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Mercury Rising
  • Composed by John Barry
  • Varese Sarabande / 1998 / 35m

A rather daft action thriller, Mercury Rising stars Bruce Willis as a rogue FBI agent who goes on the run with a nine year old autistic boy, who is being hunted down for execution by the NSA, in particular the nasty Alec Baldwin.  The reason he’s being hunted down?  Because he’s the only person who knows how to crack the US government’s new secret code – Mercury.  And how do they know he’s the only person who knows how to crack the code?  Because, obviously, they put it in a puzzle magazine and asked anyone who could crack it to phone them up.  I guess that’s what all governments do when they have new secret codes.

For the score, director Harold Becker turned to veteran John Barry, once considered one of the great action movie composers but who had seemingly left the genre behind by 1998.  As was not dishearteningly common at the time, after recording his score Becker, or the studio, or someone’s cat, decided they didn’t really like it very much and half of it (the action half) was removed from the film to be replaced by a very last-minute rush job by Carter Burwell.  Still, Varèse Sarabande’s album preserves Barry’s original intentions and if at the time the score seemed a little humdrum, I think a lot of people would be surprised if they were to revisit it today.

John Barry

John Barry

It opens with the dark, ominous “The Story Begins”, which isn’t exactly a vintage piece of action music but still gets things off to a decent start; then comes the score’s highlight, “Simon’s Theme”, a gorgeous, lilting, wafer-thin piece of music for the film’s child lead.  The theme’s B section, with its delicate flute part, is heartmelting and truly beautiful.  “The Puzzle” sees a return to the brooding tension before the first real action, in “Barrell Kills Parent”, complete with a stylish Octopussy-style swirling string underbelly.  “Looking for Simon” alternates more suspense with a lovely reprise of Simon’s Theme, which appears again in “Meeting with Kudrow” – while Barry doesn’t really develop it, just restates it, it’s such a beautiful piece it doesn’t matter so much.  That track goes from the theme into some more urgent suspense material, including a very effective sax solo.

“The Train Search / Art and Simon” features some of the score’s darkest action music in the first part before a gorgeous new saxophone melody is introduced in the second.  “Simon is Going Home” offers another reprise of the delicious main theme before more than a hint of Barry’s later Bond scores appears in “Rooftop Arrival”, with its sinister strings, piano and winds even joined by that old Bond standby the xylophone in the closing stages.  Undoubtedly the standout action music in the score comes in “Simon on the Edge / Death of Kudrow”, with a wonderful dialogue between the brass section overlaying deep, rumbling strings and percussion.

There’s another reprise of the main theme in “I’m a Friend of Simon’s” before the fantastic end title piece “The Story Ends”, a gorgeous new theme seemingly expressing a kind of playful, childish joy introduced first on strings then heard later as a gorgeous sax solo.  It’s a wonderful piece.  While the film itself was sadly one of the final nails in the coffin of Barry’s glorious career, the album certainly offers much to enjoy – of course there isn’t the crash-bang action music that was probably what the filmmakers wanted, but there’s an unmistakably beauty in the main theme, an undoubted elegance to the action music that could only come from a veteran like Barry.  As I said earlier – those who dismissed the score back in 1998 might be in for a bit of a surprise if they revisit it today.

Rating: *** 1/2 | |

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  1. Pawel Stroinski (Reply) on Friday 7 June, 2013 at 11:02

    Actually, if I remember correctly, cryptographers used to (at least) put secret codes into puzzles to check if someone can crack them easily. I think there is a historic precedent with that.

    Funniest thing happened when they were preparing, what I think was D-Day and suddenly the MI5 and Special Operations Executive started panicking, because the secret keywords for the operation started to crop up in newspaper crosswords… They cut it down very quickly and there was no negative outcome, but was regarded as a rather close call.

  2. Solaris (Reply) on Friday 7 June, 2013 at 15:10

    I remember liking Burwells’ Action-Cues and that they mixed better with Barrys’ Material than I expected.

  3. Rick (Reply) on Friday 7 June, 2013 at 17:02

    Well, James, I know I told you that I wasn’t as fond of Barry as a lot of other film score fans, but you are making me want to give him a deeper look. I’ll definitely check this score out.

  4. Mike (Reply) on Friday 7 June, 2013 at 18:32

    I’ll have to check out this score, based on this review. Is it anything like Barry’s The Specialist? Which is what I think might be the last “action” score by Barry. I love it…such a sexy, steamy sound. It instantly raises the temp in the room! A different take on Body Heat almost..

  5. James Southall (Reply) on Friday 7 June, 2013 at 18:52

    It’s not really like The Specialist, nor as good. I do like it though (obviously).