If American movie moguls really thought like Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, they'd probably spend more time blowing up Federal Reserve banks than calculating the first-weekend grosses. As it is, instead of buying inflammable fertilizer and fuel oil, the moguls are selling it -- in the form of action movies that capitalize on the current vogue for anti-government paranoia and satires about presidential misconduct. Since the old Russian bogeyman is now managing a Pizza Hut outlet in Moscow, Hollywood increasingly looks to Waco for villains and to the White House for fools.
Witness Mercury Rising, the latest exercise in kick-ass politics featuring Bruce Willis. In scene one, rabid FBI agents storm a small-town bank in South Dakota and slaughter the backwoods militia types inside, including two teenage boys. The rest of the picture is a violent, high-tech fantasy about the misdeeds of the National Security Agency, which will stop at nothing -- not even the murder of its own computer nerds, or a nine-year-old boy -- to protect a $2 billion military supercode called "Mercury."
And Bruce? As usual, he's the lone, heroic Dirty Harry of the piece, a growling, sweating FBI renegade named Art Jeffries, betrayed by his evil bosses and now pursued by NSA hit men through the streets and subway trains of Chicago. His partner in righteousness is a nine-year-old, Simon Lynch (Miko Hughes), who has inadvertently cracked the spooks' precious security code while fooling around with a puzzle magazine (don't ask how) and has become, against all logic, the prime target for their next fusillade.
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Did I mention that the boy is, yes, an autistic savant? Or that the NSA kills his working-class parents in cold blood? Or that Bruce must now play surrogate father as well as armed guardian?
Thus does Die Hard meet Rain Man in a ludicrous collision. In another recent trash movie, noble policeman Andy Garcia schemed to get a bone-marrow transplant for his dying son from a psychopathic serial killer, and that should have qualified as the most far-fetched plot line of the year. Alas, it finishes second. In Mercury Rising, the slick, ambitious NSA chieftain played by Alec Baldwin marshals all the forces at his command to murder a little boy in pajamas who doesn't know an espionage operation from a game of ticktacktoe. The feds should give the kid a medal and a scholarship to M.I.T. for his gifts. Instead, they want to blow his head off. Talk about merchandising irrational fear: If we can believe screenwriters Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal (working from a potboiler by Ryne Douglas Peardon) and director Harold Becker (Sea of Love), government assassins will soon be visiting your local elementary school, hunting down third-graders who've gotten a little too good playing Game Boy.
At the outside, we might take these proceedings as black comedy, or misdirected farce, were it not for the deadly seriousness of the thing. It careens from one murder to the next with breathless abandon, leaps from car chase to helicopter crash without ever stopping to think. As always in Willisville, there are some eye-popping special effects and thrilling action bits. The writers also provide our heroes a couple of friends -- a sympathetic fellow agent (Chi McBride) and a good Samaritan (Kim Dickens). But for the most part, it's man and boy against the world, and the world is still one huge, bloody knot of badly imagined conspiracy, turned out like an overgrown Big Mac by the fry cooks of Hollywood.
Directed by Harold Becker. With Bruce Willis, Alec Baldwin, Miko Hughes and Kim Dickens.