Rated R - Running time: 1:52 - Released 4/3/98

If it weren't for the acting of 12-year-old Miko Hughes, this would be nothing but another pointless, slash-and-burn action movie. But because director Harold Becker chose Hughes, who already has an impressive resumé dating back to 1989, he has elevated his film to a position slightly higher than the genre's standard. Thank goodness for talented kids.

Simon Lynch (Hughes) is an autistic child, who, though he can barely relate to anyone including his loving parents (John Carroll Lynch, Kelley Hazen), possesses an uncanny ability to decipher puzzles. He can run his pen from start to finish through the most difficult maze without error or hesitation. When his teacher gives him a new book of brain-teasers, he is intrigued by a page of numbers, letters, and symbols that to you and me would just look like gibberish. But upon seeing it, he dials the phone and calls the office of the most top-secret program in the U.S. government: the Mercury Program.

The Mercury Program, headed by Lt. Colonel Nicholas Kudrow (Alec Baldwin), has established this supposedly uncrackable code to protect U.S. informants around the world. If it is ever deciphered, the safety of hundreds could be compromised. But when he realizes that Simon figured it out without even knowing what it means, he breathes a sigh of relief. The solution is simple: off the child (and, of course, his parents).

An agent shows up at Simon's house and unceremoniously kills the parents, but Simon disappears before the man can get him in his sights. That's when FBI special agent Art Jeffries (Bruce Willis) is called in. He not only finds Simon, but kidnaps him — for his own good, of course — and begins his search for the reason this kid is so popular with the U.S. government.

The performances of the adults in this movie are nothing out of the ordinary. Baldwin is his standard know-it-all suit; Willis is his standard renegade tough guy with the heart of gold. And the script, written by Ryne Douglas Pearson, who wrote the book (Simple Simon), with Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal, is nothing out of the ordinary either. It is strictly run-of-the-mill Hollywood action, with U.S. government agents killing anyone inconvenient to them.

Hughes is undoubtedly the star of this picture. His portrayal of an autistic child whose ordered life has been thrown into chaos is quite unsettling. His gaze is unfocused, aimed at the sky, mostly. His speech is slow and deliberate, but seems not to be connected to reasonable thinking. He only says things he has learned to say, through years of painstaking practice; when presented with unfamiliar circumstances he instantly short-circuits and becomes hysterical.

A word of warning for sensitive parents: though Hughes excels, this film is not for people who can't deal with child abuse. Simon is not abused in the traditional ways, but to him, simply being left with strangers is enough to rock his world. He's picked up, dragged around against his will, and placed in dangerous situations without so much as an "I'm sorry" from the supposedly sympathetic Jeffries. And witnessing the execution of his parents doesn't help. So if seeing a panicked kid screaming "Mommy!" puts you off, maybe you'd better give this one a miss. ***½

Copyright 1998 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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