3 out of 5
Directed by: Harold Becker
Ah, we were so spoiled in the 90s days of the Bruce Willis thrillers. Brucie would be plastered atop a film, requiring (likely) some extra action scenes to be written in for the Die Hard star, and then we’d criticize the phoned in retired-cop tropes and wish for the actor to get some less cookie cutter roles. But a lot of these movies are enjoyable, and if you compare them to the post 2010 output of the actor, in which he’s signed deals to appear in a slew of DTV / DTS flicks which put him in a shot-it-in-a-day role, generally a character with only a first or last name, they are golden. These Emmett-Furla production company movies, even when they’re not bad, and even when Bruce is stirred to actually be engaged in the role, show a huge shift between now and then in how the actor acts: back in Mercury Rising days, he was acting with people; acting off of them. He looks them in the eye. You can see his character, and not the actor.
In Mercury Rising, an autistic kid (Miko Hughes) – autistic being given the unfortunate Hollywood shorthand of ‘math genius’ – cracks a super duper secret NSA code that, for yadda yadda reasons, has been placed in the back of a puzzle magazine which said kid frequents. The NSA, here represented by a commanding Alec Baldwin, freaks out over the gaffe, and sends an assassin to “clean up,” which leaves the boy parentless, and the boy, like, still alive. Because this assassin suuuuuucks. Disgraced FBI agent Art Jeffries – Willis – is sent in to what he’s told is the murder/suicide of said parents, and to find the missing kid, only to use his aceful, disgraced-FBI-agent senses to recognize that there’s more to this murder/suicide than murder/suicide (or perhaps less than that, as in less suicide), and he’s soon enough dodging runaway train cars and sucky assassin bullets while trying to protect the kid and figure out the yadda yadda.
If you rolled your eyes a couple times there, yes, the movie has some pretty obvious and laughable elements. The exact nature of this code is “explained” but is essentially just a MacGuffin (it’s used to protect stuff!), and the whole conceit of it being in the back of the puzzle mag is similarly silly (we wanted to test its strength by making it public, and are now upset that someone solved it!), and the nerd-babble from the dudes who created the code raised a red flag even to my younger, less nerd-babbly self way back in the day. Plus, there’s that sucky assassin, who likes to do things in broad daylight and can’t shoot straight when needed. And then Peter Stormare is tossed in there for the requisite Die Hard-like scene, which really seems wholly out of place for Art Jeffries, but I guess not for Bruce Willis…
But I digress, because Mercury Rising is still, as mentioned, enjoyable. Director Howard Becker stays invested in every sequence, working around Lawrence Konner’s and Mark Rosenthal’s script to always keep the flick feeling present – there’s always someone or something relevant happening – and John Barry’s / Carter Burwell’s score is also pretty thrilling. While I’m not smart enough to properly comment on the representation of an autistic character, my snide comment from before excuses that the kid isn’t directly sold as just a magic math wizard – he’s moreso written as a kid first, and the composite of behaviors he displays (which are really well affected by little Hughes, showing none of the winky camera awareness kid actors often have) all seem consistent with one another, and Bruce Willis’ responses to these behaviors are really believable, as a mix of exhaustion and attempts to understand. Alec Baldwin turns in a solid go as a villain, and the small network of side characters around Willis also flesh out the movie, making it more solid than its unsolid premise.
Yes, this is the lesser of a lot of Bruce’s 90s output, but now with a huge stack of these not-Die Hard / not-Sixth Sense movies to sift through, it’s clearer how even these lesser flicks were actually pretty good, achieving the goal of distracting for 90+ minutes.