Mercury Rising is a 1998 action thriller film, based on the novel Simple Simon (1996) by Ryne Douglas Pearson. The novel was actually a sequel to October's Ghost (1994) and Capitol Punishment (1995), both of which also feature the main character Art Jefferson, renamed "Art Jeffries" for the film. The film was directed by Harold Becker, previously known for such films as Malice (1993) and City Hall (1996). The main stars were Bruce Willis, Alec Baldwin, and child actor Miko Hughes.
The novel was based on an Urban Legend: "that secret military intelligence codes were sometimes leaked to the public in puzzle magazines to see if civilians could crack them." The film begins with a Hostage Situation in South Dakota. FBI Agent Art Jeffries (Willis) is The Mole within the villains' ranks. He is trying to convince the others to surrender while protecting a teenaged boy. However the FBI task force attacks and kills both the robbers and the boy. Art confronts his superior and ends up demoted. Further, his psychological evaluation reports him as suffering from "delusional paranoia".
Elsewhere, 9-year old Simon Lynch (Hughes), an Autistic Idiot Savant, manages to break the code in a puzzle magazine and finds a telephone number. Which he innocently decides to call. He has just, unwittingly, broken cryptographic code called "Mercury", created and used by the National Security Agency (NSA) since the Ronald Reagan Administration (term 1981-1989). The code was allegedly so complex that its creators believed no computer on Earth can decipher it. But two of them, Dean Crandell (Robert Stanton) and Leo Pedranski (Bodhi Elfman), had decided to put this to the test. They had published the code in the magazine to see if anyone could solve it. Unfortunately for all involved, Lieutenant Colonel Nicholas Kudrow (Baldwin) sees the boy as a liability. He sends Hitman Peter Burrell (Lindsey Lee Ginter) to take out Simon and his parents. He already has plans on how to deal with the security leak.
Burrell kills the parents but fails to locate Simon, who was hiding in a closet. The police and FBI briefly investigate the crime scene, though they incorrectly identify it as a murder-suicide. Jeffries locates Simon and takes the boy under his protection. However the boy is unable to explain what actually happened and the authorities are not particularly inclined to protect him. Jeffries is convinced that Simon is still in danger and takes matters into his own hands. Kudrow manipulates events to discredit Art and have him charged with kidnapping. Art has to crack the case, save Simon and protect his own reputation. He finds allies in fellow agent Thomas Jordan (Chi McBride) and friend Stacey Siebring (Kim Dickens). He also receives unexpected help by Emily Lang (Carrie Preston), the girlfriend of the already assassinated Pedranski.
The film was a modest box office hit, its worldwide gross estimated to 93,107,289 dollars. About 33 million of these dollars came from the United States market, where it was the 61st most successful film of its year. It received mostly negative reviews, dismissed as an uninspired action film with stock situations. Willis won a Golden Raspberry Award as Worst Actor for three of his 1998 films: Armageddon, Mercury Rising and The Siege. On the other hand, Hughes was praised for his realistic depiction of autism and won a Young Artist award.
Mercury Rising provides examples of:
- Adult Fear:
- The mere idea that you can either lose your child or their life if they call a strange phone number. Art is horrified when he walks through the crime scene and seeing it play out as a home invasion. He's trying to figure out where Simon is and finds him hidden when the child imitates the phone ringing.
- The technicians go Oh, Crap! when Simon calls them again, knowing that Kudrow has the kid on his death list. They talk to him in calm and reassuring tones, scared that Kudrow is going to find out.
- And This Is for...: Art kicks Kudrow in the gut during their first meeting, before saying that was for Simon's parents.
- Badass and Child Duo: Art and Simon.
- Bullying a Dragon: Art trying to really piss off Kudrow on purpose, by ruining a sizable portion of his wine collection.
- CIA Evil, FBI Good: The "NSA is Evil" variation of the Trope, represented by Kudrow and Burrell (the NSA technicians involved in the plot are very innocent about the situation, even if they were the ones who created the whole mess). Though technically it's less the entire NSA, and more just Kudrow personally, since none of his superiors know what he is up to and he is really just trying to cover his own ass.
- Death of a Thousand Cuts: How Burrell dies — the explosion of various windows because of gunfire ends with him being peppered with dozens of shards which cut him to death. Also an aversion of Soft Glass.
- Deliberate Values Dissonance: Invoked to show how evil Kudrow is. He is more concerned and upset about losing a sizable portion of his wine collection when Art is trying to upset him than ordering the death of several people.
- The Dragon: Burrell to Kudrow.
- Disney Villain Death: Kudrow, though he had been shot before falling off the building.
- Faux Affably Evil: Kudrow. It says something when he's more concerned about his wine collection than killing an autistic kid. He also acts friendly towards Simon when he meets him which makes him more sinister considering that he just had his parents murdered and now he's trying to personally do the same thing to him.
- Hollywood Autism: Averted. Actually a not-too-unrealistic portrayal.Art Jeffries: Autism... does that mean nothing gets through?
Nurse: No. It means everything gets through.
- Idiot Savant: Simon Lynch. Just to show to the audience how good he is, he is seen solving a jigsaw puzzle from the blank, reverse side. The term "savant" is actually used by the technicians to describe Simon's ability to (instinctively) break Mercury to Kudrow.
- Intergenerational Friendship: After Art saves his life, Simon accepts him as a friend and a trusting figure.
- I Owe You My Life: While not verbally said, it's clear that's what Simon at the end feels about Art.
- Killed Midsentence: Pedranski is assassinated while bringing Art up to speed about the government's cryptography program, and the extents it will go to protect it.
- Not-So-Well-Intentioned Extremist: Kudrow wished Simon dead because Simon can crack the Mercury code reflexively, and Mercury is not only the toughest code the NSA has, but also the one used by every single one of the spies that America currently has on assignment (so if an enemy power gets hold of Simon, it would risk the entire intelligence community). Kudrow tries to sell this to Art, but Art points out that Kudrow's unhesitating use of Murder Is the Best Solution makes it very insincere. What Kudrow leaves out is that Mercury was also the project that got him in line for a cushy promotion and that he sold it to his superiors as completely unbreakable, so if it gets out that Mercury has been broken, it will be his head that will roll for it.
- Obstructive Bureaucrat: Lomax, Art's boss.
- Papa Wolf: Art is very protective towards Simon to the point he's willing to put his own job and reputation at risk.
- Parental Substitute: Art is this to Simon for the majority of the film. At the end of the film, Simon is adopted by foster parents off-screen.
- Politically Incorrect Villain: As part of his Establishing Character Moment, Kudrow labels Simon (and others like him) "people with diminished capacity" during his tirade about how he didn't approved the publishing of a message with Mercury on a magazine. He later calls Simon "one of Nature's mistakes."
- Professional Killer: Peter Burrell.
- Public Secret Message: After a very extensive formal test of the Mercury code labeled it as completely uncrackable, one of the NSA technicians published a message created with Mercury (which included a contact number) on a puzzles magazine. He tries to explain away that he was trying to check out if it was possible for it to remain uncrackable when tossed against puzzle experts and the occasional Idiot Savant, but Kudrow is quick to (quite angrily) point out that this publishing was done without his permission.
- Rare Guns: Burell's preference for expensive high-end foreign handguns becomes a plot point when Art points out during the initial investigation of Burrell's faked murder-suicide of Simon's parents why a low-wage worker would buy an imported $1500 dollar German handgun just to kill himself and his family.
- Revealing Cover-Up: One autistic boy knows how to break your code, and has thus far only informed you that he knows it. Was trying to kill the entire family really the best solution they could come up with?
- Rooftop Confrontation: The final fight between Art and Kudrow on the helipad.
- Shut Up, Hannibal!: When Kudrow tries to pitch to Art to just hand Simon over so he can kill him and keep safe the lives of the many spies keeping America safe (not that he really believes it), he is halfway into talking about one of the spies (a guy that is infiltrated among Saddam Hussein's honor guard and hasn't seen his family in years) when Art hits him in the gut and tells him to just stop and call back the spies if he needs to, and then smashes some of Kudrow's wine on the way out to add more insult to injury.
- Skewed Priorities: Lampshaded by Art during his confrotantion with Kudrow in the wine cellar:Nick Kudrow: I asked you not to handle the wine, please!
Art Jeffries: You know, it's good to see you've got your priorities in order. [takes a slug from another bottle] That's better. You're not worried about murdering a nine year-old boy but you're worried about this fuckin' wine! [throws the bottle away]
[Kudrow winces at the sound of the bottle breaking]
- The Sociopath: Both Kudrow and Burrell. The former is a murderous Social Climber under the guise of a patriot who is willing to have anyone killed, children included, for the purpouse to save his own career. The latter is simply a greedy Psycho for Hire with no qualms about killing innocents for a quick buck.
- Took a Level in Badass: While Art and Kudrow are duking it out on the roof, what does Simon do? He risks falling off the roof of the building just so he could hand Art his gun back.
- Unwitting Instigator of Doom: A teacher at Simon's school gives him the puzzle book as a gift. Let's just say that had she not given Simon that book, we wouldn't have much of a plot.
- Would Hurt a Child: Neither Nicholas Kudrow, nor Peter Burrell find killing a child abhorrent.
- Wouldn't Hurt a Child: The technicians don't want Simon to get hurt, and one of them even tries to tell Art about what happened to atone for the boy's parents getting killed.