who really believes that he’s protecting the country by killing this family. And when he finally has his first scene with Bruce it’s a good one. Kudrow is having a big formal party at his house and has a talk with Art in his wine cellar. Art taunts him by opening and swigging his presumably very old and very expensive wine. It works, too – at one point during their confrontation Kudrow snaps “I asked you not to handle the wine, please!”
He seems to have further lost his cool by the time he’s snatched up Simon for the DARKMAN-esque skyscraper-roof-action-climax. But that’s partly an illusion caused by the helicopter blowing his hair around. It makes him look like Chris Farley.
My 1998 assumptions weren’t that far off. This is a pretty middle of the road movie. But Willis, Baldwin, the sort of Hermann-esque score by John Barry (THUNDERBALL, WHITE BUFFALO, GAME OF DEATH, BODY HEAT, HOWARD THE DUCK) and the comforting machinery of the standard ’90s studio thriller make it watchable. I’m glad I got around to it.
The script is by Lawrence Konner & Mark Rosenthal, the team that did THE LEGEND OF BILLIE JEAN, THE JEWEL OF THE NILE, SUPERMAN IV, STAR TREK VI, THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES, MIGHTY JOE YOUNG and PLANET OF THE APES [the bad one]. According to a summary on Amazon, the book version of Simon is sixteen years old, and is also being hunted by “a beautiful, sadistic assassin working for enemies who will stop at nothing to learn the secret locked in Simon’s mind.” I’m surprised they left out that complication. Interestingly Art Jeffries is Art Jefferson in the book, and it’s his fourth adventure after Cloudburst (aka Thunder One), October’s Ghost and Capitol Punishment. He previously dealt with terrorists flying a hijacked plane full of nuclear weapons toward the U.S., a murder mystery connected to Castro threatening the U.S. with an old nuclear weapon to thwart a coup, and a white supremacist planning a chemical weapon attack on Washington DC. Earlier this year he returned as a retiree to protect 36 year old Simon in a fifth book called Simon Sees.
MERCURY RISING opened #3 at the box office below LOST IN SPACE and the vanquished TITANIC, above a re-release of GREASE. It dropped faster than the space movie and made about $93 million, most of it overseas. Probly not a big enough profit or cultural impact to make that book sequel into a movie. Sorry Simon.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.