National Security Boils Over With Willis and Baldwin

Harold Becker’s Mercury Rising , from a screenplay by Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal, based on the novel Simple Simon by Ryne Douglas Pearson, places an autistic child-savant named Simon Lynch (Miko Hughes) in dire jeopardy because he has solved a secret code that no one was supposed to be able to solve. He is immediately marked for extinction by a malignantly murderous National Security rogue operation headed by Alec Baldwin’s hard-nosed, hard-edged and hard-eyed Nicholas Kudrow, who makes Oliver North look like a charter member of the American Civil Liberties Union.

All that stands between 9-year-old Simon and an early grave is a burned-out F.B.I. operative named Art Jeffries, played by Bruce Willis. Anyone familiar with the Die Hard series knows that the situation is well in hand. Art stumbles on the case after Burrell (L.L. Ginter), Kudrow’s most efficient assassin, has killed Simon’s harmless parents but has failed to find Simon in the boy’s secret hiding place in a wall behind a closet. Art finds the boy in a hysterical state and gets him to a hospital. Gradually, Art realizes that the boy is in great danger from someone high up in the government, but he does not yet know why. And suddenly Art’s own motives are made much clearer.

In an earlier undercover operation through which he had infiltrated a group of right-wing fanatics, Art had seen an ill-timed F.B.I. assault result in the needless deaths of two young sons of a right-wing cult leader. He has been virtually paralyzed by guilt ever since. Simon thus serves as the expiation of Art’s guilt, and as a kind of revenge against the establishment. The movie manages to touch all the bases of right-left anarchic paranoia. Waco, Tex., is demonized by Art’s socking his F.B.I. superior in the jaw. Yet, Kudrow’s rogue operation was started during the Reagan Administration. Score one for the liberals. Still, Kudrow’s rationale for his ruthlessness drags in the current impasse with Iraq when he cites an Iraqi-American agent at Saddam’s elbow in Baghdad. This precious American security asset would be placed at risk if Simon fell into the hands of our enemies.

Mr. Becker and his scenarists were reportedly drawn to the project in the first place more for the autistic side of Simon than for the savant, and Mr. Hughes gives a stunning performance as Simon, particularly with his ever-evasive eyes, always looking away from people instead of at them. The always underrated Bruce Willis manages to suggest a therapeutic process at work more on his own character’s anomie and alienation than on Simon’s. There are no miracles for Simon in Mercury Rising , no massive emotional breakthroughs. To witness the slow symbiosis of two creatures, one who has forgotten how to communicate with other people and one who has always lacked that capacity almost entirely, it is worth sitting through the boring would-be blockbuster that almost completely engulfs this movie.

Delicious Evil Under the Sun

John McNaughton’s Wild Things , from a screenplay by Stephen Peters, turns out to be one of the cleverest magic tricks of the season, not by transforming or transcending its trashy sociological premises, but by shamelessly exploiting them to disguise the movie’s often hilarious cynicism about both its characters and its audience. I simply lost count of the number of times I was led down one garden path and up another. The important thing is that I enjoyed being repeatedly surprised and deceived.

Most of the action takes place in Back Bay, a Florida luxury community near the Everglades with inhabitants whose rampant libidos make the usual run of trailer-park trash look positively Jamesian by comparison. After a few background shots of the hormonally enhanced high school student body, we move indoors for a senior assembly presided over by guidance counselor Sam Lombardo, played by a wildly miscast Matt Dillon. Mr. Dillon, even in his mid-30’s as an actor, has lost none of his roguish guile from Rumble Fish (1983), The Big Town (1987), Drugstore Cowboy (1989), A Kiss Before Dying (1991) and Singles (1992), all the way to last year’s In & Out , in which he played a Hollywood hustler with a heart of brassed gold.

With a mock flourish, Lombardo brandishes a piece of chalk with which he prints “sex” on a blackboard to a chorus of catcalls from the students, who, on average, look a depraved decade too old to be fooling around in high school. When Lombardo primly adds “crimes,” the audience sobers up slightly, except for one student who loudly proclaims that the only sex crime is his not getting any. When Lombardo introduces his guest speakers, Detective Ray Duquette (Kevin Bacon) and his partner Gloria Perez (Daphne Rubin-Vega), the natives become restless again, and no wonder. Mr. Bacon, in coat and tie as an authority on sex crimes in the sun-tanned bimbo bivouac of Back Bay, is already a campy casting joke as a classic case of the fox being chosen to guard the chicken coop.

The promotional ads for Wild Things suggest a leeringly homicidal road movie with two guys (Mr. Dillon and Mr. Bacon) and two babes (Neve Campbell from Scream and Denise Richards from Starship Troopers ), to whom we are later introduced as the alleged rape victims of Lombardo’s lusts. Both Ms. Campbell and Ms. Richards are amply endowed with the right stuff in Baywatch -y Back Bay. No siree, Wild Things doesn’t cheat on the soft-core sexuality of its advance publicity. The flesh is there and willing, but the spirit is somewhere else, in the land of parody and satire, irony and insincerity. It is not only that every character, with two or three minor exceptions, is literally and figuratively two-faced, and, in one striking instance, two-haired as well. It is also that every time a modicum of morality, decency or vestigial humanity raises its bloodied head, a sledgehammer of a plot and character twist drives it down again into the mud of mendacity, greed and treachery.

Still, I found myself grooving on being tantalized at every turn by unexpected displays of intelligence and ingenuity from the unlikeliest characters, even though, in retrospect, some of the goings-on verged on the gruesome. A friendly tip: Stay beyond the “final” fade-out through the end credits for scenes explaining and acting out some of the startling reversals in the plot. Yes, despite its undeniable sensuality, Wild Things is another cerebral exercise from which all feeling, sentimental or otherwise, has been surgically removed. Wild Things , after all, can be related allegorically to the man-eating alligators who so resemble the devouring damsels in their predatory natures.

The amazingly omnipresent Bill Murray, who was so prominently featured in Mr. McNaughton’s Mad Dog and Glory (1993), appears again here as the shyster lawyer to end shyster lawyers, and I am not forgetting Walter Matthau’s inspired ambulance-chaser in Billy Wilder’s Fortune Cookie (1966). Yet even Mr. Murray’s seemingly comedy-relief character has more than one arrow in his quiver. For us grown-ups, Theresa Russell in a hot mama role at 40 still flashes the unredeemably wicked eroticism of an eternally wild thing. Still, from the tepid public response to Wild Things thus far, one might think that Mr. McNaughton may be too sophisticated for today’s mainstream audiences, who still have an atavistic hankering for uncomplicated good triumphing, however ghoulishly, over uncomplicated evil, except in the lower depths of kiddie horror flicks.

Juliette Is the South

Carlos Marcovich’s Who the Hell Is Juliette? introduces us to a real-life wild thing from Havana named Juliette Ortega, part-time prostitute, part-time music video performer and shameless camera hog with an irrepressibly irreverent comic energy. The film itself is fractured, with broken bones of fact and fiction, and intrusive and invasive close-ups that virtually assault the camera and the audience with a jarring insolence that occasionally softens into unexpected pathos and despair.

By even the most esoteric criteria of avant-garde filmmaking, the picture is a mess, but vibrantly alive in all its chaotic formlessness with Ms. Ortega’s Juliette and her newfound wistful Mexican girlfriend, Fabiola Quiroz. Both girls have green eyes from lost fathers who have grown into myths and legends in their minds. Salma Hayek makes a cameo appearance as herself, a Latina who made it in the Anglo world. There is yearning here and defiance, mucho music and a glorious sense of making the best of what the cruel gods have given you. I learned something about our neglected neighbors to the south, but I am not sure exactly what. I can’t recommend this film, but I can’t entirely put it out of my mind. It moves and it sings, however rudely and raucously.

National Security Boils Over With Willis and Baldwin