Mercury Rising at 25: One of Bruce Willis’ Formulaic Action Thrillers of the ’90s

In 1998, Bruce Willis has appeared in not one but three high-profile Hollywood films including Mercury Rising, Armageddon and The Siege. It was a far cry from what he did over the past few years, where we saw his works were restricted to DTV and straight-to-VOD releases before his family announced the actor’s retirement due to aphasia in March last year. Then in February this year, his family revealed that Willis also suffered from frontotemporal dementia. His last movie was Assassin, a bargain-basement sci-fi thriller that unfortunately marked the end of Willis’ once-prolific career.

Going back 25 years earlier when Willis’ name used to mean a lot in mainstream Hollywood cinema, I recently revisited Mercury Rising — an action thriller that I barely care about the first time around. On paper, the movie looks like a hit in the making with Harold Becker of Sea of Love (1989) and Malice (1993) fame as the director and Alec Baldwin served as one of the co-stars here. The premise itself sounds promising: A no-nonsense FBI agent Art Jeffries (Willis) is tasked to protect a 9-year-old autistic boy, Simon Lynch (Miko Hughes) who becomes the target of government assassins after he unwittingly cracks a top-secret government code from one of the pages in a puzzle book. The fact that such a thing happens means it was a serious matter of national security for the shady NSA bigwig, Nick Kudrow (Alec Baldwin), leaving him with no choice but to send his men to kill Simon and his parents (John Carroll Lynch, Kelley Hazen). While his parents are assassinated, Simon manages to hide somewhere in his room before one of the government assassins could take action.

After Art is assigned to the case, he is subsequently responsible for the boy’s safety and what follows next is the obligatory chase on and off as the government assassins begin to hunt them down at all costs. Mercury Rising is the kind of action movie obviously designed as a vehicle for Willis. Playing a law enforcer is what Willis does best since his Die Hard era and it’s all business as usual for the actor in Mercury Rising. Apart from his usual action-role persona, his otherwise all-too-familiar character is given an arc to work with.

A scene from "Mercury Rising" (1998)

Earlier in the movie, we see Art as an undercover FBI agent who finds himself caught in the midst of a bank robbery. He has everything under control at first before the special agent-in-charge botches the operation, causing unwanted death that includes one of the teenagers. When he finds himself being sent over for a case that involved protecting a kid, it was his chance for redemption. This, in turn, explained why Art is so determined to ensure Simon’s safety even if it means he has to jeopardise his career and even his own life. The chemistry between Willis’ Art and Hughes’ Simon is decent, even though it could have been better. Oddly enough, it was Miko Hughes who steals the show as the autistic boy in danger. He pulls off the role convincingly enough. Alec Baldwin, who shows up as the movie’s main antagonist is sadly relegated to an underwritten role. Kim Dickens appears late in the film as Stacey Siebring, a kind woman in a coffee shop who agrees to look after Simon. I was expecting her appearance would result in a more significant role, only to find out she is nothing more than just a token female interest in the movie.

Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal’s otherwise intriguing story about an autistic boy who cracks a top-secret government code, which they adapted from Ryan Douglas Pearson’s 1996 novel called Simple Simon, looks as if everything is streamlined and condensed just to fit the movie into a typical Hollywood action thriller. But the thing is, even a familiar genre setup can be thrilling and suspenseful if the director knows well how to sustain an audience’s interest. Sure, there are a few decent action scenes (the nighttime ambulance chase scene is one of them that comes to mind) but most of them are pretty much generic stuff. The movie does a good job of having the legendary Bond composer John Barry provides the music score for Mercury Rising and the result is incredible.

Mercury Rising, which reportedly cost US$60 million to make, didn’t fare well at the domestic box office back in 1998. The movie could only play second third fiddle to Stephen Hopkins’ big-budget sci-fi adventure Lost in Space, where the latter famously dethroned Titanic after holding the top spot for the past 15 consecutive weeks. Mercury Rising mustered a disappointing US$32.9 million domestically, even though the overseas market was a different story altogether with US$60.1 million for a worldwide total of over US$93 million. Just so you know, Harold Becker wasn’t the first choice since Barry Sonnenfeld was initially attached to directing the film but he reportedly chose to back out due to his commitment to Men in Black at the time. And before Bruce Willis secured the role with a cool US$20 million paycheck, several famous actors like Nicolas Cage were being considered as well.