Having earned only an 18% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it's fair to say that the 1998 thriller 'Mercury Rising' isn't exactly a critical favorite. I'd not seen the film before sitting down to review this HD DVD, but looking at the back of the box, I wondered -- could a film starring Bruce Willis and Alec Baldwin really be that terrible?
Based on a novel called "Simple Simon," 'Mercury Rising tells the story of an undercover FBI agent named Art Jeffries (Bruce Willis) who breaks the chain of command to protect an autistic child (Miko Hughes) from NSA assassins. It seems the boy catches the attention of a shadowy nook of the government when he inadvertently cracks a complex, cryptographic code referred to as "Mercury." Throwing up immediate red flags, the broken code is brought to the attention of Program Chief Nick Kudrow (Alec Baldwin), a heartless officer who's desperate to defend the integrity of the encryption at all costs.
'Mercury Rising' certainly isn't a memorable film -- it clearly stumbles with loose pacing, dull dialogue, and an absurd set-up. Bruce Willis gives Jeffries a convincing edge, but the actor seems lost in the same John McClain shtick that's peppered his career since 'Die Hard' made him a household name. Making matters worse, the script tends to fall flat and director Harold Becker doesn't exhibit the kind of confidence he did with 'Taps' and 'Sea of Love,' two films that won him considerable favor from audiences and critics alike. In 'Mercury Rising,' his eye for composition seems buried beneath a flood of clichéd action beats that fail to create an engaging sense of dread or danger for Willis or Hughes.
Even the film's treatment of autism is surface-level at best. Hughes is a fine young performer who thankfully doesn't add sentimental muck into his portrayal of Simon, but he's given precious little here to work with. Indeed, instead of serving the character itself, Becker and the film's script only focus on the boy's autism as a unique means to an unoriginal end.
Having said all that, I have to say I'm somewhat surprised by the near-universal critical disgust for this film. To be be sure, there's nothing particularly inventive about 'Mercury Rising,' but it also never falls flat on its face, and it's not without its merits. In particular, Alec Baldwin's effective turn as a villian is a genuine blast to watch. Chewing up the scenery with his trademark swagger, Baldwin achieves an intimidating level of criminal madness that grabbed my attention each time he entered the frame, and almost single-handedly bridges the far-fetched elements of the story and makes the film more cohesive and plausible as a result.
Is 'Mercury Rising' a good film? No, but all things considered, you could certainly find more mind-numbing ways to waste two hours of your life. It may just be an average thriller that tends to meander through each scene with a surface-level predictability, but fans of classic actioners of the '80s and early '90s are likely to find plenty to enjoy here.
Whatever you may think of the movie itself, 'Mercury Rising' is another recent HD DVD title that thankfully breaks free of the Universal-curse that's plagued many of the studio's high-def catalog releases this year.
The film is presented in 1080p with the VC-1 codec and demonstrates the way shadowy cinematography should be handled. The low-lit interior shots and the night scenes are detailed and deep, despite the abundance of darkness that's inherent to this kind of cat-and-mouse flick. There are a few flickers of noise during a trio of scenes, but the rest of the film's presentation is solid and doesn't fall victim to crush issues. Daytime exteriors look great as well, with vivid contrast and natural fleshtones.
The palette is intentionally drab at times, but instances of color are strong and maintain the print's stability. The image has a welcome level of depth that helps object details to pop. Textures are rendered well, edges are clean, and fine details are crisp (particularly in the city). To be sure, this film isn't as sharp as more recent theatrical releases released on HD DVD, but it stacks up well with other notable, four-star catalog titles like 'Darkman,' 'Born on the Fourth of July,' and 'Spy Game.'
I did have a few relatively minor issues -- there are a few shots that seem softer than the rest of the film (likely a result of the camerawork rather than the integrity of the transfer), and there were a few hints of edge enhancement left over from the film's release on standard DVD. The Collector's Edition DVD (which had the same video issues) already looked very good, but this HD DVD transfer has an extra sheen that showcases the noticeable upgrade provided by high-definition.
Matching the technical quality of the video transfer, 'Mercury Rising' features a Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround track (1.5 Mbps) that's sure to wake the neighbors. Gunshots punctuate the soundscape with a frightening realism and the mix aggressively utilizes every channel to full effect. Vehicles give the track a "wow" factor that really opens up the soundfield -- helicopter blades whir with quick pans and a train scene amps up the already impressive sound design, using ambiance and positioning to great effect. Dialogue is preserved amidst the chaos and is well prioritized (aside from a few moments when it's meant to be lost beneath blaring effects).
Unfortunately, as strong as this mix is in its best moments, it suffers from a lack of subtle acoustics in its quieter scenes that prevents the soundfield from being as immersive as the very best mixes. At times, it almost seems as if the film had different sound design teams: one that was responsible for quieter character-building scenes. and another that handled all of the action beats.
While the resulting audio experience isn't as perfect as it could have been, for the most part this is still a track that will turn heads with its style and impact.
This HD DVD edition of 'Mercury Rising' includes all of the primary supplements that were included in the 2003 Collector's Edition DVD (minus text-based fare like cast biographies and production notes).
First up is a commentary track with director Harold Becker. Although he provides some fun on-set anecdotes about Willis and Baldwin, and talks about the differences between the novel and the film, ultimately I found this track disappointing. I was genuinely interested to hear Becker's thoughts on 'Mercury Rising' but alas, he never convinced me that he ever had a genuine vision for the film. I felt this track lost its steam about twenty minutes in.
The real detailed meat of this package comes in the form of a relatively lengthy documentary called "Watch the Mercury Rising" (36 minutes). Avoiding the typical promotional fluff, this one instead provides a candid look at the practical and post-production effects work. While this doc is likely to only appeal to hardcore fans of the film, it's a well-produced effort that I found much more entertaining than most making-of documentaries on these sorts of releases.
Rounding things out is a collection of four "Deleted Scenes" (8 minutes) that were wisely cut (be warned that the video quality of these exorcised scenes is downright awful), along with the film's original theatrical trailer.
(Note that all of the video-based content listed above is presented in 480i/p only.)
Although it arguably doesn't deserve the scorn it has received over the years, 'Mercury Rising' is an average thriller that rehashes too many other films to stand out from the pack. This HD DVD release, on the other hand, is quite solid -- it retains all of the special features on the standard DVD and upgrades the package with a great video transfer and solid audio package to match.