"Unpleasant" would be the word for "Mercury Rising" if "tired" weren't a more appropriate one. This plodding thriller stars Bruce Willis as a renegade FBI agent (in action movies, is there any other kind?) protecting a 9-year-old boy (Miko Hughes) whose parents are murdered when he cracks the government's most supersecret code and is now in danger from a professional assassin who may or may not be working for the government. (Guess. I'll give you a clue: The killer has an H.R. Haldeman haircut.) The kid has managed this party trick because he's an autistic savant, which means that in the action sequences, we're treated to the sight of a hysterical child with no means of understanding why there are bullets flying all around him and he's being yanked to and fro. All this follows the prologue, in which we see the two teenage sons of a militia leader killed when the FBI storms the bank they're helping their father rob. Willis, who had infiltrated the militia, was powerless to stop the boys' deaths, and so we get to see those deaths replayed twice in flashback. That's what the director, Harold Becker, considers character development.
But by the time Rainman Jr. is walking along the ledge of a Chicago skyscraper with a gun in his hand, boredom has overtaken revulsion. Why do filmmakers think that putting an autistic character at the heart of a movie is such a great idea? Autistics resist making connections with the people around them; the point of acting is to make those connections. So what the actor inevitably ends up doing -- and this was as true of Dustin Hoffman as it is of Miko Hughes -- is an imitation of autism.
Becker's last two movies, "Malice" and "City Hall," were solid, workmanlike entertainments with plenty of good acting to keep them going. There's an occasional visual diversion here (the little boy putting together a jigsaw puzzle in the shape of the U.S. upside down so that the familiar geography appears flipped), a flash of wit (Willis' informants going low-tech -- using a manual typewriter -- to elude government spooks) and stray bits of good acting (Carrie Preston as a government encryption geek and Barbara Alexander as a librarian who executes a deadpan take when she helps Willis pull up an obviously top-secret document from the Internet). But if you haven't seen Camryn Manheim on "The Practice," her one throwaway scene here (as the boy's teacher) wouldn't tell you what a terrific actress she is. At times, Becker's clumsiness is a blessing. Does anyone want to see a movie that pulls off a scene where a little autistic boy comes home and announces his arrival to the parents who are no longer there to meet him? Becker can't even work up the energy to be a good hack here. He barely suggests a hint of romance between Willis and the woman (Kim Dickens) he turns to for help, and the action carnage, including a man's face being shredded by flying glass, is a transparent sop tossed to the cretin element in the audience.
"Mercury Rising" does present one mystery that has nothing to do with the plot: Alec Baldwin. How is it possible for an actor who shows such a lunatic sense of comedy in his "Saturday Night Live" appearances to be so stolid in his dramatic roles? On "SNL," Baldwin has frequently made me laugh till I ached, and he got a bit of that quality in his performance as the scheming doctor in "Malice." He's the guy who looks straight enough to do an ad for Arrow shirts but sports a madman's gleam in his eyes. I was hoping that Becker could bring that out again. His role here, as a government official whose career is riding on the unbreakability of the code, would support that kind of brio. It seems pretty clear that Baldwin took the part because the notion of a murderous right-winger suits his politics, but he plays the part as if it's a serious dissection of the ruthlessness of Realpolitik instead of a bit of agit-prop caricature for him to doodle on.
Yet even Baldwin's inability to come out of his shell seems less of a shame than the rut Willis is stuck in. There's nothing wrong with his performance here. In fact, it would be news if he were bad. He's likable and believable; he doesn't push the tough-guy laugh lines or overplay the tenderness he feels toward the little boy. But there's only so much an actor can do with material this crummy. Willis has become a target for people who operate on the assumption that there's no such thing as a good performance in an action movie (and those who don't understand that, in a physical movie, the way an actor moves is part of the performance), or people who don't like his politics or his wife or his harmonica playing or whatever. This is a guy who knows his way around a wisecrack. That quality really shone in last year's deliriously loony "The Fifth Element" (the picture would have wafted off into the vapors without him). But when Willis has been given a chance to do straight dramatic acting (as in "Nobody's Fool" or "In Country") he's often been very good -- with the exception of "Twelve Monkeys," where he was sensational. Willis is in a long line of cheerfully cynical Hollywood tough guys, and there's almost no one I'd rather watch race through an action movie. But in "Mercury Rising," he's just running in place.