A relatively anonymous high-concept thriller, Mercury Rising concerned the plight of an autistic child who can read top-secret government codes, and the efforts of a disgraced cop to protect him. The film attracted a high level of talent despite its flaws, including Bruce Willis, Alec Baldwin, and composer John Barry of James Bond fame. Despite his retirement from the superspy franchise in 1987, Barry continued scoring genre thrillers and action movies like The Specialist, but Mercury Rising was sadly unique in that it was the composer’s last action/suspense work before his death in 2011. In fact, Barry would only finish work on two films of any kind after Mercury Rising, 1998’s Playing be Heart and 2000’s Enigma.
Barry’s work combines a number of earlier elements from his scores, but primarily has two modes: a theme for the young Simon reminiscent of Barry’s lush, orchestral style, and suspense music that builds on the composer’s Bond work. Both are familiar elements in many Barry scores, and they don’t mesh particularly well in Mercury Rising. “Simon’s Theme,” which is repeated for tender scenes and occasionally used as counterpoint throughout the score, is the album highlight, combining as it does Barry’s Dances With Wolves style with a definite Bond influence. In fact, the tune sounds like nothing more than a love theme, which is probably appropriate, given that the film features a developing bond between Simon and Willis’ character. In his last years as an active composer, Barry showed a clear preference for this sort of slow, deliberate, romantic music to the point that much of it began to run together–there is, luckily, enough inherent Bondian darkness in “Simon’s Theme” to keep it from this.
The action and suspense material that fills out the balance of the album is far weaker, and despite the inclusion of several action setpieces in the film, remains at a level of simmering tension throughout. Menacing brass strokes and percussion comprise most of the material, which features occasional sultry sax interludes but still feels like a recycling of elements from Barry’s earlier music. The material never lets the tension explode into action–the murder of Simon’s family and the climactic gun battle, for example, are scored in essentially the same way: slow, troubled, and churning. In fact, Barry’s work was so low-key that some of it wound up being replaced with cues by Carter Burwell in the finished product–the sort of score rejection that was a hallmark of Barry’s late career, which found the composer unwilling or unable to step outside of his comfort zone.
As sad as it is given its place as the last tense thriller in his filmography, the irony is that with Mercury Rising John Barry produced a thriller score that is neither thrilling nor tense. “Simon’s Theme” and its variations are enjoyable, but the rest of the material drags the album down somewhat. Mercury Rising, despite its significance as Barry’s last action music, isn’t an essential album, and would probably be best suited to fans of Barry’s earlier, similar works and the film itself. If an attractive, lyrical theme in the John Barry tradition is enough of an attraction to overlook the composer’s subpar suspense and action music, replete with borrowings from earlier efforts, though, the brief album is relatively easy to find.