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Home page apparently fixed, and other stuff

I just checked my homepage, and it loaded without a malware warning, so I guess it’s clean now. I apologize for the delay, but apparently it takes a couple of days for a review to go through. Actually Google still has a caution up for the site on its search results, so the request must still be in process, but the site is accessible now and I’m pretty sure it’s safe. Although I’m a little concerned that this is the second time my site has been hacked in the past few months. The first time, it was just the main page and it was simple to upload a clean copy — so simple I didn’t think to report it or change my password. Hopefully the password change will protect it, but if this becomes a problem again, I may need to consider moving my site to a different host.

In other news, my jacket arrived intact. And I finished that plotline from Uncertain Logic, though I still have a way to go on the other main ones, and just over a month to deadline. The problem is that it turned out way too long, but now I’m going through and looking for stuff I don’t need, things I explained twice, etc. Unfortunately I’m under the weather today and haven’t been able to do as much work as I’d hoped. I’d also been planning to go see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes at last today, but I just wasn’t up to it.

Oh, and I decided to take one more look at air fares for flying to Shore Leave, and I’m glad I did, because I was able to find a decently priced flight to Baltimore that only goes a little bit out of the way (layover in Philadelphia) and works out reasonably well timing-wise. So for the first time, I’ll be flying to Shore Leave instead of going by bus or car. I’m so glad I don’t have to take another pair of really long drives, especially since it frees up an extra couple of days for writing. And I’ll get a chance to use my new smartphone’s “airplane mode.” (Which makes it sound like it should sprout wings and fly around. Heck, it can do almost everything else.)

Site malware update

Okay, the webmaster told me the site seems clean and instructed me on how to contact Google for a rescan of the site. I’ve done that, and also changed my password. It may take a day or so for Google to clear the warning, but I’m pretty sure the site is clean now, I hope.

Oh, these past few days… I’m into the climax of one of the main plotlines of Uncertain Logic, but things keep happening to distract me from writing. On Tuesday morning, the first chilly morning we’ve had in weeks, I discovered I couldn’t find my jacket and searched everywhere for it; it ultimately turned out I left it in Aunt Shirley’s hall closet in Detroit, so she’s mailing it back to me. Then my fridge light bulb burned out and I had to notify the apartment manager. Then I had an ophthalmologist appointment that afternoon and couldn’t see clearly enough to write until the evening. And then yesterday this malware thing happened and I’ve been dealing with that. I guess I should be proud of myself for maintaining enough focus to get any work done at all.

Caution: Possible malware issue on my home page

Folks, a fan just notified me of getting a malware warning when trying to access my home page. I found the files had been altered yesterday and uploaded clean copies from my computer, but I’m still getting the warnings on my laptop browsers, although I get through fine on my smartphone. I’ve contacted the webmaster to find out more, and I’ll keep you posted.

Categories: Uncategorized

TrekMovie posts blurb to UNCERTAIN LOGIC (and other upcoming Trek Lit)

TrekMovie.com has posted a bunch of blurbs for upcoming Star Trek novels scheduled over the next year, including my own Rise of the Federation: Uncertain Logic, the third volume in the ROTF series, due in April 2015. The article is here:

Preview Of Star Trek Novels and E-book Novellas For Rest of 2014 + 2015

And here’s the Blurb for ROTF:UL:

Years ago, Jonathan Archer and T’Pol helped unearth the true writings of Vulcan’s great philosopher Surak, bringing forth a new era of peaceful reform on Vulcan. But when their discovery is seemingly proven to be a fraud, the scandal threatens to undo a decade of progress and return power to the old, warlike regime. Admiral Archer, Captain T’Pol, and the crew of the U.S.S. Endeavour investigate with help from their Vulcan allies, but none of them suspect the identity of the real mastermind behind the conspiracy to reconquer Vulcan—or the price they will have to pay to discover the truth.

Meanwhile, when a long-forgotten technological threat re-emerges beyond the Federation’s borders, Captain Malcolm Reed of the U.S.S. Pioneer attempts to track down its origins with help from his old friend “Trip” Tucker. But they discover that other civilizations are eager to exploit this dangerous power for their own benefit, even if the Federation must pay the price!

No cover has been released yet, but I’ve been allowed a glimpse at the not-final solicitation cover, which I think is pretty interesting and hopefully will be released soon, though I have no idea if it’ll be anything like the final cover.

(And it occurs to me that “ROTF:UL” is kind of an unfortunate acronym. I assure you the book is not full of rot. Oh, well, at least I didn’t call it Rise of the Federation: Logic, Mayhem, and Outrage.)

Plenty of other interesting book blurbs are at the link!

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (1988-2011): Full series overview, Part 2

I debated with myself whether to edit my original “Full series overview” post to add the revival, but I think it would be easier just to link to it and add a second post, mainly covering the 1988-90 revival series and the feature film series, but also updating some of the bits from the first post. So here’s the link:

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (1966-73): Full series overview (Part 1)

The revival TV series added 35 episodes to the tally from the original, for a total of 206 episodes and 197 distinct adventures — or maybe 193, since four of the revival episodes were fairly close remakes. Highlights:

1988-9 Season

Regulars: Reactivated government agent Jim Phelps (Peter Graves), electronics engineer Grant Collier (Phil Morris), theater professor Nicholas Black (Thaao Penghlis), all-around tough guy Max Harte (Tony Hamilton), fashion designer Casey Randall (Terry Markwell). Randall dies midseason, replaced with journalist/singer/Secret Service agent Shannon Reed (Jane Badler).

Initially remakes of original-series episodes, soon giving way to new episodes and loose reuses of original premises in different ways. A surprisingly direct continuation from what had come before, with a mix of international intrigue and crime-busting cases; after an initial emphasis on capers that go off-plan and create jeopardy for the team, the season settled into routine, clockwork capers with very little character exploration, much like the original. A high percentage of episodes featured supernatural-themed capers exploiting villains’ superstitions, usually through holography.

Production in Australia allowed more striking and exotic location work and more international flavor, unfortunately leading to worse ethnic stereotyping than the original generally had. In departure from original, most episodes were set in real countries.

Beginning of the fleshing out of the IMF as an organization, establishing other agents, a research lab, and the like. First steps toward a more action-oriented focus.

Cold opens used in every episode. Tape-scene briefings replaced with video minidiscs in special players, and ending in freeze-frame title card/music sting like that in the original’s dossier sequences. No off-book missions, so disc scenes used in every episode. Video dossier scene used only in pilot. Team briefings occasionally took place on site rather than in Jim’s apartment, and were often more preliminary and straightforwardly expository than in the original, with little of the gadget/trick demonstration common in the original.

Main title theme modernized, electronic/guitar arrangement. Preview clips in titles replaced with generic title sequence. End titles initially over “IMF” logo, later over stills from episode.

  • Best episodes: “The Pawn” and “The Fortune,” followed by “The Legacy.” Best remake: “The Legacy,” whose final act improved upon the original’s weak ending.
  • Worst episodes: “The Devils” is worse than anything from the original series. “The Haunting” is also quite bad, and “Submarine” isn’t much better. Worst remake: “Submarine,” a hugely inferior reworking of the original’s finest episode, though it’s only a loose remake.

1989-90 Season

Regulars: Jim Phelps, Grant Collier, Nicholas Black, Max Harte, Shannon Reed. Only season besides S6 where the same regular cast appears in every episode. Only season in franchise where the team has no supplemental members.

Entirely new episodes, though a couple were loosely inspired by original-series premises. First season since S4 to include a 2-parter. The first half-season broke formula much as S5 did, having more capers go wrong and delving more into the characters. The characters spent more time as themselves (rather than playing assumed roles) than in any previous season. The second half largely dropped the caper formula in favor of more conventional action storytelling where the characters were searching and improvising more often than enacting preplanned strategies.

Unique in having no purely crime-focused episodes; every criminal case had an international/geopolitical aspect. Resumes original series’ practice of using largely fictitious countries, though with several real locations (or caricatures thereof) used. Increased emphasis on action, solving problems with force or gunplay rather than deception and stratagems. The opening 2-parter was essentially an over-the-top action movie, almost a trial run for the feature films. Increasing shift toward fanciful or exaggerated scenarios, and continued emphasis on supernatural cons.

No change in initial formula: Cold open, disc briefing, team briefing usually in Jim’s apartment but occasionally at on-site command post.

  • Best episodes: “Countdown,” “The Fuehrer’s Children,” “For Art’s Sake,” and “The Princess.”
  • Worst episodes: “Cargo Cult” is the worst episode in the entire franchise. “Banshee” and “The Assassin” are both dreadful.

So how would I rank these seasons relative to the whole? Remember, my rankings for the original series were:

  1. Season 5
  2. Season 1
  3. Season 3
  4. Season 4
  5. Season 7
  6. Season 6
  7. Season 2

The 1988 season — call it season 8 — was generally routine and mediocre in storytelling, about on the same level as S2, but weakened by less interesting music and by the disappointing presence of Terry Markwell in the first 2/3 of the season. I’d pretty much have to rate it below S2, then. The ’89 season — call it season 9 — is trickier to rate, since it started out so strong but sank so low. In that respect, it’s close to season 6, which had a number of strong episodes offset by a number of poor ones. But the worst episodes of S9 are below the quality of anything in the original series, so I’d have to put it below S6, though it has enough interesting ones to put it above the generally bland S2. So the new ranking would be:

  1. Season 5
  2. Season 1
  3. Season 3
  4. Season 4
  5. Season 7
  6. Season 6
  7. Season 9
  8. Season 2
  9. Season 8

Movies

Regulars: Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is the only true regular. Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) appears in all four films but is only a team member in three. Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) is effectively a regular starting with the third film. No one else appears in more than one film.

A remarkably inconsistent film series, with each film reflecting its own director’s style and sensibilities. The first two films and the subsquent J.J. Abrams-produced series can be seen as three separate, highly distinct attempts to adapt M:I to film, sharing only a leadactor and a few recurring tropes. Unlike the TV franchise’s team focus, the films are focused on Ethan Hunt as a lone hero and romantic lead, with only Ghost Protocol having an ensemble approach (and eschewing a romantic subplot, for the most part); but Hunt does not emerge as a well-drawn character until the third film. Only the third and fourth films have any shared continuity besides the return of Hunt and Stickell. What the films have in common is a shift toward a greater emphasis on action and on tales of intrigue and treachery. All of the first three films involve traitors in the IMF, and all but the second involve Ethan Hunt being accused of treason and going on the run. The intricate capers that characterized the original series are generally reduced to set pieces within the films’ plots.

The IMF is fleshed out into a division of the CIA, based in Langley, VA. Every film features either senior IMF officials or “the Secretary” himself, though with different officials in each film. The first three films have the briefing videos narrated by the agent’s superior in the IMF, and the fourth has the Secretary deliver “your mission, should you choose to accept it” in person (along with other mission briefings by an anonymous, possibly computerized voice). The method of the briefing delivery is different in every movie. Dossier videos are incorporated into the briefings in films 1, 3, and 4, and as part of a visual montage in film 2. Teams are usually selected by the superior rather than the team leader. Team members are now career IMF agents rather than civilians, although the premise that they are deniable, non-official agents without the protection of their government in the event of discovery is retained — and utilized far more heavily than in the series.

All films take place in real locations and are generally filmed in them. All plots focus on large-scale espionage or on the terrorist acquisition of WMDs.

Every film has a cold open, though the subject matter varies. Every film uses the Schifrin main title theme, but only the first and fourth have full-length title sequences based on the format of the original series. Only the third and fourth films use “The Plot” in full, though the first uses snippets; the second film is unique in the franchise in eschewing the melody altogether.

  • Best films: M:i:III, M:I — Ghost Protocol.
  • Worst films: M:I-2 is clearly the worst, but the first M:I isn’t much better.

Ranking the movies is pretty easy:

1) Ghost Protocol: Very well-directed and fun, with the greatest focus on classic M:I-style capers and schemes and the only really ensemble-driven story in the film franchise. Very close in quality to its predecessor, but the greater fidelity to M:I and the superior music put it over the top.

2) M:i:III: Just as well-done in its own way, but more serious. Terrific, rich character work and effective action, and by far the best use of a female lead in the franchise. The first film to give Ethan Hunt an actual personality. The only drawbacks are an insufficient focus on the ensemble (though they do get a few nice moments here and there) and relatively little use of classic capers, with the Vatican sequence being essentially the only one.

3) M:I: A fairly tepid conspiracy thriller with mediocre acting and a key plot point that makes no sense whatsoever (the Bible “clue” that proves nothing at all), not to mention a climax that defies physics more ridiculously than most action movies do. Further marred by the character assassination of “Jim Phelps.” Still, it’s redeemed somewhat by the effective and iconic set piece of the Langley heist, and by making more use of series-style capers and tropes than any other film in the series save GP.

4) M:I-2: A cartoony, over-the-top, Hong Kong-style action movie, which is something that might be fun as a separate entity, but that doesn’t work as something calling itself Mission: Impossible. An aggressively mindless exercise in style over substance, dominated by insanely overdone action and a deeply superficial excuse for a romance between Hunt and the film’s one and only female character, a travesty next to the moving relationship he has with Julia in the subsequent films. Barely even feels like M:I, barely uses a team, and the villains use more IMF-style tactics than the heroes. The best that can be said about it is that it succeeds in its goal of being a dumb, shallow action cartoon, unlike its predecessor, which fails in its goal of being a smart conspiracy thriller.

Musically, the revival series was less interesting than its predecessor, featuring only three composers in the first dozen episodes and only one for the remainder of the series. The three scores each contributed by Lalo Schifrin and Ron Jones were of mixed quality, though each had one really interesting one, one reasonably good one, and one mediocre one. The remaining 23 scores by John E. Davis (assisted by Neil Argo in season 2?) were generally uninteresting. However, the changes in US union rules requiring new scores in every episode mean that Davis is second only to Schifrin in the total number of M:I episodes scored.

The films have used three different composers, Danny Elfman, Hans Zimmer, and Michael Giacchino, with only Giacchino being used twice. Elfman’s score was reasonably good and Giacchino’s were both excellent, with the Ghost Protocol score being particularly impressive. Zimmer’s score for the second film was mediocre, and the only one geared more toward rock sounds than orchestral scoring.

The updated list:

  • Lalo Schifrin: 26 credited scores, seasons 1-8, plus themes used in 4 films
  • John E. Davis: 23 credited scores, seasons 8-9
  • Richard Markowitz: 9 scores, S3-4
  • Robert Drasnin: c. 7 scores (8 credited), S2-3, 5-6
  • Gerald Fried: 6 scores, S1-4
  • Jerry Fielding: 6 scores, S2-4
  • Ron Jones: 6 scores, S8
  • Walter Scharf: 5 scores, S1-2
  • Benny Golson: 4 scores, S5-6
  • Richard Hazard: 3 scores, S4-5 (+1 credited, S6)
  • Robert Prince: 2 scores, S5-6
  • Michael Giacchino: 2 scores, films 3-4
  • Jacques Urbont: 1 score, S1
  • Don Ellis: 1 score, S1
  • Harry Geller: 1 score, S5
  • Hugo Montenegro: 1 score, S5
  • George Romanis: 1 score, S6
  • Duane Tatro: 1 score, S7
  • Danny Elfman: 1 score, film 1
  • Hans Zimmer: 1 score, film 2

The list of composers who have worked on M:I and Star Trek has grown, now including Fried, Fielding, Romanis, Jones, and Giacchino.

Here’s the updated list of regular and recurring IMF team members by number of appearances, incorporating the entire franchise. This includes everyone who was a team member more than once, so it leaves out most of the movie characters. This time I am incorporating Barney and Lisa Casey’s return appearances in the revival despite their not being formal team members, since they did actually participate in the teams’ endeavors, something I didn’t recall when I made the original list.

  • Jim Phelps: 178 (not counting presumed impostor in first movie)
  • Barney Collier: 169 (plus at least 1 offscreen assist)
  • Willy Armitage: 147
  • Rollin Hand: 76
  • Cinnamon Carter: 71
  • The Great Paris: 49
  • (Lisa) Casey: 35 (plus 6 offscreen assists)
  • Grant Collier: 35
  • Nicholas Black: 35
  • Max Harte: 35
  • Dan Briggs: 27 (only on mission in 20)
  • Shannon Reed: 24
  • Dana Lambert: 23
  • Doug Robert: 13
  • Casey Randall: 12 (mostly minor contributions)
  • Mimi Davis: 7
  • Tracey: 6 (4 distinct missions)
  • Ethan Hunt: 4
  • Luther Stickell: 3
  • Dr. Green (Allen Joseph): 2 (plus 1 offscreen assist)
  • Dave (Walker Edmiston): 2
  • Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg): 2 (only 1 as formal team member)

Note that Jim has now surpassed Barney as the most frequently appearing character in the franchise.

Bob Johnson (Voice on Tape/Disc) is heard in 192 episodes (all but 14), with 9 being recaps in multiparters, coming out to 183 distinct briefings. Johnson is in none of the movies, having died three years before the first film’s release.

Revised comparisons:

Best Team Leader: Previous winner: Jim Phelps. New candidates: Evil Impostor Jim Phelps, Ethan Hunt.

Is there even a contest? Well, we can rule out Jon Voight’s Evil Jim right off the bat; assassinating your own team is kind of a disqualifier. And Ethan is too much of a lone wolf and grandstander, plus he has a hard time holding onto a team. No change here — the original Jim Phelps, accept no substitutes, still wins by a mile.

Best Second-in-Command: Previous winner: Barney Collier. New candidates: Grant Collier, Ethan Hunt.

I’m counting Ethan because he was Evil Jim’s second-in-command in the first film, and Grant because he generally seemed to be the first one Jim briefed before the others. Ethan didn’t give a very good showing in the role, allowing virtually his entire team to be killed by their team leader, so he’s out of the running (no pun intended) again. And Grant was never really given the chance to take the lead in Jim’s absence, so while I have the feeling he would’ve done a great job, he never got to prove it. No change here: Barney still wins.

Best Master of Disguise: Previous winner: Rollin Hand. New candidates: Nicholas Black, Ethan Hunt.

Man, that Hunt guy sure gets around. But his full-mask impersonations are too dependent on high technology, including synthetic voice chips, which seems like cheating. His less extreme makeup jobs using his own face and voice aren’t bad, but they don’t display as much range as Rollin’s did. And Nicholas had even less versatility; though theoretically he could do a perfect job mimicking anyone so long as the actor’s voice was dubbed over his, in practice the actor was unconvincing in the role. So again, no change: Rollin still wins.

Best Tech Guy: Previous winner: Barney Collier by default. New candidates: Grant Collier, Jack Harmon (Emilio Estevez), Luther Stickell, Benji Dunn.

Let’s start with the movie guys. Jack Harmon’s main accomplishments, as seen in the first film, are watching stuff on a monitor, being out-hacked by his own boss, and getting killed by a truly ridiculous deathtrap. Not impressive. Luther’s good with the hacking and with monitoring the team operations, but he’s not as hands-on as his predecessors. And Benji, while enthusiastic as anything, is a bit of a bumbler. The only real contender for Barney is his own son. And I’m tempted to give Grant the win. All things considered, he’s a more versatile IMF agent than his father, skilled not only in the tech stuff but in roleplay and physical combat as well. True, Barney expanded into those fields when necessary, particularly in seasons 6 & 7, but Grant did them better. However, this category is specifically for best tech guy, not best all-around agent. And tech-wise, while Grant had more advanced gadgets than his father, it seemed that his activities involved a higher ratio of typing on keyboards to doing hands-on gadget/mechanical stuff. That doesn’t necessarily mean that he accomplished less, but it does feel like his tech work was less versatile, more in the direction of Luther’s one-note hacking and monitoring. Still, he did a fair amount of field work and gadgeteering as well. It’s a very close contest, and I’m tempted to call it a tie. But here’s the thing: Grant owed his skills to what he learned or inherited from Barney. So if anything, Grant’s achievements only add to Barney’s legacy. So again, the original verdict stands.

Best Regular/Recurring Female Agent: Previous winner: Cinnamon Carter. New candidates: Casey Randall, Shannon Reed.

For once we have no candidates from the movies, since no female agents have made repeat appearances. That leaves the two women from the revival series. Casey Randall was by far the weakest regular agent of either sex, rarely given anything significant to do and limited in range when she was. She was certainly the weakest seductress of them all, despite being relatively beautiful. But Shannon Reed was very impressive — strong, smart, charming, sexy, reasonably versatile as a roleplayer, and a pretty good singer too. Her main drawback was a tendency to be made a damsel in distress, but despite this, she never felt weak or helpless, and indeed it sometimes gave her the chance to be even more heroic. It’s another close contest — indeed, the contest between the original series’ three main female leads was also quite close — but I think we have our first upset, with Shannon now getting my vote for the best female agent, by a narrow margin.

Best One-Shot Female Agent: Previous winner: Crystal Walker (Mary Ann Mobley) from “Odd Man Out.” New candidates: Every female agent in the movies.

Again, I won’t list all the candidates by name, but my favorite of the movies’ female agents was Zhen Lei (Maggie Q). Jane Carter (Paula Patton) got more to do, but she felt uncomfortable and out of place in the IMF’s roleplaying gambits, being more a blunt instrument who struggled to fulfill her responsibilities. Still, I don’t think Zhen quite upsets Crystal, although it’s very close.

Best Strongman: I’m changing this category from Best “Other Guy” because now we have more than one candidate in the strongman category. Previous winner: Willy Armitage. New candidate: Max Harte.

For once, we have a clear upset. Willy was pleasant enough and good with the physical stuff, but limited as a roleplayer. Max was less a strongman per se and more an all-around tough guy and fighter, but he was also a much more capable roleplayer, pilot, stunt rider, and the like. He was a great asset to the team and wins my vote easily.

Best One-Shot Male Agent: Previous winner: Joseph Baresh (Albert Paulsen) from “Memory.” New candidates: Jack Harmon, Franz Krieger, Billy Baird, Declan Gormey, William Brandt.

Okay, Brandt is the only one on the list who made much of an impression at all, aside from Krieger, who was a villain. But since he’s allegedly attached to the upcoming fifth movie, I’m not sure he qualifies for the one-shot category. Let’s leave this undecided.

So there we are — nine seasons and four movies. Please don’t ask me to redo this whole thing again when M:I-5 comes out, or this reviewer may self-destruct. Until then — “Mission… accomplished!”

Categories: Reviews Tags: ,

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE — GHOST PROTOCOL (2011) Movie Review (spoilers)

Now adding a more detailed overview of the most recent Mission: Impossible film, which I offered initial thoughts on back in 2012M:I — Ghost Protocol was the live-action directorial debut of Brad Bird (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille), with a script by Alias writer-producers André Nemec and Josh Appelbaum. J.J. Abrams produced the film, providing some continuity with its predecessor, a first in the M:I feature film “series.”

Bird establishes his strong visual sense right away with sweeping, dynamic overhead shots of Budapest, closing in on Josh Holloway as he flees from pursuers, casually leaping off a roof — after tossing down a cartridge that inflates into an airbag to catch him. He thinks he’s home free, but a dainty-featured blonde beauty (Lea Seydoux) assassinates him before he has a chance to react, hugging him close and kissing his cheek as she shoots him a few more times, then stealing the package he’s carrying.

Cut to a Moscow prison, where a small IMF team consisting of returning character Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and newcomer Jane Carter (Paula Patton), no known relation to Cinnamon Carter. Benji is controlling the prison doors to let out a certain person they’re trying to spring, who turns out to be Ethan Hunt, again with longer hair (this is becoming a pattern, short-l0ng-short-long). Benji plays Dean Martin’s “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head” over the prison PA so Ethan can time his escape (during a prison riot, hence the song selection), a trick evocative of the use of carnival music to time a prison break in season 1′s “Old Man Out.” But Ethan won’t go without rescuing another prisoner, Bogdan (Miraj Grbić), who gave him intel and would be killed for it if he were left behind. Once they get out through a hole Carter blows in the cellar floor, she introduces herself to Ethan and he tells her to “light the fuse,” very cleverly incorporating the opening of the main titles into the action, and leading into a title sequence like a Pixarized version of the original series (or first movie) titles, with the CGI fuse burning through not just clips from the movie to come, but shots showing moments from the film from entirely different angles. It’s a bravura sequence, and Michael Giacchino scores it with an even bolder, brassier rendering of the Schifrin theme than he used last time. It ends with the fuse detonating a charge that I now realize must’ve been intended to bring down the tunnel and prevent pursuit, though that was only implied, since…

We cut right to Ethan, Benji, Carter, and Bogdan fleeing in a van — until they deftly transfer Bogdan to another IMF van. Benji explains he passed the field agent’s test, and Carter explains that Josh Holloway was her partner (and lover) and was killed trying to prevent Russian nuclear launch codes from falling into the wrong hands, which they now have — those hands belonging to the girlish assassin from before, Sabine Moreau, who intends to deliver them to a terrorist called Cobalt. The van stops by an old public phone which opens to reveal an IMF computer thingy that gives Ethan his mission — the first time in the film franchise that the briefing voice is anonymous rather than Ethan’s (or Phelps’s) boss. The gig is to infiltrate the Kremlin and get the files identifying Cobalt before he can destroy them. The “self-destruct in five seconds” bit is comically subverted when Ethan has to go back and smack it to set it off. Meanwhile, Benji mentions to Carter that Ethan’s marriage with Julia didn’t work out — disappointing, since she was so important to him in the third film.

Giacchino gives us a taste of “The Plot” when the briefing voice informs Ethan that he’s been assigned Benji and Carter as his team to save time. The agents hardly ever get to pick their own teams in the movies! He then gives us a bit more of “The Plot” as Bird’s camera swoops over the Kremlin — and then modulates into a similar-sounding melody in a bombastic Russian-marching-song idiom, one of my favorite pieces of music from the score. Carter uses a remote-controlled toy balloon to drop a hacking transmitter down a chimney so that when Ethan and Benji enter disguised as a Russian general and his aide, their clearance shows up on the computer. Then Ethan and Benji set up an elaborate projection-screen system in the hallway that tracks the eyes of the desk guard (ubiquitous Vancouver actor Mike Dopud) and shows him an image of the hall behind it. As I remarked in my initial review, this is a fancier version of a gambit seen in “The Falcon, Part 3,” but it’s exercised with a lot more comic flair. But things get serious when Ethan finds the records already expunged and then hears a voice cutting in on their frequency, announcing to the “team leader” that the detonator has been set. The Kremlin guards also pick this up and are alerted to the infiltration. Ethan aborts the mission and gets out, but then the building he was in blows up, and even the Patented Tom Cruise Run isn’t fast enough to get him away unscathed. He awakens in the hospital, under arrest and blamed for the bombing, as he learns from Russian intelligence man Sidorov (Vladimir Mashkov), who’s determined to punish him for his alleged crime. Ethan makes a break onto the window ledge but has second thoughts about jumping shirtless and barefoot into a dumpster full of medical waste, and there’s a humorous bit of interplay with Sidorov, who’s watching him amusedly from the window. But then Ethan manages to slide down a wire onto a passing van’s roof and get away, swiping some poor guy’s cell phone to call for retrieval.

He’s picked up by no less than The Secretary (Tom Wilkinson), who happened to be in Moscow but has been recalled in disgrace. He tells Ethan the entire IMF has been disavowed and shut down, but lets him know he intends for Ethan to escape and mount a rogue operation using an “overlooked” equipment cache. He also introduces Ethan to William Brandt (The Avengers‘ Jeremy Renner), an IMF analyst. Ethan realizes he passed Cobalt in the Kremlin and sketches the face on his hand to show to Brandt, who recognizes him as Kurt Hendricks, a nuclear strategist with an apocalypse obsession and a belief that global cataclysm is a necessary step in evolution. He stole a missile-controlling briefcase from the Kremlin and blew it up so they wouldn’t find out, as well as to put the blame on the US and heighten tensions.

The Secretary personally delivers “your mission, should you choose to accept it” on a flash drive, but just as he’s telling Ethan what a friend he is, the car is attacked and the Secretary and driver killed, and as the limo overturns, Bird cleverly shoots the entire sequence from inside the back seat, until it crashes into the river. Ethan concocts a diversion to get himself and Brandt away from the firing guards, and afterward Brandt is confused about how Ethan knew it would work. Ethan explains it was more a matter of instinct, both his and the wildly firing guards’, than rational thought.

The equipment cache is in a train car that happens to be moving when they find it, leading to some slapstick as they try to gain access. Inside they find Jane and Benji, and Ethan briefs them on the mission to intercept Hendricks’s henchman Wistrom (Samuli Edelmann) when he buys the launch codes from Moreau, then follow him back to Hendricks. He insists that both Moreau and Wistrom are assets that need to be kept alive until they find Hendricks, which angers Carter, who wants revenge on Moreau for killing Sawyer from Lost. But Ethan’s adamant: revenge must wait.

The movie series’s skyscraper fetish now reaches its greatest height, literally, for the meeting is at the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. Another of Bird’s swooping chopper shots introduces it magnificently, and Giacchino gives the tower its own lush Arabian motif, my other favorite theme from the film. The gambit is one used on the original series, to intercept both parties in a meeting and make each one think they’re meeting the other, with Jane meeting Wistrom as Moreau and Ethan meeting Moreau as Wistrom. But they have to hack the building’s security servers to control the elevators, and of course the only way to get to them is via our climactic installment of “Ethan Hunt Climbs Things.” I doubt I need to summarize the most famous sequence from the movie, but Ethan’s free climb of the glass exterior of the Burj showcases a lot more of Bird’s flair, wit, and comic timing, as well as Cruise’s impressive commitment to his work and insistence on doing his own stunts.

Ethan barely survives the climb and return, but then more things start to go wrong. The mask machine breaks down, so Ethan and Carter have to pull off the impersonations without masks and pray that Moreau and Wistrom have never met. Then Wistrom shows up with a Russian code expert he’s kidnapped to verify the codes, so the plan to replace them with fakes and track the paper to Hendricks needs revision — the copies (scanned by a special contact lens and printed inside a special briefcase) have to have authentic codes. (But the paper still has to be fake since it’s impregnated with a tracer they can track.) Brandt balks at handing over the real codes, but Ethan convinces him there’s no other way. The team manages to pull off the deception long enough for Wistrom to leave with the traceable codes, but then Moreau gets wise to Brandt’s contact lens and attacks him. Carter captures her and takes her back to the team’s room, handing Benji the gun since she knows she’ll kill Moreau if she has a gun on her. Moreau gets the drop on Benji, and Carter ends up having to kick Moreau out the still-open window a hundred-odd stories up. It’s unclear whether she even had a choice, but she’s screwed up.

After encountering Sidorov again and eluding him, Ethan breaks out the Patented Tom Cruise Run and chases Wistrom through a sandstorm, and I like how Bird uses the blinding conditions as a contrast to the wide-open action of the Burj Khalifa climb, mixing it up and keeping it interesting. But here’s where things didn’t quite work for me, since the idea was to trail Wistrom back to Hendricks, but Ethan ends up chasing him openly and then trying to catch him, even crashing a car into his to stop him, but he gets away and removes a mask revealing that he was Hendricks all along. Huh? Why? That doesn’t seem to make sense. Was it just something they inserted because there had to be at least one impossibly convincing mask impersonation in the film?

Later, the team is torn up with mutual recriminations, and Ethan confronts Brandt about the mad fighting skills he showed in the Burj Khalifa, asking why such a capable field agent would be just an analyst. On getting no answer, Ethan seems to abandon the team and goes off alone. Carter confronts Brandt, and he tells her and Benji what he wouldn’t tell Ethan: That he was responsible for protecting Ethan and Julia without their knowledge, but he failed and Julia got killed — much to the shock of Benji, who thought she’d simply left Ethan. Hunt was in the Russian jail for killing the Serbian assassins.

Ethan goes to meet with a Russian arms dealer, a relative of his old friend Bogdan. I think the sewed-up ski mask used to blindfold Ethan is the same ugly-muppet one from the first film. He tells the dealer about the nuclear threat and asks where Hendricks could get a satellite able to relay the control signal to a missile, learning there’s one that was sold to a Mumbai media mogul. But he won’t be able to hack it alone. So he has to mend fences with the team, and they fly off to plan the mission. There’s some fun banter between Brandt and Benji as the former is skeptical of the latter’s plan to get him past the deadly cooling fan into the massive server for controlling the satellite.

At the party held by the mogul, Nath (Anij Kapoor), Carter’s job is to be the seductress, getting Nath alone and getting the satellite control codes from him however she can. She’s in a sexy turquoise dress that tries to be as impressive as Maggie Q’s little red number from the last film, and comes reasonably close (though Paula Patton’s own physique helps enormously). But Jane is totally clumsy at playing the seductress, and only gets away with it because Nath doesn’t mind the dominatrix type. Once Brandt hesitantly takes the leap, gets into the server control, and gives Benji access, Benji finds that Hendricks has already taken control of the satellite. Carter gets the codes by force, but it’s too late. The only option is to get to the transmission site before missile launch, but even Ethan and Jane’s fancy sportscar can’t get through the Mumbai crowds in time. Now their last chance is to abort the launched missile in the few minutes before impact. Ethan spots Hendricks leaving and gives chase while Jane, Brandt, and Benji deal with Wistrom, who’s trying to damage the transmission equipment, which they have to repair while also contending with Wistrom and his gun (and Jane has to keep going despite being shot). Benji ultimately saves Brandt from Wistrom.

Meanwhile, Ethan chases Hendricks to an automated car-park tower (a full-size, working one constructed specifically for the film), and they battle for the case among the moving platforms, the logic of the sequence playing out not unlike that Popeye cartoon about chasing a baby through a construction site. It’s very clever and funny. Although it takes a serious turn when Hendricks, a true fanatic believing the apocalypse will save humanity, jumps to the ground and kills himself to keep Ethan from getting to the case in time. Ethan drives a car off its platform and relies on its seatbelt and airbag to save him (they do), then crows “Mission accomplished!” as he hits the abort button on the missile control — which doesn’t work until Brandt, freshly saved from Wistrom, turns the transmitter back on, neutralizing the missile. Sidorov, whom Ethan had the arms dealer contact, shows up just after the nick of time and realizes that Ethan wasn’t the bad guy.

Later, in San Francisco, Ethan is hanging out with Luther Stickell in a cameo scene when he meets with the others, tells them they made a good team, and offers them new missions. Benji and Jane accept, but Brandt resists, confessing that he let Julia die. But Ethan’s timed the meeting to show him that Julia is still alive, that Ethan faked her death and got her into witness protection to spare her. Michelle Monaghan gets only a wordless cameo, but it’s nice that she’s still potentially in play for the future. All’s well, and Ethan gets an assignment to go after a terrorist group called “the Syndicate,” an in-joke reference to the name always used for the mob in the original series. He vanishes into the mist, leading into an end-credit sequence scored, for once, not by a pop tune but by a suite of Giacchino’s (and Schifrin’s) themes for the film.

As my original review made clear, this is my favorite M:I film and the one that I think comes closest to the original series. But I have to revise what I said before, that the first three directors made movies very much in their own characteristic styles while Bird made more of a faithful M:I movie. Actually, Bird makes this movie his own just as much as the others did. It uses a lot of the tropes and trappings of M:I, but subverts them comically (along with many action-movie tropes as well), and it’s the intricately plotted visual and character humor that make it a Brad Bird film. The movie is much more fun and snarky than its predecessors and more so than the original series. It’s got the same kind of character focus that Abrams’s M:i:III had, but with a different tone and pace. It’s also unique among the M:I films in being an ensemble piece: All three supporting team members have their own arcs and stories, rather than just being there to back up Ethan. (Which may be because there was a tentative plan to phase out Cruise in favor of Renner as the franchise lead, although that plan was abandoned.)

Giacchino’s score here is my favorite of the series as well, even richer and more gorgeous than his score for the previous film, and one of my favorite Giacchino scores overall, the other being The Incredibles. I do wish he’d used “The Plot” for more than just the Kremlin sequence, though. It would’ve been interesting to hear an Indian-styled rendering of it in the Mumbai sequence, although we do hear a bit of the main title in that idiom.

Mission: Impossible 5 is currently in pre-production, with Christopher McQuarrie (writer of The Usual Suspects, Valkyrie, and Edge of Tomorrow) as director and a script by Iron Man 3‘s Drew Pearce. Abrams is still producing, but this franchise just can’t hold onto a director for more than one film. We’ll have to see what fresh flavor McQuarrie brings. For now, though, this is the end of my review series — although I do have one more franchise-overview post to come.

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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III (2006) Movie Review (spoilers)

With this film, the M:I series returned after a 6-year gap, with Paramount bringing aboard Alias creator J.J. Abrams to relaunch the series — which he did so successfully that Paramount entrusted him not only with the ongoing M:I franchise, but with its sister franchise Star Trek as well. But that’s later. For now, M:i:III, as it was styled on posters, was directed by Abrams and written by Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and Abrams.

The cold open this time is a flashforward in which Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt awakens in captivity and is told by Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman) that he has a bomb in his brain. Davian grills him about the location of something called the Rabbit’s Foot, which Hunt believes he’s already given Davian. Davian threatens the life of a woman who’s clearly dear to Ethan, counting down relentlessly from ten, and Ethan runs the gamut from pleading to bargaining to threatening to reasoning to begging. Ethan Hunt shows far more characterization, and Tom Cruise shows far more acting range, in the first four minutes of this film than in the previous four hours of the franchise. It’s a brilliant, stunning opening and deeply refreshing after the tepid films that preceded it.

Once the countdown ends, we hear an ominous shot, and cut to a brief title sequence, with Abrams’s regular composer Michael Giacchino giving us a big, brassy orchestral variation on Schifrin’s theme. Cut to the woman we just saw threatened, and it’s Michelle Monaghan as Julia Meade, who’s throwing an engagement party with her fiancee, Ethan Hunt, whom she believes to be an employee of the Virginia Department of Transportation. It’s another marvelous scene rich with everyday texture, and it humanizes Ethan and grounds the film in a way that M:I has never been grounded before. This is the first time ever that we’ve been given a reason to identify with Ethan Hunt on an emotional, human level — and it only took ten years for it to happen. At last, our wooden action hero has become a real live boy.

But Ethan gets a call that Giacchino accompanies with Schifrinesque bongos, hinting at intrigue ahead. The call draws him to a 7-Eleven where he’s met by IMF Operations Director John Musgrave (Billy Crudup), offering him a shot at rescuing a trainee of his, Lindsey (Keri Russell, star of Abrams’s Felicity), who’s been taken captive. Ethan resists, since he’s given up field work to become an instructor training new recruits; but Musgrave suggests he buy a disposable camera, which contains the mission briefing, delivered by Musgrave himself (the first time the narrator’s face has ever appeared in a briefing recording). Lindsey was taken in Berlin while searching for arms dealer Davian, and Musgrave has already assigned a team — the second time in the film franchise that we’ve seen the team selected by the director rather than the team leader. The team consists of recurring character Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and newcomers Zhen Lei (Maggie Q) and Declan Gormley (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, future title character of the 2014 Dracula TV series). For some reason, Zhen’s name is pronounced “Zen.” A nickname?

When we see the team’s faces in the briefing video, Giacchino introduces a leitmotif he’ll be using throughout the film, reminiscent of Schifrin’s “The Plot” but more Giacchino-esque. But then Ethan tells Julia that he’s going out of town for a transportation conference, and once he rendezvouses with the rest of the team, I’m delighted to say that Giacchino gives us the first full statement of “The Plot” in the film series to date, and indeed its first full use since the revival episode “For Art’s Sake” 17 years earlier. It’s glorious. The motif is used again in the mission that follows, but it’s a very, very un-IMF-style mission, going in with guns and bombs to break out Lindsey and retrieve Davian’s laptops (which are damaged in an explosion). The team members even have military-style code names for the op: Ethan is “Raider One,” Luther is “Observer,” Zhen is “Groundhog” (since she breaks in from underneath), and Declan is “Phoenix” because he’s the chopper pilot. How come movie-era IMF teams always have chopper pilots? Anyway, Lindsey tries to tell Ethan something for his ears only but doesn’t get the chance due to all the bangs and booms. They get to da choppa but are chased by another choppa through a wind-vane farm, and Lindsey suffers severe pain, and Ethan finds out she has a bomb in her head and tries to fry it by zapping her with a defibrillator, which will stop her heart, but then he plans to zap her again to restart it. Which isn’t actually how defibrillators work (they stop fibrillating hearts but don’t restart stopped ones, despite 99.99999% of their portrayals in fiction), but he doesn’t get the chance to do it anyway, because the action of the chopper chase delays him until she dies (the charge being small enough to be entirely internal but still fatal).

So he’s all bummed out about that, and even worse, he can’t confide in his beloved Julia about his grief. Not to mention that he and Musgrave are raked over the coals by Director Brassel (Laurence Fishburne), who’s something of a blowhard fond of labored and colorful turns of phrase, but he still comes off as a strong authority figure by virtue of being Laurence Fishburne. Anyway, at Lindsey’s funeral, and after some flashbacks to her IMF training (which is all firearms and fighting, not a trace of the deceptions and gadgets and roleplay that are supposed to be the IMF’s bread and butter), he gets a call from a package service that Lindsey sent something to a mailbox she kept for him. It’s a postcard with a microdot, but Luther can’t read the dot without special equipment.

Meanwhile, Simon Pegg makes his debut as Benji Dunn, a colorful IMF technician who’s deciphered enough from Davian’s hard drives to know that he’s planning to steal and sell a valuable weapon called the Rabbit’s Foot, though Benji has no idea what that is, aside from a rambling speculation about high-tech end-of-the-world superweapons. He’ll be in the Vatican soon to meet a buyer, so now the team knows where he’ll be and when. He goes to tell Julia he’ll be away again, and she senses he’s hiding something and asks when he’ll let her in. He responds by convincing her to get married right there and then, which is at once very romantic and very evasive.

We finally get something resembling an apartment scene as Ethan briefs the team on the operation to kidnap Davian. The Vatican sequence is the closest thing in the film to a classic M:I gambit. Ethan and Declan stage a delivery-truck breakdown by the Vatican wall to give Ethan a chance to infiltrate via our next installment of “Ethan Hunt Climbs Things,” this time combined with the Patented Tom Cruise Run as he PTCRs up the wall on a retracting cable. Now, I’m not even going to try to keep track of all the PTCRs in this film; there’s barely a major action sequence here without one. Not since Lee Majors has an action star gotten so much mileage (so to speak) out of his run. Anyway, Ethan spoofs a security camera, then changes to a priest disguise to get in, while Declan gets in as the delivery guy and then changes to a guard’s uniform so he can let in Zhen as a party guest in a fancy sportscar. While Ethan helps Luther break in by vandalizing a wall with artwork painted on it, Zhen enters the party wearing the most amazing red dress I’ve ever seen, and uses a compact to take reference photos of Davian for Luther’s mask-making machine. Yes, the movie’s following the precedent of the revival series in using computer-aided, photo-based technology to manufacture masks, though the specific mechanism is more elaborate. Meanwhile, Luther lectures Ethan about how long-term relationships can’t last in their line of work, until Ethan breaks down and tells him he’s already married Julia. Luther also benefits from the film’s innovative use of actual characterization for its characters, giving Ving Rhames more to work with than he had in the previous film, and making Luther’s friendship with Ethan feel more substantial than it did in the first two.

Zhen then spills a drink on Davian’s shirt so he’ll have to retreat to the bathroom, where Ethan in Davian disguise tackles him and forces him at gunpoint to read from a card so they’ll get enough phonemes for the voice-altering throat gizmo (returning from the previous film) to mimic his voice accurately. I think this is a really clever new touch, a nice bit of comedy that actually makes technical sense. They smuggle Davian out through the ducts while Ethan-Davian lets Zhen pick him up and drive off in her car, which they exit via a sewer cover underneath just before blowing up the car to fake Davian’s death.

On a plane back, Ethan quizzes Davian about the Rabbit’s Foot, but Davian only threatens to find his loved ones and make them suffer and die. He boasts about killing Lindsey for fun in order to provoke Ethan to threaten his life, so that Luther calling his name to stop him will reveal his name to Davian, getting him one step closer to revenge. Although he only gets the first name, so his ability to find out the rest so quickly is a subtle clue that he has help inside the IMF. As is the fact that he’s promptly freed by an attack on the IMF convoy crossing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, which is a nice sequence because we see Ethan and his team trying to protect and help the civilians endangered by the attack. That’s very refreshing after the last film, where Ethan was insanely reckless about civilian safety in his car and motorcycle chases, even the “playful” one with Thandie Newton in the first act. But no sooner is Davian out that he calls Ethan and threatens to kill Julia unless Ethan steals the Rabbit’s Foot for him, so Ethan has to flee the scene in the first car he can steal (which happens to be a high-end Mercedes — what are the odds?) and race to the hospital where she works. But Davian’s man gets her first, and Ethan is confronted by an IMF team sent to arrest him. Even the PTCR can’t save him from a tasering. At HQ, he’s all trussed up and gagged as Brassel bloviates over him, revealing that he’s suspected of being the mole who helped spring Davian because he fled the scene. It’s the second time in three movies that Ethan’s been accused of treason. But Musgrave helps him escape after clandestinely letting him know that the Rabbit’s Foot is in China. (I like how this is done. In the party scene earlier, we saw a bit of Ethan using his lip-reading skills to answer a question Julia was asking in the next room, to set up this later scene where Musgrave mouths his secret message for Ethan to lip-read. Yet it was established very subtly and organically, well-disguised as just a bit of character interplay.)

So Ethan goes to downtown Shanghai — how come superweapon labs are never in boring, non-photogenic locations? — and finds his team has been sent by Musgrave to help him. He devises a plan to get to the skyscraper housing the lab by rappelling across from another building, just what we’d expect from Ethan — but then he starts writing math equations on the window to plot his trajectory, which is not what we would’ve expected from the hotheaded daredevil of the first two films, and is another touch that nicely grounds the film in a less cartoony reality than its predecessor and fleshes out Ethan as an individual. Anyway, we then see him swinging across and breaking in, but we only see the reactions of the other team members waiting outside and having a character moment or two, before the action kicks in again and Ethan makes an abortive and near-lethal BASE jump to get out and then has to contend with Shanghai traffic and weak cell signals before telling Davian he has the RF, just in time to spare Julia’s life. Then he sends the rest of the team home and gets picked up by Davian, and we end up in the scene we saw in the cold open, with Ethan getting the bomb injected into his head. After it appears that Julia’s been killed, Musgrave shows up! He says “It’s complicated,” then tears off “Julia”‘s mask to reveal the face of the translator/security chief (Bahar Soomekh) who failed to protect Davian at the Vatican. Musgrave explains that he’s cultivated Davian as a resource in defiance of Brassel’s orders because he thinks it can do more good to control his arms sales so the IMF/CIA can track down bigger fish through him and take them out. Which sounds like the kind of strategy the intelligence community might actually use, tolerating the little fish as informants to get the big ones, so it’s not that clear why he has to do this in secret. But now it’s personal for Ethan. He gets Musgrave to call the people who have Julia so he can hear her voice, then takes out Musgrave while still shackled to a chair, breaks out, and calls Benji on Musgrave’s phone, getting him to trace the location of the last call.

And this leads to the apotheosis of the Patented Tom Cruise Run as he dashes through the streets of old Shanghai, including a single unbroken shot that must be 30 seconds long. Eventually he finds Julia held captive in a small clinic, but Davian shows up, activates the bomb in Ethan’s head, and fights with him, eventually losing. Ethan frees Julia and gets through her fear and confusion to persuade her to shock him temporarily dead to short out the bomb — after giving her a lightning-quick lesson in firearms. And then, while he’s out of action — I love this part. This part is amazing. Julia gets into a firefight with Musgrave’s men, then takes out Musgrave by chance when he shows up with the Rabbit’s Foot. Then she CPRs and cardiac-thumps Ethan until he revives — so fortunately we never did see a defibrillator being unrealistically used to start a stopped heart. (I wondered why she didn’t find a shot of adrenaline for his heart in the clinic, but maybe she couldn’t read the Chinese labels.) So after being in the conventional role of the love interest and the damsel in distress for most of the film, Julia ends up being the one who single-handedly beats the main villain, retrieves the McGuffin, and saves the hero’s life. It’s an awesome subversion of action-movie gender roles, and particularly refreshing after the last film did so poorly with gender balance. And it suggests that Tom Cruise’s ego is perhaps not as inflated as people tend to think — because he was willing to have himself rendered ineffectual in the climax of the film so that someone else could save the day.

Afterward, Ethan tells Julia the truth about his job, and then, once Brassel clears and thanks him, we see that he’s brought in Julia to meet his team, letting her fully into his life. The story ends back in the everyday, character-oriented place where it began, and reinforces that Julia is Ethan’s equal and his partner, not just his lust object.

I love this film. Okay, granted, it’s no more faithful to the M:I formula than its predecessors, much more a big spy-action movie than a caper movie. It’s also like the previous two films in its reuse of tropes like a traitor in the IMF, Ethan being on the run from the IMF, Ethan being lowered into places on ropes, etc. It’s a blend of the conspiracy-thriller elements of the DePalma film and the over-the-top action elements of the Woo film. And it’s still “The Adventures of Ethan Hunt and His Backup” rather than a full ensemble piece, at least until the climax where Julia becomes the heroine. The Vatican sequence feels like a faster-paced version of a classic M:I operation, but it’s a small portion of the film. I realize now that the first film actually had more classic M:I-style material (the Kiev opening, the Prague operation, the Langley heist) than this one did. So this film is nearly tied with the Woo film for being the least Mission: Impossible-like installment in the franchise. But Abrams, Kurtzman, and Orci took what had been a tepid, shallow action series to this point and brought humanity, thoughtfulness, and wit to it even while maintaining a similarly exaggerated level of action. This is what Abrams did effectively in Alias at its best, balancing larger-than-life spy-fantasy action with everyday, human relationships and emotions, and that human touch makes it easier to enjoy the crazy action because there’s a reason for emotional investment in what’s going on. The film also makes much better use of Tom Cruise as an actor, and makes Ethan Hunt a person at last rather than just an action figure.

As I’ve said before, M:i:III is more like Alias: The Movie than Mission: Impossible. But it’s the first Ethan Hunt movie that’s actually good.

I already gave my thoughts on the fourth film, Ghost Protocol, when it came out. But I’m going to do what I suggested I would and post a fuller analysis to complete my review series. Maybe seeing it in the wake of all three predecessors will offer new insights.

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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE II (2000) Movie Review (Spoilers)

The second Ethan Hunt film, styled in posters and promotions as M:I-2, was directed by John Woo. The script was by Robert Towne from a story (and first draft, I gather) by the Star Trek: The Next Generation writing team of Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga. This is the only non-Trek production the two writers worked on as a team, and I can only surmise that they got the job due to their work on the earlier Paramount features Star Trek Generations and Star Trek: First Contact. That makes this the first M:I feature film to have a connection to Star Trek, which was the sister show of the original M:I series.

The film follows the precedent of the last five television seasons (counting both series) by commencing with a cold open establishing the crisis. A scientist named Nekhorvich has arranged with the IMF to deliver a secret called Chimera, and is shepherded on a jet by the only man he trusts, Ethan Hunt — and Tom Cruise’s hair is considerably longer than it was the last time. But then Ethan, the pilot, and several others contrive to knock out the crew and passengers of the jet and steal the package the scientist was delivering. Has Ethan gone evil? No, he rips off his Ethan mask to reveal Dougray Scott, and peels off a new innovation, a throat patch that alters his voice — and once it’s gone his accent is suddenly Scottish. He and his men point the jet at a mountain and bail out before it crashes. Smash cut to Moab, Utah, where we get the series’s first installment of “Ethan Hunt Climbs Things,” in this case an insanely dangerous free climb of a really high, thin mesa, which Cruise did without a net (but with a harness). Once he’s at the top, a helicopter flies in and fires a projectile which Hunt opens to find a pair of sunglasses that play the mission briefing for him in the dulcet tones of Anthony Hopkins — a vast improvement over the previous film’s Henry Czerny. Hopkins’s spiel goes directly from “Good morning, Mr. Hunt” to “Your mission, should you choose to accept it” without any initial exposition, and the mission described is simply to retrieve the stolen Chimera, no more explanation. Already we’re getting a sense of the relative emphasis on exposition vs. action in this film. Ethan’s told he can pick two team members of his choosing, but must also recruit Nyah Nordoff-Hall (Thandie Newton), a master thief. Hopkins’s voice adds that Hunt should meet him in Seville in 48 hours, and appends a note that the next time Hunt goes on vacation, he should let the IMF know where he’s going. Ethan tosses the glasses aside as they self-destruct in a fiery explosion right in front of the camera, leading into a totally incoherent barrage of images under the titles. Oh, is this a John Woo film? Hans Zimmer provides a rock score that at this point only approximates the main title theme, using the ostinato and the chord structure but not the main melody.

In Seville, Hunt has a “Some Enchanted Evening” moment with Nyah (i.e. “see a stranger across a crowded room”) as they gaze at each other in slow motion across a stage where flamenco dancers are performing. The dancers, by the way, are essentially the only women in the film other than Nyah; this film fails the Bechdel Test on every possible level. Ethan interrupts Nyah as she breaks into a safe by a bathtub, and she pulls this man she’s just met into the bathtub into a sexually suggestive position as they hide from someone, and they continue to flirt blatantly as he lets her open the safe, but then he trips the alarm and gets her out of the jam by selling the pretense that she’s his assistant in a security test of the alarm system, making her return the necklace to its owners first. He tries to recruit her for IMFery, but she’s not buying. So the movie gets even more self-indulgent as he calls her on her car phone the next morning while chasing after her in another sportscar, and they engage in a stupidly dangerous car chase that risks the lives of innocent passersby as well as each other, and there’s this totally dumb moment where he crashes his car into hers to keep her from going off a cliff and they spin out together in slow motion while exchanging a romantic look, and once she almost goes over another cliff and he pulls her to safety, that’s somehow all the courtship they need to end up in bed together. I’m not sure that’s what the phrase “whirlwind courtship” is supposed to mean.

(Oh, by the way, “Nyah” rhymes with “Maya” or “Gaia.” It’s not like “nyah, nyah, nyahhh.”)

So then Ethan meets with Hopkins, who went uncredited in the film but whose name in the script was “Mission Commander Swanbeck.” Swanbeck explains that, since Nekhorvich would only meet with Hunt and Hunt wasn’t available, the IMF sent in Sean Ambrose (Scott), who’s served as Hunt’s double on a couple of missions. But Ambrose went rogue to steal the Chimera, whatever it is. Ethan is shocked to learn that Nyah was recruited because she’s Ambrose’s old flame whom he desperately wants back — so her job is to rekindle their romance. Ethan’s dismay at this might be more convincing if there were more to their relationship than one meet-cute, several counts of reckless driving, and a one-night stand. Swanbeck also gets in a sexist line about how just being a woman qualifies her to sleep with a man and lie to him. Ethan doesn’t want to make her do it, but apparently that whole “should you decide to accept it” thing doesn’t mean much anymore. He insists it would be difficult, but Swanbeck says “This isn’t Mission: Difficult, it’s Mission: Impossible.” Ouch — too meta. Would’ve worked better if he’d said, “This isn’t the Difficult Missions Force, it’s the Impossible Missions Force.” Because that’s what they actually call it in-universe, guys! (But then, Moore and Braga are the same duo who had Zefram Cochrane say “You’re astronauts on some kind of star trek.”)

Anyway, Nyah is reluctant, but Hunt convinces her to go in, promising to have her back. She says it’ll only be convincing if she’s in trouble that only Ambrose can get her out of, so they arrange for her publicized arrest so he’ll come and bail her out. He takes her to his compound located in Sydney Harbour, the second time a movie-length M:I installment has used that location. Finally, more than half an hour into the film, we hear a rock version of the Schifrin main theme over a brief montage introducing the two supporting team members: Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), the master hacker returning from the first film, and Billy Baird (John Polson), who’s basically just the pilot and the comic relief. He’s sort of an Australian prototype for Simon Pegg’s Benji from the following films, but with less personality or screentime. Their command post is a small house in the outback, for some reason. Luther has the only computer that can track or detect the chip implanted in Nyah, so they can follow her via satellite. Yup, not only is she the only woman in the film, but they’ve got her Lojacked. And Ambrose is rather forceful about getting her in bed once they’re reunited. Ambrose is also quite upset at his sidekick Hugh (Richard Roxburgh) for making the entirely reasonable suggestion that Nyah might be a plant.

Later at the horse-racing track (I didn’t notice if it was the same racetrack used in a couple of the revival’s episodes, but I wouldn’t be surprised), Ethan and Billy make contact with Nyah while Ambrose meets with McCloy (Brendan Gleeson), the head of Biocyte Pharmaceuticals, and shows him data on a digital camera’s memory card. Ethan has Nyah pickpocket the card and deliver it to him so Luther can view and copy it. The data reveals that Chimera is a deadly virus, sort of a superflu created to test a universal flu antidote called Bellerophon. Ambrose has the cure, and is taking bids from terrorists and rogue states, but he lacks the disease, which he wants. Ethan tells Nyah he’ll get her out, then sends her to return the disc to Ambrose’s jacket — but she gets agitated and puts it in the wrong pocket, which he notices.

Later, she’s met by Ethan, who tells her she has to stay inside and do everything Ambrose says. At the same time, we cut to McCloy being abducted and met by what appears to be the late Nekhorvich, who makes him think he’s been infected with Chimera and goads him into a rather stilted confession that he deliberately created the supervirus as an incentive to market his supercure, as well as deliberately exposing and killing one of his scientists to test it. “Nekhorvich” knocks him out again and takes off his mask, revealing Ethan. But then we’re back to the continuation of the scene with Ethan and Nyah at Ambrose’s compound. Was what we just saw a flashback? Nope. Once Nyah leaves, we find that Ambrose was impersonating Ethan again, and now knows Nyah’s a spy. He also knows Ethan plans to raid Biocyte to destroy the virus, and knows him well enough to anticipate his plan. The movie rather blatantly imitates its predecessor by requiring Ethan to drop on a cable down a very high shaft in order to get to the virus lab without anyone knowing. Then he breaks in and sets to destroying Chimera during a window when some kind of generator is active so comms are down, and I guess alarms are off or something. I wasn’t clear on that part. But Ambrose breaks in another way — with Nyah, allowing Luther to track them — but Luther can’t warn Ethan, plus he almost gets blown up by the baddies. For some reason, the Chimera is in several handy injector guns, and just before Ethan can destroy the last one, the bad guys arrive and there’s a reallllly long firefight before the injector falls on the floor and Ambrose gives a hold fire order so it doesn’t break open. He sends Nyah to retrieve it as a hostage for Ethan’s cooperation, and Ethan has finally figured out that Nekhorvich injected Chimera into his own blood and Ambrose’s love of killing kept him from retrieving a sample the first time. This serves little narrative purpose except to inspire Nyah to inject herself with the virus so Ambrose won’t kill her. (Umm, why would that work? He doesn’t need her alive to retrieve a sample of her blood.) Ethan has to leave her behind when he blows out the wall and escapes via parachute (did I mention the lab was on the 42nd floor?) — I guess his chute couldn’t handle the extra weight. He’s got 20 hours to save her before it’s incurable.

Ambrose meets with McCloy for his payoff for the Bellerophon, but demands not only money but stock options. He’s released Nyah into downtown Sydney as a Typhoid Mary, planning to start an epidemic that will create great demand for the Bellerophon cure and make Biocyte stock invaluable. It’s actually a rather clever plan, except for their total and crashingly stupid failure to place Nyah under any kind of supervision — more on that in a bit. We get “Ethan Hunt Climbing Things” Part 2 as he climbs up to their island meeting place, then he breaks in and deals with the guards in the corridors of the compound, and there’s a moment where he does a Patented Tom Cruise Run in slow motion through a flock of doves that are there because John Woo. He blows the door of the meeting room and gets Hugh’s attention, and Hugh comes after him and he releases a grenade and there’s a kaboom, and then Hugh drags a mute Ethan (allegedly with a broken jaw) before Ambrose, who shoots him dead, but then he realizes he killed Hugh in an Ethan mask with his mouth duct-taped underneath, and Ethan in a Hugh mask has absconded with the Bellerophon and Chimera vials, and also there are doves in the hallway. Which leads to an absurdly long chase with cars and motorcycles that endangers a lot more innocent motorists before gradually getting pared down to Ethan and Ambrose dueling on motorcycles and then charging at each other and leaping off their bikes which spontaneously explode at exactly the same time for no clear reason, and then having a huge martial-arts fight, and at this point I finally realized this was supposed to be an over-the-top, cartoony Hong Kong action flick and just kinda tried going with it. Still pretty stupid, but Cruise does his own stunts pretty impressively, although I could’ve appreciated the stunt work better without all the slow motion. Meanwhile, Nyah has wandered off to a cliff that she plans to throw herself off of rather than infect the city. Gee, I guess it didn’t occur to Ambrose that she might have functional legs and a will of her own and should be guarded. I mean, having her stay in downtown Sydney was only the linchpin of his entire plan, after all.  But Luther and Billy intercept her just before she cliff-dives and bring her to Ethan, but they have to pause for the final shootout between Ethan and Ambrose because he stupidly got into another slugfest with Ambrose after getting a decisive edge over him, because Ambrose insulted Nyah. But it doesn’t do much more than prolong the already extremely prolonged action, since Nyah gets the shot in time, and then Ethan lies to Anthony Hopkins about the “accidental” destruction of the last Chimera sample he was supposed to retrieve intact, and then he and Nyah walk off in a park by Sydney Harbour, and we get an end-title song by “Limp Bizkit,” whatever that is, that incorporates the Schifrin theme into it.

This movie didn’t have that much plot, I guess, since so much of it was long action set pieces and slow motion. I guess if you like style over substance, and like that particular style, that might be okay, but I found it mostly a rather ludicrous exercise, especially the cartoony excuse for a courtship between Ethan and Nyah and the insanely over-the-top bike stunts in the climactic chase. (Really — those bikes endure an impossible amount of strenuous riding and being shot at, but then spontaneously explode when the combatants leap off them?) And it doesn’t feel much like Mission: Impossible at all. It’s more of a solo mission for Ethan Hunt, with Luther and Billy being secondary supporting players. There’s hardly any role-playing or elaborate gambits, except at the racetrack and when they capture McCloy. It’s also the only M:I installment ever that makes no use of Schifrin’s “The Plot” at all, not even in brief snippets. Hans Zimmer’s score is in a driving hard-rock sort of idiom that doesn’t do much for me. Zimmer’s a composer I have a mixed response to. He’s very chameleonic, good at doing what a director wants from him, so whether I like his scores is often contingent on what director he’s working for. Anything he does for a film directed or produced by Christopher Nolan is just a bunch of blaring, droning, nigh-atonal chords that I find generally annoying and tedious, while conversely I’ve found his work on Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films and Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 to be just the opposite, extremely rich and creative and melodic and fascinating. This score wasn’t as ponderous and unpleasant as his Nolan scores, but it didn’t do anything for me.

I’ll give the film this, though: It’s the only one of the four movies to date that doesn’t involve Ethan being suspected of treason and on the run from his own agency. He’s got full IMF support and a sanctioned team throughout. So it’s odd that we see so little of that team. If anything, it’s the villain Ambrose who seems to make more use of familiar IMF tactics than Hunt does, devising elaborate deceptions and strategies to pursue his goals and working with his own team.

Cast-wise, Cruise gives a better, more relaxed and confident performance this time around, even though he has less to work with. Ethan Hunt still doesn’t have much of a personality; he gets to be a full-fledged romantic lead for the first time (rather than just kind of borderline-cheating with another man’s wife who turns out to be evil), but the romance is so superficial and absurdly developed that it establishes more about Hunt’s driving skills than his emotional life. Thandie Newton is effective as Nyah; her basic role is to be lovely and desirable, and she pulls that off splendidly, but she also manages to give Nyah a fair amount of attitude and strength that are better than the material she has to work with. Anthony Hopkins is, well, Anthony Hopkins, though he pretty much phones it in. The other cast members are okay but nothing exceptional. This wasn’t really a movie about character drama, it was a movie about car crashes and explosions and fights and a sexy token female and the odd flock of doves. And climbing. Lots of climbing.

On reflection, I’m unsure whether we should take this as an actual IMF mission or as a fantasy story Ethan Hunt wrote in his diary in spy school. It’s just so very silly and shallow and self-indulgent. And it’s an enormous departure from its namesake franchise. I guess it’s more successful at being what it wants to be than the first movie was, but what it wants to be is not what a Mission: Impossible fan is likely to be looking for. Fortunately this film would not define the future direction for the film series. Indeed, the gap between this film and its sequel would be the longest in the franchise’s history to date — paving the way for yet another, much more effective reinvention.

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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (1996) Movie Review (Spoilers)

And now I begin the home stretch of my M:I review series with the debut of the Tom Cruise movie series. Mission: Impossible (1996) was directed by Brian DePalma, from a story by David Koepp and Steven Zaillian and a screenplay by Koepp and Robert Towne.

We open in the middle of a caper in progress in Kiev, with Jack Harmon (Emilio Estevez, uncredited for some reason) watching a screen on which an older moustachioed man is grilling another man in Russian. The man thinks he’s killed the woman lying on the bed, and the older man is demanding the name of his contact in exchange for helping him out of the mess. The scene is scored by Danny Elfman with a few hints of the melody of “The Plot” peeking out here and there. Harmon is concerned that the woman has been under too long. The Russian finally gives a name, whereupon a maid gives him a drink with knockout drops. The older man rips off his mask (via a digital effect) to reveal an astonishingly young Tom Cruise, who orders that the man be disposed of while his team begins striking the set of the hotel room. He injects the woman (Emmannuelle Beart) and there’s clearly a thing between them as he strokes her face once she revives. “We got him,” he confirms…

And we cut to a match head being struck, and a title sequence that’s a flashier version of the original, with very brief, split-second clips from the movie ahead, and occasional shots of an actual fuse burning rather than the animated one from the TV titles. Like the ’88 revival’s titles, it includes a few shots of gadgetry, passport photos, and the like as well as action clips. Elfman gives us a really rich, gorgeous arrangement of Schifrin’s theme. Only Cruise gets his name given over the title sequence. The rest of the credits are shown over the next scene in a jet, where a flight attendant offers a movie on tape to Jon Voight, whom she addresses as Mr. Phelps. For the moment, let’s stipulate that this individual is Jim Phelps, though we’ll explore this idea more later on. The tape scene that follows is in the familiar pattern, except it isn’t Bob Johnson giving the narration. The mission is to intercept Golitsyn, a traitor who’s stolen half of a list of US agents’ non-official covers (the NOC list) and stop him from stealing the other half which reveals their true identities. (Apparently, in real life, NOC agents are spies that have no official government status and are disavowed by their employing government if caught — which means that all IMF agents are NOC agents.) A dossier sequence is incorporated into the spiel, with the narrator saying he’s taken the liberty of selecting agents from Phelps’s usual team, and redundantly telling Phelps what his own usual team members’ jobs are, a really awkward bit of “As You Know, Bob” exposition. The significant ones are Cruise’s Ethan Hunt, the point man “as usual,” and Beart’s Claire Phelps, Jim’s wife (and Jim apparently needs to be reminded of this by the tape as well), who’s in charge of “transport.” There’s also Jack as the hacker, Sarah Davies (Kristin Scott Thomas) already embedded in an undercover role, and a minor female team member named Hannah on surveillance.  Phelps lights a cigarette to cover the smoke from the self-destructing tape. So far, aside from a few stylistic touches and the cast changes, this feels like the M:I we know. So far.

In Prague, the team meets in a safe house to plan the mission — reminiscent of the revival series’ frequent use of on-site “command post” briefings. Voight’s Phelps is a sterner boss than Graves’s version, giving curt, fast-paced orders with plenty of CIA-style operational jargon; if anything, he reminds me more of Dan Briggs. But then Ethan asks an impertinent question and the tone softens, with the group joking around like old friends, though Phelps still seems at a remove from the rest. The banter makes a point of referencing a Chicago hotel where Jim stayed during his absence on the Kiev mission. In another echo of Briggs, Phelps doesn’t participate directly in the mission but monitors from the safe house. Since it’s 1996, every team member now has a hidden camera and earwig radio, so Phelps can see everything that’s going on. He’s also able to override Jack’s hacking of the elevator when Jack is too slow, something that I’m sure won’t be at all significant later. Ethan goes to the US embassy in Prague disguised as a US senator who’s basically Cruise in age makeup doing an impression of George Bush, Sr., and Sarah helps him get into the secure area so that he can plant his video glasses to get a shot of Golitsyn when he arrives shortly thereafter to steal the NOC list from the computer.

The plan is to follow Golitsyn to his contact, but something goes wrong — Jack loses control of the elevator that he’s sitting on the roof of, and it sends him up to the top of the shaft, which for some reason is equipped with deadly spikes that drop down and impale him. Phelps says he’s lost control of the system and comes to rendezvous with the team, but then reports he’s being tailed. Ethan goes to him while sending Sarah to tail Golitsyn. Then Ethan hears shots and arrives in time to see a bloodied Phelps falling off a bridge into the river. The car that Claire and Hannah are apparently in blows up, and Ethan finds Sarah and Golitsyn stabbed, the list gone. The cops come after him and he rabbits. Getting to a phone and inserting a security gadget, he contacts IMF director Kittredge (Henry Czerny) for help, and Kittredge, who’s surprisingly in Prague already, arranges to meet him at an aquarium-themed restaurant. Czerny is apparently the voice we heard giving Phelps’s briefing at the beginning. The idea of the briefing coming from the IMF director himself never occurred to me; I always figured the Voice on Tape/Disc was some support staffer relaying instructions from on high. But it makes sense — if the IMF was originally this small, deniable, garage-band operation as I like to think, it wouldn’t have had much of a permanent staff. So maybe Bob Johnson was playing the actual head of the IMF all those years, or at least someone very senior.

Anyway, Czerny gives a twitchy, smarmy, unsubtle performance as Kittredge grills Ethan, and Cruise’s performance isn’t much better, his reaction to the death of all his friends consisting mostly of shouting. I need to make something clear here: Although Tom Cruise gets a lot of guff for his personal eccentricities, I think that should be kept separate from his work as an actor, and I’ve long been very impressed by his total commitment and professionalism in his film work. So don’t expect any habit of Cruise-bashing in the reviews to follow. However, he’s really not that good in this one — which is interesting given that he would be nominated for an Oscar for his work in the same year’s Jerry Maguire, after previously getting an Oscar nomination for Born on the Fourth of July and a Golden Globe nomination for A Few Good Men. Since Czerny does a pretty bad job too, maybe the fault lay with Brian DePalma.

Ethan recognizes that the restaurant patrons around him were at the party and on the streets in various roles before — they’re a second IMF team! Kittredge reveals that the Golitsyn mission was bait to catch a mole inside the IMF with a fake NOC list — and since Ethan’s the only survivor from his team, that suggests it’s him. Realizing he’s in trouble, Ethan palms a chewing-gum explosive from his pocket, a final legacy from Jack, and tosses it against an aquarium wall, producing one of the more famous action scenes from the film as the glass breaks and all the water pours out, even from the aquaria overhead. (One guy is blown clear through the front windows even though the charge isn’t much more than firecracker-sized. Huh?) Ethan breaks into a Patented Tom Cruise Run to get away.

For some reason, he then decides that the best place to hide from his own agency is the very safe house his own team leader set up. Not to worry, though — he shatters glass from a light bulb across the hallway so he’ll hear if anyone comes. He remembers Kittredge’s exposition about the buyer for the NOC list being an arms dealer named Max, who referred to the deal as “Job 314.” Hunt attempts a rather implausible Usenet search in which terms like “Max” and “Job” produce, not a useless overabundance of hits as you’d expect, but no hits whatsoever. Then he happens to notice a Bible on the bookshelf and thinks of Job 3:14. He finds Usenet forums about that chapter and verse and sends e-mails to Max, warning that the stolen list is a fake. Later, weary, he has a rather ridiculous dream of a bloody Phelps accusing him of failure, only to wake up and find it’s actually Claire, whom he holds at gunpoint since he can’t believe she’s alive. The whole scene is kind of incoherent, and kind of uncomfortably rapey as he forces her onto the bed at gunpoint while she insists it’s really her. But just reminding him over and over again of their plan to return to the safe house at 4 AM, 0400, four o’clock, when the big hand’s on the four, eight bells, etc., is enough to convince him.

Later, Ethan gets a hit from Max and arranges a meeting, which involves blindfolding him with a stocking cap that makes him look like the world’s most badly assembled Muppet. Max turns out to be Vanessa Redgrave (you were expecting maybe Tony Hamilton?), who flirts with him shamelessly. He warns her the list is a fake and has a homing device (somehow), but the only way to prove it is to let her activate it and then flee just before Kittredge’s team arrives. In order to get the true identity of the mole called Job, Ethan arranges with Max to steal the actual NOC list. So… basically his plan to clear his name of a crime is to commit the actual crime he’s accused of. Oh, that makes perfect sense. Claire agrees to go along to avenge her husband, and they need to recruit help from the “Disavowed List.”

Okay, now, I commented back in my review of “The Fortune” that it doesn’t make much sense for the IMF to keep a computer record of agents it’s disavowed and denied any knowledge of. Isn’t that rather counterproductive? Also, wouldn’t most disavowed agents be either dead or imprisoned in foreign countries for their crimes? But the movie, despite using the familiar phrase in the briefing scene — and despite building the whole story around the real-life NOC phenomenon that’s the closest equivalent to M:I-style disavowal — suddenly decides to reinterpret disavowed agents as ones who’ve simply gone rogue. It’s never really explained, though, since we cut right to Ethan and Claire’s first meeting with the “disavowed” duo. Ethan’s pick was Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), a master hacker, while Claire has brought in Franz Krieger (Jean Reno), an “exfiltration” man, i.e. getaway chopper pilot. They break into CIA headquarters in Langley, VA to steal the list, and I’m not sure I need to recap the most famous sequence in the franchise. It’s really very clever, a set piece worthy of the best of M:I (and drawing on the Topkapi heist scene that was part of the inspiration for the entire franchise). They have to break into a vaultlike security room with pressure sensors in the floor, heat sensors, and audio sensors, and it’s very clever the way they circumvent them as Krieger lowers Ethan down on a cable from a grille in the ceiling, with Luther hacking in from outside and Claire slipping an emetic to the vault’s lone staffer so he’ll be out of the room for a while. (Although their crawling around through metal air conditioning ducts without making a huge amount of noise is quite implausible.) I love DePalma’s use of silence, something that so few action movies appreciate how to use. It really adds a layer of suspense (no pun intended) to the scene. Anyway, Ethan almost has the data when Krieger is startled by a rat and lets the rope slip, leading to the famous and well-executed moment where Ethan is stuck just a couple of inches above the floor and forced to flail around in two dimensions, which must’ve been very difficult for Cruise. It highlights the physical skills that Cruise will use to impressive effect in this film series. They’re almost out scot-free when Krieger drops his knife into the room, tipping the clerk off on his return. The team makes its escape, but Kittredge knows what they’ve taken.

The team goes to London, where Ethan and Krieger have a falling out and Krieger leaves. Hunt notices that the Bible he’s been drawing verses from for his communications with Max comes from the same hotel where Phelps mentioned staying earlier. After learning that Kittredge has arrested his parents on trumped-up drug charges, Ethan calls Kittredge from a public place to confront him, making sure to hang up before he can be traced. He’s shocked to find Jim Phelps standing next to him. Phelps tells him that Kittredge is the mole, and Ethan plays along, but we see his thoughts as he reconstructs what really happened: Phelps himself faked his death and killed the team. Though Ethan backs away from the suspicion that Claire helped him kill the others. He also realizes that Krieger’s knife was the one that killed Sarah and Golinsky. He asks why Kittredge (read: Phelps) would do what he did, and Phelps spins some vague excuse about the Cold War being over and not having a purpose and the President running the country without his permission or something. At this point it’s very clear that this is not the Jim Phelps we knew. (This is probably the point where Greg Morris stormed out of the theater when he saw the film.)

Hunt arranges to meet Max on the bullet train to Paris, and makes sure Kittredge gets tickets. He gets the list to Max, but has Luther nearby jamming her laptop signal so she can’t transmit it. We don’t see him at this point, only hear his voice as he stage-manages things, and seeing what looks like Jim Phelps assembling a gun. Once Max reveals the location of the money, Claire goes back to the baggage compartment and confronts Phelps, letting on that she’s in cahoots with him and telling him they can get away with the money. “Phelps” pulls off his face digitally to reveal a disappointed Ethan. But then the, err, real Phelps (for the sake of argument) comes out and holds him at gunpoint. He asks how Ethan figured out that he was the mole, and Ethan tells him about the Bible from the hotel room.

Except… that makes absolutely no sense. Okay, so the Bible was from a hotel he knew Phelps had stayed at — but he found the Bible in the safe house that Phelps himself had set up!!! The only thing it proves is a connection between Phelps and Phelps’s own safe house. Ethan only used that Bible to figure out the Job clue and contact Max because it happened to be the copy of the Bible that was on the shelf where he already was when he had the idea, so he had no reason in the world to associate that particular copy of the Bible with Max herself. The chain of reasoning absolutely does not work. It’s an enormous, enormous plot hole that’s bugged me about this film for years, and no matter how many times I see the film I just can’t see any way to make sense of it.

If anything, the person Ethan should have suspected was Claire. She’s the one who brought Krieger aboard, so once Ethan recognized Krieger’s knife as the murder weapon, he should’ve concluded that Claire was the mole, and recruited Phelps to help him expose her. He had a legitimate chain of evidence leading to her involvement, something he absolutely did not have for Phelps. Although, granted, he did suspect Claire in his “here’s what really happened” flashbacks earlier, but backed away from that suspicion because he was in love with her. So he could’ve been blinded to Claire’s involvement here too. But that still doesn’t give him any actual reason to suspect Phelps.

But Phelps, existing within the movie, goes along with the totally invalid premise that the Bible somehow proves his guilt, yet reminds Ethan that nobody else has seen he’s alive. Until Ethan puts on his video-glasses and sends the signal to the video-watch he left for Kittredge, thereby video-proving that Phelps was the mole. It’s not at all clear what Hunt planned to do next, because he just dodges and Phelps randomly shoots Claire by mistake, and then Phelps escapes through the roof hatch and Ethan follows and fights the ferocious winds, and Krieger shows up in a chopper to pick up Phelps, but Hunt grabs the cable and hooks the chopper to the train, so Krieger has to fly it into the Chunnel behind the train. Is that even possible? Somebody call the Mythbusters, I want to know if it’s possible for a helicopter to fly inside a train tunnel. Is there enough air in there to hold it up? Anyway, Phelps jumps onto one runner, then Ethan jumps onto the other, and he somehow still happens to have a stick of Jack’s plastique gum on him, and he uses it to blow up the chopper, and the force of the blast blows him back onto the train and somehow doesn’t liquefy his organs in the process, and the chopper blades are right up against his throat when the train abruptly… stops?

Wait a minute…

It stops. Abruptly.

This vehicle massing thousands of tons was traveling at 300 mph one moment… and is suddenly at a complete stop seconds later? How the hell did that happen? More to the point, why? Even if we stipulate to the fantasy premise that a bullet train could brake as quickly as an automobile, why would they choose to stop the train when a fiery crashing helicopter was coming right at them from behind?!!! I’m sorry, this makes as little sense as the Bible non-clue.

So anyway, Kittredge annoying turns out not to be the bad guy, and he arrests Max, who flirts with him too, proving she has no standards. And Ethan and Luther are pardoned, but Ethan doesn’t see much point to the work anymore and plans to leave. But he gets an offer of a mission from a flight attendant just like Phelps did at the start, and that’s when the movie ends, with the end titles giving us a modernized version of the Schifrin theme courtesy of a couple of members of U2.

This is a very, very flawed movie. There are parts of it that work. The teaser, main titles, and briefing scene feel authentic, and while the Prague caper is a little off and the initial team rather nondescript (and lacking in racial diversity), it’s fairly well-handled. And the Langley set piece is really nifty, the highlight of the film. And Elfman’s music is pretty good, a lively action-movie score that quotes or paraphrases snippets of “The Plot” at key moments (though never uses the whole melody, continuing the trend established by John E. Davis in the revival) and occasionally breaks into big statements of the main title theme. But a lot of the rest doesn’t work well, or just plain doesn’t make a damn bit of sense. There are enormous plot holes and implausibilities, as I’ve described. The characters lack depth and clear motivation and don’t give us much reason to care about them. Some directorial touches are interesting but not successful; for instance, there are a couple of sequences that are shot from Ethan’s POV without showing his face, as if to create suspense about what face he’s wearing, but in the first case it’s a face we’ve already been shown (in video footage of the senator as Ethan practiced mimicking him) and in the second it’s just his own face. And the actors are directed too broadly. Like Cruise, Ving Rhames seems lesser here than he’s been elsewhere, including later in this franchise. Emmanuelle Beart is stunningly lovely and waifish, but just okay as an actress. Jon Voight is actually a pretty good choice as a replacement for Peter Graves, bearing a certain resemblance in his features and his manner, at least until he’s revealed as the baddie.

But that’s the elephant in the room, isn’t it? Jim Phelps a traitor? How do we cope with that?

Now, the obvious answer is to say the movies are a reboot, out of continuity with the series. After all, there are no characters in common beyond Phelps, and this Phelps is unlike the one we know — more like Dan Briggs, as I said, and that’s before he goes all smarmy and evil. So maybe we just treat this as a separate reality. After all, it’s not like the previous series had any real continuity to speak of, particularly since the revival series even remade episodes of the original. I’ve even said before that the original series may not all take place in a single reality.

But just as a thought exercise, let’s examine the question of whether this can be reconciled with the shows. Could Jim Phelps have gone rogue? Consider the final season of the revival, which I recently completed reviewing. For whatever reason, in the latter part of that season and to a lesser extent earlier on, the standard caper/heist formula of M:I gave way to a more conventional spy formula; instead of orchestrating master stratagems worked out a dozen moves in advance, Jim was just sending in his team undercover with no clear mission but to find out some information so they could then improvise a way of dealing with it. Could it be that Jim was losing his edge, growing sloppy? Maybe he got some of his team members killed (statistically speaking, Shannon Reed is the most likely candidate, given how routinely she was placed in danger), and it turned him bitter, filled him with doubts about whether he could go on. Maybe that’s why he stepped back to supervising missions remotely rather than participating directly. And maybe he  grew disillusioned with the spy game and decided to get out while he could and get rich doing it.

But no… no, I really don’t think that works. Voight-Phelps’s meandering explanation about losing purpose when the Cold War ended didn’t really fit, because Jim’s IMF team took on many missions that weren’t Cold War-related, tackling organized crime and international terrorists and the like. Graves’s Jim Phelps would’ve still seen a purpose to his work with or without the Cold War. So I just can’t see it happening that way.

But of course the M:I universe gives us another alternative, because it’s full of impersonators. Voight-Phelps could be a foreign agent who took the real Phelps’s place — perhaps using a plastic-surgery dodge like Nicholas Black used in “Deadly Harvest.” Maybe this happened once Kittredge took over as IMF director from the former head (the Voice?); he didn’t know Jim well and is pretty much a lousy director anyway, so he could’ve been fooled. This creates the unpleasant possibility that the real Jim was murdered. But maybe he escaped and laid low, or maybe the enemy was holding him captive to get information from him. It’s pleasant to imagine that the mission Ethan Hunt was offered at the end of the film was the rescue of the real Jim Phelps.

Still, one way or the other, the story of Jim Phelps is over now. From here on out, this series is about the adventures of Ethan Hunt. Although this wasn’t a particularly impressive introduction to Hunt as a character. I can’t say much about his personality except that he gets really ticked off when his teammates get killed and he isn’t above flirting with his boss’s wife. I know he gets better later on, but this is not an impressive beginning. Frankly I’m surprised this movie even got a sequel. But it did, so there’s more to come.

Categories: Reviews Tags: ,

Search engine terms of note

This is interesting… In checking my blog’s statistics page, I see that on the list of search engine terms that led online searchers here to Written Worlds,  there were two hits for “fan art for only superhuman.” I was intrigued to think that two people might be looking for Only Superhuman fan art, but I realized it was probably a single search that led to two different pages here, most likely the posts containing my sketches of Emerald Blair and Psyche Thorne. Still, it’s nice to know that someone out there is interested in OS fan art. Unfortunately, I did the same search myself and found nothing that fit the description. That’s a pity, since I’d love it if there were fan artists out there invested enough in the Green Blaze’s world to undertake some artwork. (Feel free to consider that an invitation.)

On the other hand, one of the search terms on today’s list is “only superhuman torrent.” I’m disappointed in you, whoever you are. I made little enough profit from this book as it is — I need whatever I can get.

The overwhelmingly dominant search terms that people use to find WW are things like “doctor who last words,” “first words of new doctor,” “last words of the [nth] doctor,” and so on, all leading to what I thought was a fairly random, frivolous compilation of The Doctor’s first and last lines, but which has turned out to be by far the most popular post in the history of my blog. I also get surprisingly many search terms leading folks to my “How to dismember a recliner chair” post, which is really not an advice column of any sort. But aside from the Doctor Who post, the most frequent category of searches leading here are those pertaining to Mission: Impossible. I’ve even come across the occasional searches like “mission impossible christopher bennett review [episode title]” — there are people out there actively searching for my M:I reviews by name. That’s gratifying. (And yes, I’ll be completing that series with my reviews of the movies in the days ahead.) And people sometimes search for Written Worlds by name, which is also nice.

Here are some more unusual ones I find in the list:

“re-atomizing human body by medbeds” — Hm. Must be a reference to my Elysium review, in which I did mention the term “medbed,” which is the term I use in the Only Superhuman universe for what Larry Niven called an autodoc. I’m surprised someone else would search for it by that term. Maybe a fan of my work? Or is the term in more general use than I’m aware of?

“anamated cartoon hot hensei girls in bikinis showing their bodies” — Ummm. Oh…kay, I have no idea how that led someone to my blog. “Hot composition girls?” That’s what “hensei” means. Kind of hard to search for Japanese cartoon porn if you don’t even know how to spell it.

“dune books in chronological order” — I don’t think I ever talked about those books here.

“karolina wydra eye” and “karolina wydra eye pupil” — I seem to have gotten things like this a few times that I know of, no doubt connecting to my Europa Report review. Not sure who’s so fascinated by her eye, though.

“how was your drive home” — Err, thanks for asking, but who would ask that of Google?

“teacher at aloha johnson” — No idea.

“acts 6:2 why does the holman use financial rather than wait on tables” — Did a human being type that?

“lesbian scene from massion impossible” — If only, man. If only.

Getting back from travel

Okay, I’m back home from Detroit. I didn’t post during my trip since something was wrong with my aunt and uncle’s wifi, and I was occupied with other stuff anyway. I guess I could’ve posted from my smartphone, but it didn’t occur to me as something I needed to do.

I had a nice visit with Aunt Shirley and Cousin Cynthia, though Uncle Harry was away with my other cousins because of health issues delaying his return home. I wish him a speedy recovery. Thanks to Shirley’s vegetarian cooking, I tried my first Thai food, rice noodles with satay (peanut and coconut) sauce, and found it fairly interesting. I generally don’t care for Asian cuisine because I’m not fond of soy sauce or sweet-and-sour sauce, and I’d heard that Thai food was very spicy so I wasn’t tempted to try it, but I like peanuts and coconuts, so this was agreeable. The other favorite home-prepared thing I had was some sweet-potato gnocchi that we had along with spinach and onion omelets (another thing I usually don’t eat — I’m not an egg person, generally). And on my last full day, we got a nice “spinach supreme” pizza from a local place, and I got to take a few pieces with me for lunch on the drive home and dinner when I got back.

One evening I went on a bike ride with Shirley and Uncle Clarence (who lives nearby), and it’s fortunate it was a slow ride; I didn’t bring my own bike, and the only one available was a rather unusually structured one that wasn’t quite recumbent but had a seat with a back you could lean against. I don’t remember the brand name of it — something that started with Re-.  (Edit: Cynthia tells me it’s a Revive.) It took a little getting used to, particularly since I’m out of practice at bike-riding anyway (I’ll avoid the obvious joke), but I did okay for the relatively brief duration of the ride.

And I finally got a chance to look through what we call “The Grampa Book,” a Bennett family genealogy that was compiled some decades ago, but that my father never got a copy of because he wasn’t very family-oriented. I do recall getting to see it at least once before, but that was many years ago, and in my more recent family interactions, it wasn’t until now that we actually tracked it down for me to look at. I learned a number of things I hadn’t known before, even about my own branch of the family. I never knew, for instance, that my maternal grandmother had the same first name as my sister. I lost touch with that side of the family after we lost my mother, and I was very young when that happened, so I only knew my maternal grandmother as “Grandmama.” (Which was how I distinguished her from my other grandmother, “Grandma.”) But I learned some other things too. For instance, a couple of my ancestors testified at the only colonial witch trial held outside of Massachusetts, a 1692 trial in Fairfield, Connecticut of an alleged witch named Mercy Disbrow or Disborough. Unfortunately they testified on the wrong side, against her. She was convicted, but spared due to a technicality. (Cousin Cynthia once just randomly discovered that an acquaintance of hers was descended from Mercy Disbrow, a rather astonishing coincidence.)

Also, it turns out that some of my paternal ancestors were a lot more religious than my grandfather and his progeny — his older siblings included some people with unusual Biblical names, like Philander Bennett (it originally meant “lover of men,” as in a philanthropist, but it seems to have gotten confused to mean “a loving man” at some point) and Zadok Alonzo Bennett. I think I’m going to swipe “Zadok” as a Vulcan name in my current novel.

And I finally found out where the Bennetts came from. I’ve known since my first, long-ago glimpse of The Grampa Book that my ancestors have been in the US since colonial times, but I was never clear on where they came from before that. It turns out that the first Bennett in the New World, James Bennett, was born in County Kent, England around 1616. He may have been the son of a tailor named Jacobus Bennett of Appledore (who’s listed in the Canterbury marriage licenses, 1609), but there’s no proof of that. He sailed in December 1634  aboard a ship called the Hercules of Sandwich, which sounds like a slogan for a fast-food offering. He was one of seven servants of a yeoman (i.e. landowning farmer or minor nobleman) named Nathaniel Tilden, the former mayor of Tenterden in Kent and the most prominent passenger aboard the Hercules. They settled in the colony of Scituate, Massachusetts, where Tilden became ruling elder of its first church. I find a number of online sites about the Hercules and its passengers, but poor James B. tends to get lumped anonymously under “servants” in the manifests. Most of my other paternal ancestors seem to be English, mainly from the home counties (i.e. southeast England around London) but some from around Yorkshire or Hereford as well as one from Scotland. Although apparently my paternal grandmother’s ancestry was largely German.

Unfortunately the family genealogy doesn’t go back beyond the first generation of colonists in the 1600s, since the compiler never got the chance to visit England and continue his research there. Still, it’s nice to know this much. I’ve always been an Anglophile, so it’s cool to know I have roots over there.  And I’m rather pleased to find I’m descended from a commoner rather than a nobleman.

(I’m afraid I don’t know much about my maternal ancestors, but doing a web search now for my mother’s rather uncommon maiden name suggests that they were originally from Scotland, part of a wave of Scots and Irish settlers who came to the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia in the 1770s — and apparently never left, since that’s where my mother was from.)

Well, my smartphone did prove useful on my trip. I was able to use a weather radar app I downloaded to warn me when a rainstorm was approaching, which let me sit it out at a rest area while it passed, and I was able to pass the time websurfing on my phone. Although that kind of backfired, since I then ran straight into a severe traffic jam, and by the time I finally got up to Michigan over an hour behind schedule, I ran into the afternoon rain I’d been hoping to avoid, as well as rush hour traffic. Oh, and having unlimited texting was really helpful, because it let me text ahead and let the folks know when to expect me, including updates on my delays. I also used a gas price app to find the least expensive fuel along the route (in the Toledo area), and GPS to get directions to that station and then back to I-75, and then for the final leg to my aunt’s house — although I think I misunderstood an instruction and took the wrong turn, but that just put me on the route I usually take anyway and the phone GPS adapted. However, I found that GPS use really drained the battery, so I had to plug in the backup battery pack that Cousin Mark got me last Christmas. I’d been thinking of getting a car lighter to USB adapter, but I thought I’d try going without one this time to assess the need. The verdict is that next time I really should have one.

Still, as cool as the GPS navigator is, it’s the sort of thing that would work best if I had a passenger to monitor the phone for me so I could keep my eye on the road. Although I suppose they probably make some kind of bracket for placing the phone on top of the dashboard, so I wouldn’t have to glance down at the phone in the cupholder.

The GPS was of mixed use on the trip home. It was helpful for directing me from my aunt’s house to I-75 (a route I’d taken before and brought along printed instructions for, but it was handy to have the directions read aloud to me), and then I didn’t think I’d need it anymore. But I hit rush-hour traffic getting into Greater Cincinnati, so I decided to take an early exit and make my way to a familiar road. But at first I wasn’t sure whether the computer was trying to direct me back to the interstate or not, so I had to pull into a parking lot and pull up the list of directions to make sure it was directing me to the route I wanted. It was, and it even corrected me when I took a wrong turn shortly thereafter (since I was coming at a familiar intersection from a new direction and got confused). But then I realized that it was, indeed, trying to direct me to the next I-75 on-ramp. Fortunately, by that point I already knew the rest of the way home, so I could turn it off. Otherwise, my drive home was uneventful, except for hitting a brief, fierce rainstorm not far out from home. Although I guess most rain is fierce when you’re driving through it at highway speeds.

I managed to get some writing done on the trip; on the drive up, I was able to work out how to proceed with the scene I’d begun before I left, and I got it finished by Saturday evening. Also, Cynthia (who’s from the Bay Area) was able to give me some insights into San Francisco for some material set around Starfleet Headquarters in my novel, so that was helpful. But then I let my mind wander to other things, so now I need to get back to work. The vacation is over.

Getting ready to travel

I’ve been gearing up for a trip to Detroit to visit my aunt and uncle. It’s a trip I’ve been hoping to make for months, but I wanted to wait until my cousin Cynthia was in town to visit them too, and she had bought a “standby” (?) plane ticket whose date kept getting bumped back because of all the flight delays caused by the winter storms this past season. But she’s finally there, so I’m going to drive up tomorrow and stay the weekend.  This is a good time to go on a trip up north, since it’s oppressively hot and humid in Cincinnati right now.

One reason I got my smartphone last month was so that I’d be able to use it to assist me with travel — I now have GPS navigation, a weather radar app to track storms, and a gas-price app to help me find low gas prices (which would be particularly helpful at the moment). Unsurprisingly, the weather forecast for tomorrow has gotten rainier with each passing day, so I may have been wise to get that radar app.

It’ll also be good to be able to check my e-mail and use the Internet while on the road, assuming I stay where I can get a good signal (which shouldn’t be much of an issue along the major interstates, I gather). For some reason, the e-mail program I use on my laptop has trouble sending out e-mail from locations other than my home — I’ve never quite figured out why that is — but now I can just reply from my phone if I need to.

Also, within the past week or so I’ve finally gotten around to copying all my CD collection onto my computer and then saving most of it onto the new 16GB microSD card I got for my phone, so now I have plenty of music to choose from. I’d probably prefer to use my car CD player while I’m actually driving, but it’s good to have the option of listening to whatever music I want at other times during my trip, or just in general. (Unfortunately my car stereo is old enough that it has no input for an MP3 player or an SD card or anything other than CDs inserted in the slot and radio through the antenna.)

I have to admit, after I put all that music onto my phone, I found myself expecting it to be heavier. Really, it’s amazing that that tiny little shard of plastic and metal, smaller even than my little fingernail, can hold as much music as the whole shelf full of CDs in my living room, and still be less than half full. Truly we live in the future.

And it’s a good thing I remembered to copy the photos and other files from my old, 2GB microSD card onto the new one. Fortunately I have two different microSD adaptors, one for a standard SD slot and one for a USB port, so I was able to plug both cards into different ports on my laptop and just copy directly from one to the other, which was handy. (The one thing I still haven’t gotten to work is the software that’s supposed to let you sync media files between a laptop and the phone. I tried downloading two different versions of it and neither one seems able to recognize my phone. So any file transfers, for now, have to be done by removing the SD card from the phone, which is harder to do than with my old phone because I have to take off the whole back rather than just open a slot on the side.)

Oh, and this trip may be an opportunity to make use of that backup phone charger pack my cousin Mark got me last Christmas. My phone does seem to need charging on a daily basis, and I intend to top it off before I leave tomorrow, but it’ll be good to have a reserve power supply on the road in case I need it. I was thinking of buying a car lighter-to-USB adapter, but I don’t think this trip will be long enough for me to need it, given that I already have the battery pack. (After all, I won’t need GPS just to remember “keep going north on I-75.” If I need it, it’ll only be for the last leg of the trip.)

So anyway, I think I’m all ready except for the packing, and I’m glad this trip is finally about to happen.

Categories: Uncategorized Tags: ,

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 1989 Season Overview

While the first season of the Mission: Impossible revival felt surprisingly like a typical season of the original series — mostly following the classic formula with only a little more flexibility or innovation than the original generally had — the second season experimented and departed more. In the first half or so of the season, this worked pretty well, giving us a run of mostly solid episodes with a good amount of legitimate suspense and personal stakes for the team members. In some ways I was reminded of my favorite season, year 5 of the original, in terms of the frequency with which Jim’s plans hit snags and dangers and the team was forced to improvise.

But then, in the latter portion of the season, things began to fall apart. In four of the last five episodes, the intricate advance stratagems that had always been the trademark of M:I vanished, and the team’s strategies were mainly reduced to going into an unclear situation, trying to find stuff out, getting in trouble that they weren’t prepared for, and having to improvise solutions. (This also happened in “Target Earth” in the first half of the season.) Maybe this was at network request to create more of a sense of suspense and danger — something that, admittedly, the original series generally lacked when the team’s plans usually played out like clockwork — but it was a fundamental change in the premise and character of the series. As I’ve remarked multiple times, Mission: Impossible wasn’t really a spy series at heart; it was a caper series in the spirit of Topkapi or The Sting, or the more recent Leverage. The spy stuff was just an excuse to make the heroes’ con games and elaborate thefts and other crimes seem patriotic and heroic. What defined M:I was the intricacy of the team’s stratagems and cons; it was a show about people who triumphed with their wits and their skill rather than their fists or their guns. But this season increasingly departed from that approach in favor of a more conventional action formula where the heroes were reactive and unprepared, making things up one step at a time rather than plotting out a whole game in advance. It made the show feel simpler, less intelligent. The writers didn’t have to work as hard to come up with intricate strategies while concealing their specifics from the audience. It seemed that the writers got lazier, and that made it feel like Jim Phelps was losing his touch. Although that didn’t explain the rest of the team losing their basic competence in episodes like “The Assassin” where they broke cover right under the watching villain’s nose. And it wasn’t just the plotting that got lazier. A lot of the episodes in the back half of the season are extremely dumb and poorly thought out, often inconsistently plotted, and tending toward lazy stereotypes of other cultures just as badly as the previous season, and perhaps even worse.

As a result, the season feels split in two. The first half is stronger overall than the previous season, with only one episode I’d rate below average (“Command Performance”). But of the final eight episodes, only one was excellent, three were decent, and the other four were weak to horrible. So while I’d call the first half of the 1989 season one of the strongest runs in the franchise, the second half was, overall, the weakest in the television franchise’s history. It’s an unfortunate way for the series to go out, especially after such a promising start.

Despite the writers’ strike being long over, this season has two stories that seem loosely inspired by original episodes, borrowing their setups if not their details: “Command Performance” has a similar premise to the 1966 season’s “Old Man Out,” while “The Assassin” has nearly the same setup as season 6′s “Mindbend.” There are no actual remakes this year, though.

The strongest episodes this year were “Countdown” and “The Fuehrer’s Children,” both of which created a strong sense of danger and had effective stories. These were followed closely by “For Art’s Sake” and “The Princess,” both solid capers, if imperfect ones. “The Gunslinger” is almost as effective, if a bit sillier in premise. “The Golden Serpent” and “Target Earth” were pretty entertaining, albeit more as action thrillers than standard M:I capers; “The Golden Serpent” in particular feels like an over-the-top ’80s action movie that occasionally pays lip service to being M:I, and is enjoyable largely for its extravagance, which is unmatched by the rest of the season. In a lot of ways, it feels like a test run for the feature films (particularly since the second film was also shot in and around Sydney and made extensive use of its scenery). “War Games,” “Deadly Harvest,” and “Church Bells in Bogota” are reasonably entertaining if unremarkable. “Command Performance” is mediocre and pales in comparison to the original episode it resembles, and “The Sands of Seth” is not exactly awful, but quite fanciful and ridiculous in premise, feeling like the kind of story you’d see in a Saturday morning cartoon version of M:I. “Banshee” and “The Assassin” are badly written and incoherent, and “Cargo Cult” is a disaster, nonsensical and deeply racist, probably the worst episode in the entire franchise.

Cast-wise, Phil Morris continued to be the breakout star, showing great talent, charisma, and versatility. In a more ideal, colorblind Hollywood, I could’ve easily seen Morris taking over the lead role if the series had continued long enough for Graves to retire from it — or even becoming the lead of the movie franchise. Jane Badler was pretty impressive too, charming and sexy and confident, conveying a lot of strength and competence despite the producers’ insistence on putting her through the Perils of Pauline on an ongoing basis. (But then, Pauline in the original 1914 silent serial was a pretty competent action heroine herself, not the helpless damsel we’ve subsequently come to associate with the name.) Peter Graves was his usual stalwart, avuncular self, playing up his kinder side as the emphasis on team bonding increased, and took the occasional opportunity to show off his skills in horse riding, quick drawing, and the like. Tony Hamilton didn’t seem to have as much to do this season, but continued to be effective when he did. And Thaao Penghlis was consistently adequate, managing to do a few more accents this season than last, though American still eluded him. Still, he remains perhaps the least versatile “master of disguise” I’ve ever seen.

The season expands on some of the characteristic elements of the previous season. There’s a lot more of the team out of character, discussing plans and problems — often with the usual roleplay/scam elements diminished to near nothing. We see more of the team’s friendships and affinities, particularly all the men’s warm feelings for Shannon — which gets a little tired when the episodes constantly put Shannon in danger to create anxiety among her teammates. We also continue to get a number of episodes where the team skips Jim’s apartment and assembles at a “command post” on site — although it’s only five out of the fifteen distinct stories, fewer than I’d thought (“The Golden Serpent,” “Banshee,” “For Art’s Sake,” “The Assassin,” and “The Sands of Seth”). Four of those five are in the latter half of the season, though.

Last season, the focus was somewhat split between espionage and organized-crime missions, but here there’s a far stronger emphasis on international intrigue, terrorism, and politics. The criminal cases all involve greater international-scale threats: the international drug triad in “The Golden Serpent” includes the prince of a foreign nation, the arms dealers in “Banshee” threaten to reawaken a religious war, the art thief in “For Art’s Sake” is working to create an international incident, and the drug lord in “Church Bells in Bogota” threatens to overthrow the Colombian government. So essentially every episode has political stakes, making this perhaps the only M:I season without a purely crime-oriented caper. By contrast, the percentage of episodes featuring supernatural-themed cons is close to what it was in the previous season, though “War Games” only dabbles with playing on the villain’s astrological obsession, and “Cargo Cult” uses supernatural illusions to fool the “primitive villagers” and turn them against their exploiter rather than the usual trope of playing on the villains’ superstitions. “Banshee” is perhaps the crudest example of said trope, with a caricatured villain who goes into a cartoonish panic over any superstition, even one he’s never heard of before. And “The Sands of Seth,” like “Cargo Cult,” features a villain who is himself using supernatural deceptions, so it’s fighting fire with fire.

Beyond the opening 2-parter, which for the first time shows us a second IMF team operating independently of Jim’s, we get no further insights into the IMF as an organization. Indeed, the season is unique in having not a single episode in which the core team was joined from the start by a supplemental agent. The only episodes where anyone assisted the core team were the 2-parter “The Golden Serpent,” where Barney Collier worked with Jim’s team after having previously been assigned to another, unnamed IMF agent’s team, and “Command Performance,” where the rescued priest Father Thomas Vallis (Ivar Kants) assisted in his own rescue. So despite the variations in story structure, in some ways this is the most formulaic season ever: Essentially no variation in team composition, no off-book missions, no briefing discs without the “Secretary will disavow” line.

Location-wise, Europe was the site of five episodes and the teaser of a sixth, with most of the locations this season being fictional: the Monaco-like Valence in “The Princess,” a nameless Baltic state in “Command Performance,” the Eastern European lands of Sardavia and Bucaraine in “War Games,” and the fictional Irish town of Bally-na-Gragh in “Banshee.” The only real European locations were Hamburg (or nearby) in “The Fuehrer’s Children” and Geneva in the teaser of “The Assassin.” America was the focus in “For Art’s Sake” (NYC), “The Assassin” (Boston), and “The Gunfighter” (the fictional Pontiac, NV), though “Fuehrer’s” began in Oregon, “Deadly Harvest” was partly in Kansas, and “Target Earth” featured scenes at NORAD. Australia was the site of two stories, “The Golden Serpent” (Sydney) and “Target Earth” (the Outback), while “Cargo Cult” was on the fictional island of New Belgium in the Southwest Pacific. “Deadly Harvest” and “The Sands of Seth” were in the Mideast, the former in the fictitious terrorist state of Orambaq and the latter in some alternate-reality cartoon version of Cairo, Egypt. Only “Countdown” was set in Asia, in the fictional land of Kangji, and only “Church Bells in Bogota” was in Latin America — do I even need to say where? Oh, and “Target Earth” was the first and only M:I episode to take place partly in Earth orbit.

Musically, there is very little to say. Every episode was credited to John E. Davis, though IMDb lists Neil Argo as an uncredited additional composer throughout the season. The music was generally unremarkable and often cliched, nothing to write home (or blog) about. It’s quite a letdown from the original series, where music was so important. I wonder why the producers chose to go with the bland Davis over the more talented and interesting Lalo Schifrin and Ron Jones from the ’88 season. But then, a lot about the new series lacks the stylistic sophistication of the original, in terms of directing and cinematography, and in this season the plotting got a lot less sophisticated toward the end. Its visual effects were far more ambitious than the original’s, but usually quite crude in execution. The revival just didn’t quite have the class of the original. The one thing it consistently did better was location work, featuring lavish and varied locales in contrast to the backlot-bound feel the original generally had. But then, that’s one thing that Australian and New Zealand productions are known for — the lush, spectacular scenery.

In sum, the ninth and final season of Mission: Impossible started off strong and ambitious, improving on its predecessor and coming close to rivalling the best of the original — but toward the end, its weaknesses came to the fore and it became downright sloppy, stumbling its way toward what by that point was an inevitable cancellation. I wonder if the producers saw that cancellation coming well in advance and just stopped trying. If so, it’s a shame. If only they’d kept up the quality of the first half or so of this season and gotten at least one more year at that level, this revival could have been a really impressive addition to the franchise. As it is, I’d say it’s still worth checking out, even just for Phil Morris and Jane Badler, who are two of the best IMF team members we’ve ever had. And it’s still a legitimate continuation of the original — mixed in quality, but then, so was its predecessor. If nothing else, it gave us the continued adventures of Jim Phelps and the IMF as we knew it from the original… a last look at the familiar incarnation of M:I before it moved to the big screen and transformed into something radically different. Even several different somethings. But we’ll get to that.

Categories: Reviews Tags: ,

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (’89) Reviews: “Church Bells in Bogota”/”The Sands of Seth” (spoilers)

And now, the final two:

“Church Bells in Bogota”: The second episode by Frank Abatemarco, who previously did “The Fuehrer’s Children.” After Esteban Magdalena (Henri Szeps), the “Godfather” of the Colombian drug cartel, assassinates a kidnapped federal judge by dropping him from the helicopter that’s supposed to be returning him to his family, Jim gets the mission at an auto racetrack: Bring Magdalena to justice before he overthrows the Colombian government. Jim’s cover is a disgruntled former government contractor with secrets to sell, Max is a mercenary, and Shannon, yet again, goes in as a singer for the nightclub Magdalena owns. A point is made about the ironclad cover story they’ve prepared for Shannon, and about Shannon apparently having a fear of small planes like the one she’ll be taking to Colombia from the Hollywood talent agency where she’ll be recruited.

At said agency, Shannon is hired by Magdalena’s nephew Luis (Tony Xauet), who doesn’t even audition her first, since he’s in a hurry to get back to Colombia, even though there’s a storm brewing. Maybe it’s also supposed to be because he’s attracted to her, but that doesn’t come across in the scene. They subsequently bond over her fear of flying, and of course the plane is struck by lightning and goes down. The plane/storm footage, while obviously miniature work, is a damn sight better than the usual amateurish video effects on this show, so I assume it’s stock footage from some other production. Mercenary Max (coming soon to a toy store near you), who’s training Magdalena’s men in the use of a rocket launcher and having no luck getting past his supervisor Sanchez (Michael Long) to meet Mags himself, hears that Luis and some singer went down in a plane crash and are in the hospital. Jim sneaks in to see her as a doctor, and she doesn’t recognize him as anything else. Gasp — she has… amnesia!

Before long, Luis pressures the real doctor into releasing Shannon into his care, so she’s taken into the Magdalenas’ fortress-like compound. Now the team has two objectives: get Mags and rescue Shannon. But as usual lately, they don’t have any advance plan in place for getting Mags — they’re just trying to track him down. Defense contractor Jim, hoping to get into the compound to find Shannon, instead gets taken to a run-down safehouse where he’s faced with a drug-lord version of To Tell the Truth with a panel of ski-masked men, one of whom is Magdalena — but unlike in the game show, he doesn’t get to pick out the real one. He makes his spiel and convinces Mags to let him install a heat-seeking missile defense system in the compound. Plan B is to get to Mags when he sneaks out to his nightclub, where Shannon surprises Luis by singing “Someone to Watch Over Me.” A watching Grant and Nicholas are surprised when the lights go out and Magdalena appears as if by magic, evidently through some secret passage. There’s no getting him out that way either. And they’re even more surprised to see the whirlwind romance blooming between Luis and the amnesiac Shannon.

Once Jim gets into the compound, he has Max create a diversion for Sanchez (arranging for the expensive launcher to jam) so Jim can slip into Shannon’s room as the doctor she remembers from the hospital. He’s brought along a couple of highly specialized gadgets Grant apparently just had lying around, the first of which is a remote medical sensor developed by NASA for diagnosing astronauts in space (perhaps on Mars missions, since Grant says it could diagnose them from “millions of miles away”). This lets Grant remotely determine that Shannon has classic soap-opera amnesia, with no brain damage, presumably from the psychological trauma of her fear of flying, though that’s a totally lame explanation. The second device is a pair of video goggles, sort of a proto-Oculus Rift, that plays home videos of the team celebrating her birthday in Jim’s apartment (though it’s unclear who shot the video). It only takes about 20 seconds of this for her complete memory to return, an implausibly easy fix, and she feels pretty bummed about falling in love with a drug kingpin’s heir — particularly since he’s already proposed to her! Jim realizes that a wedding would be the perfect way to lure Magdalena out of hiding, but then has second thoughts, concerned for Shannon’s feelings. But she agrees to go through with it because they’re awful people. (Umm, the drug lords, not the IMF team.)

So then Grant and Nicholas carjack a priest and steal his clothes. Better rethink that awful people thing. Okay, it’s not as awful as it sounds, since the priest seems to have a pretty good idea of who they’re after and blesses their endeavor. (In that case, why didn’t they just ask?) It’s implausibly easy for them to get past the compound’s security to get ready, and when Magdalena comes up to Shannon’s room prefatory to giving away the bride, priest Nick arrives and trank-darts him, and for some reason nobody is patrolling that side of the house at all as Grant lowers them all down a rope to the ground. And the gate guards are totally unconcerned when Jim and Grant drive out in a florist’s truck with the others and Mags in the back. Why is this compound so impenetrable again? But Luis has figured out that they’ve taken his girl and his uncle, so he calls out pursuit, but Max finally uses that rocket launcher on Mags’s helicopter, and thus the team is able to get to the airport and steal Mags’s inexplicably unguarded replacement Lear jet. Luis shows up just as they take off and screams for his lost love, and Shannon mopes about betraying the murderous drug lord she knew for two days and who totally took advantage of her at her most vulnerable.

Okay, so it’s an implausible scenario in a lot of ways, and it’s got a number of problems, but it’s not bad overall. I’m still not loving this looser investigate-then-improvise approach that seems to have replaced the intricate capers that used to define M:I as a series, but seeing the team humanized by concern for one of their own isn’t bad in principle, as long as it isn’t handled as ineptly as it was in “The Assassin.” At this point my expectations have been lowered, and this is an adequately entertaining story. Even the music’s a bit more interesting than usual, since John E. Davis uses more Latin sounds (which don’t sound as cliched to me as some of his other attempts at regional music like Irish and cowboy stuff) and more romantic-drama-style music than we usually get. Also Jane Badler performs two songs, “Someone to Watch Over Me” by George and Ira Gershwin and “Tangerine” by Victor Shertzinger and Johnny Mercer. (Apparently Badler pursued a professional singing career after this series ended.)

“The Sands of Seth”: The series finale, and the last M:I television episode to date, is written by executive producer Jeffrey M. Hayes. It opens in Cairo with an Egyptian museum director, Horus Selim (Tim Elliott — and IMDb misspells it as “Horace”), warning an Egyptian government official that the old ways will rise again and Egypt must return to its ancient greatness yada yada yada, which the official pooh-poohs. Then a mummy shows up and strangles him. It took this episode less than 90 seconds to evoke the first “Seriously?” from me.

Perhaps fittingly for the series finale, Jim goes to an animatronic dinosaur exhibit and trades code phrases about extinction with the latest and last of the improbably pretty women who keep getting these assignments this season. (She says the dinosaurs lived for over 200 million years, which is off by about 35 million unless you count birds as dinosaurs, which I totally do.) His mission is to find out if Selim is behind the murders of four prominent Egyptian officials whose deaths threaten to destabilize the tenuous Mideast peace process, and if so, to stop him. The team’s command post, seriously, is a tomb that’s just behind the Sphinx but that apparently was only discovered the year before.

Nicholas plays an Egyptian secret police officer who accosts Selim’s second-in-command and mummy-impersonating assassin, who is actually named Karnak (Gerard Kennedy, who was the main villain in “Holograms” in season 1). He offers Karnak a set of envelopes to hold to his forehead and divine the answers to the questions inside… no, sorry, that was Carnac. What he actually does is to hint that the authorities suspect Selim of the murders and offer Karnak a chance to break with him to save himself. But Karnak is loyal. Meanwhile, Shannon arranges to meet Selim at the museum and let him know that her archaeologist father (Jim) has unearthed a find related to Seth, the god of death that Selim worships and is obsessed with. That gets him out to the tomb, where they show him a fake Scroll of Seth and also set up Max as a not-very-gruntled employee of Jim’s. Selim really wants the scroll, but Jim won’t part with it, so when Max offers to bring it to him, he’s interested. At their arranged meeting at an outdoor cafe, a bunch of Selim’s cultists show up dressed in black and abduct Max, who doesn’t go without a fight. Somehow this does not attract the attention of any kind of police. Oh, did I mention that Selim has his own cultists? Yup, they gather in a secret underground tomb with a huge statue of Seth in it, and I don’t mean the guy from Robot Chicken. Basically their pillars of faith are “Kill, kill, chant a lot, and kill.”

So once Max hands over the scroll and lets on that he’s a Sethophile himself, he hears Selim order Karnak to deal with Jim and Shannon, but he can’t warn them because he lost his communicator in the fight. Shannon gets her requisite dose of distress for the week when Mummy Karnak almost strangles her, but it’s a lure to draw out Jim to be knocked out so they can both be trapped in the tomb, which the team has set up with fake Sethaphrenalia for Selim to plunder. Max can only watch helplessly — even though he’s the last guy to leave and could easily have just pulled the door back open a crack to give them some air. So Jim and Shannon are trapped there in this tomb with only a couple of hours of air, and can’t call out because the walls are too thick. Remember: they’re trapped in a room the team spent hours setting up. It didn’t occur to them to install some oxygen canisters, like the one we saw Grant put in the fake sarcophagus earlier? Or, like, an interior door handle?

In that fake sarcophagus is Nicholas as a mummy, who arises and terrifies Karnak, because Shannon mentioned earlier that there’s a curse on the tomb entailing the usual dead-rising stuff. Consider, Gentle Readers: Karnak has committed several murders while dressed as a mummy. Now a guy dressed as a mummy is coming after him, and Karnak accepts it as entirely real. I guess you can kid a kidder. Nick knocks Karnak out, and the henchman wakes up in the desert, where Grant is dressed as a Nubian shaman or whatever and intones that Karnak must renounce Seth and stop Selim’s planned mass murder of Egyptian officials if he wishes to save his soul. This is supported with mystical images holographically projected in a pool, images that are obviously from old movies but that Karnak, again, accepts as entirely real. It’s stupid as hell, but what saves it is Phil Morris’s performance, which lets him show off the superb, mellow voice he’s made such excellent use of in animation roles in the ensuing quarter-century. I’ve never heard him deepen his voice this much, almost into James Earl Jones territory, and it’s thrilling to listen to.

So Karnak tries to turn Selim’s followers, but just gets a garotting for his troubles and is dumped into the sand pit that swallows the cult’s victims. The team slipped a tracker onto Karnak to follow him to the temple, and find it by the expedient of Shannon falling through a buried skylight, whereupon they find themselves inside the head of the Seth statue. By the way, Nicholas has been captured and brought before the cult, but fortunately Selim assigns Max to kill him as his initiation, so they fake Nick’s death together. By an astonishing coincidence, the head of the statue contains a sun reflector, and now that the skylight is open, the morning sun (conveniently at the correct position in the sky) will shine beams through the eyes in just a few minutes, letting Jim time the payoff of the plan. The rigged scroll reveals a “faded” part of the text speaking of a curse, and then self-immolates. Nicholas magically springs back to life, restored by the rays from Seth’s eyes. Grant rigs his communicator to resonate with the stone columns of the buried temple and bring it all crashing down, once the cultists have turned on Selim and dumped him into the sand pit. The team climbs out and watches as the lost temple collapses and millions of archaeologists cry out in protest and are suddenly silenced.

And Peter Graves delivers his final words in the role of Jim Phelps: “Present-day evil has joined ancient evil. Both of them lost in the sands of time.” He deserved better. Although I guess it’s not as bad as what the character of Phelps has coming for him in the movie — but that’s for a later post.

Oh, wow, so many, many things wrong with this episode. First off, the portrayal of Egypt. The extent of Hayes’s research seemed to be watching some old movies. Okay, granted, the age of the pharaohs was pretty much the last time prior to the modern age when Egypt was an independent nation, rather than a portion of someone else’s empire (whether Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Ottoman, or British), so maybe it’s not completely out of the question that a rabid Egyptian nationalist would look back to those times for inspiration, rather than to Egypt’s more recent, 1400-year-long history as an Islamic society. But the three named characters, supposedly living in modern, majority-Arab Egypt, are named Horus, Serapis, and Karnak, after two ancient Egyptian gods and an ancient temple site. Hayes didn’t even bother to give them names that residents of present-day Egypt might actually have. And here’s a fun fact: The population of Egypt is about 90-91 percent Muslim and 9-10 percent Christian, mostly Coptic Orthodox. There’s also a smattering of Baha’ists and Jews. A nationalist looking to mobilize the Egyptian people to reclaim their greatness as a world power wouldn’t win a lot of support by invoking an ancient faith that pretty much nobody in Egypt actually follows anymore. Maybe one deluded museum director who got too buried in his work (no pun intended) might end up with such an obsession, but I doubt he’d be able to gather an army of Seth-worshipping murder cultists.

Also, painting Set/Seth as a “god of evil” and murder is just the usual propaganda that Christendom has used to demonize other religions. Set was a god associated with chaos, violence, and storms (also the desert and foreigners), but played an important positive role in Egyptian religion as well; though he had killed his brother Horus, that was part of the necessary cycle of death and resurrection, and both gods functioned as counterparts in a cosmic balance like the yin and yang. Now, I will grant that the episode ended with the team convincing the cultists that Selim’s portrayal of Seth as a murder god was slanted and incomplete. But that was just a ploy, and Jim was pretty adamant about Seth being pure evil. So I can’t really give the episode credit for that.

It’s not a completely awful episode, just a silly one with a lazy, cartoony view of a foreign culture. Like “The Gunslinger,” it seemed to be motivated by a desire to do a genre pastiche, this time of mummy movies and Indiana Jones ancient-cult stuff. That gave it a fanciful quality rather far removed from what we generally think of as Mission: Impossible. But I’ll give it this: It finally breaks the trend of episodes where the team has no advance plan beyond “get in and wander around trying to find stuff out.” Yes, the plan has a number of contrived setbacks and improvisations, but there’s also a strategy being played out from the beginning, with the fake tomb and the scroll and the roles the team adopts. Although it’s a little unclear what the original endgame was planned to be, and contrived that the team’s advanced preparations meshed so neatly with random happenstance. Oh, and Davis’s music is back to cliche, with the same old “Egyptian” sound we’ve heard in a thousand movies and cartoons.

The one last thing on the DVD box set, aside from promos for a few of the episodes, is a Holiday Promo. Santa Claus rides up to his North-Pole home in his sleigh and finds a disc-player box in his mail basket, or something. He opens it up without needing a thumbprint scan — well, he is Santa Claus, after all — and the screen displays an image of the team wishing the viewers a merry Christmas. Santa walks away, but the disc does not self-destruct. I guess Santa already knows what his mission is.

Overview to follow!

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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (’89) Reviews: “The Assassin”/”The Gunslinger” (Spoilers)

“The Assassin”: Written by Cliff Green, this episode is a loose remake of season 6′s “Mindbend.” In Geneva, a prominent politician is gunned down by a man who’s triggered to do so by a musical alarm on his wristwatch — basically the same as the watch-alarm trigger in the original. But instead of shooting himself in the head afterward, he aims his gun at the police and commits suicide by gendarme. Where the original episode cut away discreetly at the first gunshot, here we see both violent killings on camera. Yay, progress, I guess. Afterward, there’s a closeup of a bad video effect of a red glow under the skin of the victim’s neck, presumably a computer chip self-immolating.

Jim goes to a carnival and exchanges code phrases with a blonde shooting-gallery attendant who’s so sexy (though not much of an actress) that Jim’s “I’m aiming for a prize of a different kind” plays more like he’s trying to solicit a prostitute than get directed to a secret videodisc. But anyway, the mission differs from the original in that the assassins are people close to the targets (to circumvent security) and the Voice doesn’t provide any information about who the suspected mastermind is. That’s left to Grant’s research, as we find when the team convenes on a ship in Boston Harbor (or a Down-Under facsimile thereof). He’s linked all the assassins to the stress relief clinic run by Philip Westerly (Peter Curtin), who’s also been caught on video as a face in the crowd at several of the murder scenes because he couldn’t resist traveling around the world to watch them all personally. Umm, isn’t that enough evidence that the police could investigate and find some link? Is this really so insoluble that the IMF is needed? At least the mastermind in “Mindbend” kept his distance from the brainwashing doctor and his subjects, and the subjects were criminals with no public record of ever having encountered the doctor. The IMF in that episode apparently picked up underworld rumors and needed to prove them. But here, Westerly is so reckless in attending the murder scenes that it’s hard to believe the case requires extraordinary measures to crack.

At the Westerly Clinic, the eponymous doctor is holding a video auction for six bidders whom only he can see on his wall screens, but they’re evidently leaders of Communist countries or military regimes and the like. The guy in the top left looks a bit like Vladimir Putin, but it’s a coincidence; Putin was years away from becoming a world figure when this was made, and the guy turns out to be implicitly South African anyway. Grant taps the phone lines just at the tail end of the auction, so they know a hit is imminent but they don’t know the target or the assassin. So they arrange to go in two ways: First, Shannon and Max play a rich married couple with stress issues, meeting Westerly at what I think is the same race track used in “The Cattle King” last season; and second, Nicholas just shows up at the clinic as a drunken journalist in despair about being reassigned from the international news beat to celebrity reporting in Boston. Westerly falls readily for Nick’s cover story, and betrays all principles of doctor-patient privilege in describing him to Shannon and Max just as a script cheat so they’ll know he’s successfully inside. Westerly instantly starts neuro-chipping and brainwashing Nicholas, using video footage of a lion stalking a gazelle with “jungle drums” playing. It’s unclear why he picks Nicholas for this. In “Mindbend,” the team already knew the intended assassin and substituted Barney, with pharmaceutical defenses against conditioning (though those failed him). Here, it’s like they have no plan beyond “go in and look around,” and Nicholas just randomly got chosen as the brainwashee.

So the next day, Shannon and Max are at the pool when Nicholas shows up, and they’re puzzled by his aloof behavior, and by the new murder-trigger watch that Westerly gave him. When he resists their enquiries and gets angry, they…

Oh…

They break cover. In public. Right where Westerly can watch from his window. They loudly call him “Nicholas,” right there at the public pool, and try to get through to him, with Max in particular browbeating him until the lion-hunting footage replaying in Nicholas’s mind (believe me, we’re going to see an awful lot of that footage) drives him to snap and knock Max into the pool. The fracas gets Max and Shannon booted out of the clinic before they can learn anything. This was a rank amateur move that I can’t believe these experienced agents would’ve made.

So they’re stuck with following Nicholas when Westerly drives him to the racetrack and seemingly aims him at an important Arab sheikh. The team knocks out Nick and takes him back to the boat, but Westerly slips away, and Jim isn’t convinced the sheikh was the real target. Indeed, back at the boat, Nicholas awakes and goes all Terminator, knocking Shannon’s stunt double (who I’m pretty sure is a guy) over a desk. (At first I thought the stuntman was wearing a lot of shoulder padding to give him protection and a feminine shape, but then I realized that was just ’80s fashion.) Nicholas almost strangles Shannon — since of course we can’t go an episode without having the woman placed in danger — and ultimately knocks her down a flight of steps, leaving her unconscious. Then he takes a gun and the mask-making unit to the zoo and snaps photos of a zookeeper which he feeds into the unit. (It’s our best look ever at how the mask-maker operates.) Fortunately, Grant has gotten past Westerly’s nonexistent security and stolen the brainwashing tape (since Westerly doesn’t have the good sense to destroy the evidence like his “Mindbend” counterpart), letting him discover subliminal frames revealing that the target is the anti-apartheid ruler of the “Republic of West Africa.” They rush to the zoo and intercept Nicholas just in time, though not before we’ve been forced to endure the lion-hunt footage several more times. Then Jim’s entire master stratagem for bringing Westerly to justice is “Grant! Get Westerly!” Which leads to Westerly tripping over a coil of poetic justice and falling into the lion enclosure, and we have to suffer through the stock footage one more time before the biochip melts and Nicholas is back to normal.

Wow, this was just bad. Everyone here was far dumber than they should be in an M:I episode. The bad guy should not have been that hard to catch, and the team was basically just flailing around, with no sign of the usual chess game planned out a dozen moves in advance. This isn’t even really an M:I story, more just a standard action plot. Which is weird given that it’s directly inspired by an episode of the original. True, “Mindbend” had the team in the dark about the assassination target and forced to contend with a team member’s brainwashing, but still they had a plan playing out, a plan that succeeded in entrapping the villains despite the setbacks. There was nothing like that here. The team was mostly reactive throughout, aside from the initial impersonations that didn’t seem to have much of a goal behind them.

Even worse, the story contradicts itself. Its big change from the original premise, spelled out in the disc scene, is supposedly that the assassins are people close to their victims, enabling them to get past security because they’re trusted and allowed access. But then Westerly goes and turns this drunken journalist he’s just met into an assassin for a complete stranger. Why even establish that change if it wasn’t going to factor into the story, if indeed it directly contradicted the intended storyline? Like so much else here, it makes no sense. Nothing here is as awful as the atrocious racism of “Cargo Cult,” but the plot is even more incoherent and nonsensical. And it’s the second episode in a row that hasn’t revolved around an intricate plan at all. Sadly, it will not be the last.

“The Gunslinger”: Or just “Gunslinger,” per the DVD set. Teleplay by Ted Roberts, story by Dan Roberts.

We open in what seems like an Old West saloon, but a man in modern clothes is playing poker with Ian McClintock (Michael Greene), who confronts him about being an FBI agent spying on McClintock’s operation. McClintock has his right-hand thug Slade (Patrick Ward) take the agent out to be shot. Slade tosses him a six-shooter to give him a fightin’ chance Old West-style, but the panicky FBI agent seems to have skipped the firearms training at Quantico, and is Boot Hill bound within seconds.

At a skateboard park with a noisy metal ramp, Jim learns that McClintock is a former senator who founded Pontiac, Nevada, an Old West resort, and who still wields much political influence from there. He’s suspected of dealing with terrorists, but investigating him is politically sensitive — so at last we get a mission that makes sense for the IMF. The assignment is to find out whether he’s guilty and bring him to justice if he is. The apartment briefing establishes only that McClintock is obsessed with the Old West (or rather a TV/movie fantasy image thereof, though the episode doesn’t distinguish) and that he cheats at cards — but, says Jim, “two can play at that game.”

Shannon has no trouble embedding herself as a sexy barmaid, while the three younger men convince Slade to take them on as ranch hands. Jim faces McClintock as a fellow gambler and engages him in debate to size him up; he’s a pretty one-dimensional tough guy who has no patience for the bleeding hearts of today and yearns for the rugged macho ideal he imagines to have existed in the past. Jim hardly seems to be roleplaying at all as he questions McClintock’s values, although he allows himself to lose at cards. But the guys are having a harder time getting anywhere with Slade, who’s calling Grant “boy” a lot — so he’s a racist as well as a murdering thug — and Grant has to prove himself by riding a bucking bronco. And… he rides the bronco. Just toughs it out. Where’s the tranquilizing-needle ring, Grant? Where’s the electro-whammy hoozitsinator to calm down the horse? Even the losers from Galactica 1980 were shrewd enough to pull that off. This team’s advance preparation has been terrible lately. (Also, Slade was suspicious of the boys because one of them lacked calluses on his hands. Why didn’t Jim think of that? Also, is it plausible that even drama teacher Nicholas would lack calluses after all the fighting and climbing and gadget-deploying and other hands-on stuff he’s had to do over the past two years?)

Anyway, Shannon overhears a bar patron mention something creeping him out in the mines, which puzzles the team, since they thought the mines were just for show. Turns out there’s a secret chamber and McClintock and Slade are forcing people to dig for something. Nicholas and Grant take a sample of the ore and find nothing but shale and salt. At this point I already figured out what it was they were digging for. Can you, Gentle Reader?

Grant and Nicholas go down into the mines to search for answers, and find Slade threatening to kill a worker. They follow, deciding they need to rescue the guy, but only find the blank wall where the hidden door must be, then hear a shot from the other side. Grant swipes some survey maps to try to figure out where the fake wall leads and what the mine might be for, but all he can determine is that they’re tunneling in the direction of government land whose contents are classified above even IMF clearance.

Max’s role in the game consists mainly of sexually harrassing Shannon, so that she can turn for help to Slade’s henchman Carter (Andrew Clarke), the weak link in the operation. (No wonder. He’s a henchman to a henchman. He’s a henchsquared.) She drugs his drink and gets him to take her home with him, but the next morning he wakes up in a haystack with her and she tells him they had a memorable night in which he told him all his secrets. He insists that if she breathes a word about the burial vault or the rods, he’ll kill her. This, combined with the rest, lets Grant deduce that they’re digging for spent nuclear fuel rods stored in the Nevada salt beds.

Now, up to now, this has been like the previous two (awful) episodes in that it’s just been about the team going in undercover and trying to discover something, which doesn’t really follow the M:I formula of carrying out intricate, multistage plans. But now that Jim knows what’s what, the game is properly on. Literally a game, a no-limit poker game between Jim and McClintock, using one of the niftiest IMF gadgets this show has produced: a deck of blank cards coated with LCD laminate that Grant can control with his computer to display the face of any card he wants. But the other bit of tech Jim has Grant prepare is a set of trank-dart bullets; it looks like he’s expecting to get into a gunfight with McClintock, and he’s practicing his quick draw. And the director does a neat thing here. At first, the angle cuts away from Jim’s face to a close-up on the quick draw, leading us to assume there’s a double faking it — but then we see another quick draw and the camera tilts up to show that, yes, Peter Graves really did it himself. He does it a couple more times in the scene just to drive it home. It’s a reminder that Peter Graves was the younger brother of Matt Dillon himself, Gunsmoke‘s James Arness, and was a regular on a couple of Westerns (Fury and Whiplash) years before he did M:I. (Their birth names were James and Peter Aurness, with a U.)

So Nicholas and Max sneak into the mine, where the workers are bringing out the excavated nuclear fuel rods in containment units, and they use fluorescent dye to fake a radiation leak (because the workers are gullible enough to think that radioactive material glows in the dark — or maybe the writers are) so the workers will evacuate, and then they rig the mine to blow. Meanwhile Jim is cleaning McClintock out, and when they play the final hand, he lets McC discover he’s been cheating, so that the Western-happy ex-Senator will call him out for a gunfight. Just then, the mine blows, and Jim drops character and tells him his plan has been foiled. But McClintock’s ego won’t let him back down even now, although he has Slade do his gunfighting for him. Shannon has drugged Slade’s drink so he won’t be much of a threat, and Jim “kills” him with a trank dart, to McC’s shock — and Jim maneuvers him into confessing that he’s killed people too, in front of witnesses. McClintock tries to draw on Jim, and he hasn’t been drugged — it’s purely a contest of skill. And Jim shoots first. Shannon says she’s called in the FBI to arrest the unconscious villains, and the team rides off on horseback (though not into the sunset, alas).

Well, this threatened to be another episode that didn’t feel like M:I, but it rallied toward the end. It was kind of a self-indulgent exercise, a contrived scenario to let Graves dust off his old Western skills, but on the other hand the ex-senator’s influence and the sensitivity of the mission made it more justifiable as an IMF case than many. The villains were too broadly, exaggeratedly awful, but it was kind of nice to see Jim confronting the villain almost openly rather than from a distance. So while there are a number of things about the episode that are imperfect, the good parts outweigh them. Or maybe I’m just being generous because the last two were so horrible. Either way, this was a satisfying one.

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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (’89) Reviews: “Deadly Harvest”/”Cargo Cult” (spoilers)

“Deadly Harvest”: Written by Jan Sardi. We open in Kansas, where a vaguely Middle Eastern scientist named Jared (Nick Carrafa) is irradiating some seeds with “Danger: Laser Radiation,” and is then interrupted by Laurel, a beautiful blond woman he’s clearly romantically involved with. He gets a call from someone named Jouseff, and once he thinks he’s alone, he tells the man that he’s perfected the virus, which Jouseff wants deployed immediately. But Laurel is listening in on the extension, and he catches her. They have a rather clumsy fight, but she gives a good showing for a while; their fight starts a fire in the lab and he eventually impales her on something, but with her dying breath she traps him inside the “Danger: Laser Radiation” chamber and his image goes all wavery as he screams. Cut from the fire in the lab to the match at the start of the titles.

Then we’re not in Kansas anymore, because Jim is at the San Francisco Zoo (allegedly) to get the disc from a zookeeper who’s really beautiful but a really bad actress. I was distracted by the polar bears behind Jim as he listened, but the gist of it is that Jouseff  (Ritchie Singer) is a minister from a country called Orandaq and also a terrorist; Jared developed a “genetic virus” that would wipe out a nation’s entire wheat crop, and only the fire postponed its release in the US. Jared survived with horrible scarring and needed plastic surgery for his face — which should be convenient for Nicholas, I’m guessing at this point. The mission is to stop the virus, of course. Oh, look, it’s a poly bear!

We’re back to Jim’s apartment again, and it’s another old-school type of briefing where the team already knows the plan. Turns out Laurel’s death has been covered up so Shannon can take her place. Jouseff (weird spelling, but that’s what the captions say  – and his full name is  inexplicably “Jouseff K.”) is coming to the US to retrieve Jared, and of course Nicholas is hidden under the bandages, with Grant as the doctor explaining the extensive facial reconstruction to Jouseff after Max sneaks out the real Jared. Jouseff insists on taking “Jared” back home right away, and Nicholas insists on bringing “Laurel” (Shannon) with him. Once they get there and the bandages come off, Jouseff is initially suspicious of the “changed” face underneath, but Nick and Shannon sell it. Nicholas is wearing fake fingerprints to help convince Jouseff. Later, he and Shannon take a walk through Jouseff’s compound, and his glasses have a microcamera and LCD display so Grant can see what Nicholas sees and text him instructions. This intel gives Grant an idea for breaking himself and Max into the compound so Max can find a way to destroy the deadly wheat crop. It involves hiding Max in a truck full of wheat with a rebreather, something Grant quips “goes totally against your grain.”

Grant also swipes a personnel file so he can text Nicholas data on Jared’s coworkers — one of whom, Isfahan, turns out to be an old flame who resents Shannon. Once Shannon’s alone in the lab, she swaps out the deadly seeds for fakes, but hides inside the laser chamber when Isfahan comes back, and Isfahan closes the door and traps Shannon in there by accident, rendering the whole jealousy beat rather pointless. Shannon has her walkie and calls Jim and Grant, who text Nicholas, who has to contrive a way to save Shannon without letting anyone know she’s in danger, so he has to cut it really close.

Then Nicholas and Shannon erase Jared’s research, which Isfahan discovers, leading to their arrest. This was part of the plan. Max puts gasoline in the sprinkler system to immolate the wheat crop, but he gets in a fight with a guard and his timing device is destroyed — so Jim tells him via communicator how to construct an old-school timer, a bucket hung from the sprinkler with a slow trickle of gasoline falling into it, and tied to a light fixture so that when it gives way, it will pull out the fixture and create sparks to ignite the gasoline. Meanwhile, the speedy and corrupt Orandaq justice system puts Nicholas on trial for sabotaging the plan to give the country a superweapon (with Shannon as a witness for the prosecution), but Jim finally deals himself into the game as an Amnesty International attorney sent to represent Shannon and, upon learning she’s just a witness, offers to represent “Jared” instead. In so doing, he rather heavy-handedly turns suspicion against Jouseff as the saboteur, which would never fly in a legitimate court of law, but the presiding general is basically the “I’m going to allow this” judge from Futurama, okay with every bit of irregular procedure. Maybe he’s so paranoid that it primes him to assume the worst of Jouseff, or maybe he just wants to punish Jouseff for his failure (like Jouseff laser-executed Isfahan earlier for failing to keep the files from being erased). But Nicholas plays along and “confesses” that, yes, he sabotaged the project, but did so under Jouseff’s orders. Once the lab blows up, the general orders the guards to take Jouseff away for execution and take Nicholas and Shannon to prison, but the guards on the latter are Max and Grant in keffiyehs, so the team walks away intact.

A workmanlike episode, a pretty solid M:I caper with a couple of legitimate setbacks for the heroes to overcome, though nothing too serious. Aside from the usual tendency to make Shannon a damsel in distress, and the use of the Arab-terrorist stereotype which was already a tired cliche even back in January 1990 when this debuted, the main drawback is the weakness of Jim’s strategy to turn suspicion against Jouseff in the trial. But as I said, that could perhaps be justified in a guilty-until-proven-innocent system like this one.

“Cargo Cult”: Written by Dale Duguid. At a gold mine in a place called New Belgium, we meet — holy cow, it’s Crais from Farscape! Lani John Tupu plays Michael Otagi, the commissioner of the territory, and his henchman shows him a truck full of corpses, whose disposal they have to put off because there’s a territorial health inspector on site. The inspector hugely overacts his outrage at finding cyanide in use at the gold mine, poisoning the indigenous population, but Crais saves us from any more painful overacting by forcing the inspector to drink his own cyanide sample.

At a church supposedly in San Francisco, Jim trades code phrases with an organist playing Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, which, as every TV/film viewer knows, is the one and only piece of pipe organ music ever composed by anyone, ever. The mission is to stop the poisoning of the “simple hill folk” of New Belgium, one of the last surviving Stone Age populations, from the deadly mining practices the corrupt New Belgium government turns a blind eye to. At Jim’s apartment, he and Grant are briefing Nicholas and Shannon: Crais — err, Otagi — has been building a bridge that will let him get heavy machinery across to the mine, but Max, who’s already been embedded in the mining camp, has been unable to find a way across the temporary  wooden bridge to find out what’s on the other side, because apparently security is really tight. Remember this, folks.

Jim takes the place of a currency broker that the IMF has arranged for Interpol to arrest, with Grant as his bodyguard. The miners are paid in gold, and they’re there to swap it for negotiable currency. There’s a bit of business about Crais’s henchman — who’s actually called Bull — being upset that Jim and Grant are gouging them on the exchange rate. Then Nicholas and Shannon show up as vulcanologists, with permission from the government to go across the bridge to study the volcano, which the Stone Age hill people worship as a god. Somehow it didn’t occur to Jim until this moment that Shannon could be in trouble coming into a camp full of men who haven’t seen a woman in months. He orders Max to get Shannon out of there quickly, but somehow this entails starting a fistfight with Bull, and Shannon nearly gets molested in the resulting melee until Grant fires his Uzi to calm things down. Crais — err, Otagi — approves the order to let Nicholas and Shannon across the bridge, and when Max raises an objection to make it look good, Otagi orders Max to go with them. Jim mutters to Grant that this is too easy.

No sooner does our trio cross the bridge that they’re surrounded by spear-carrying, chalk-covered tribesmen and imprisoned in the village, where they discover Regehr (Adrian Wright), a crashed aviator who’s gotten the villagers to worship him as a cargo-cult-style deity and is working with Otagi to exploit the villagers as slave labor. We’re supposed to be outraged at the racist exploitation of a noble indigenous people, but the villagers are portrayed as the worst kind of television cliche of mindless, bloodthirsty, chanting primitives. Before long, when Regehr complains to Otagi about how quickly his villagers are dying off, Otagi suggests appeasing them with a sacrifice of their captives — though Regehr intends to keep Shannon and make her his goddess wife. He doesn’t consider her consent to be an issue, as we see when he paws at her inside the crashed plane where he lives. It’s unclear why she doesn’t just kick his ass right then and there.

So Jim and Grant are worried when the others don’t report in — for the first time, as far as I recall, their mini-walkie-talkies are named onscreen as “communicators” — and Grant manages to get across the supposedly impassable bridge quite easily by hiding in the truck when Otagi and Bull bring over some more cyanide. He finds the others and then goes to their abandoned truck, where he retrieves a tranquilizer-dart rifle which he uses to knock out some of the villagers, with Nick and Max playing along to make it look like they’re doing it with their supernatural power. Once the men are reunited, they cross the supposedly impassable bridge twice between scenes to pick up Jim and bring him across. They need a plan to rescue Shannon, since now that Regehr has lost face, Otagi suggests he blame his setback on the “witch” Shannon and have her sacrificed to appease the volcano god.

Now, Jim says the key is to turn the villagers against Regehr and Otagi. But heaven forbid that should involve actually engaging with them as people and helping them take responsibility for solving their own problems. Of course not. They’re subhuman primitives too stupid to reason, so the solution is to manipulate and trick them the same way the bad guys are.

So Jim and the others then go back across the supposedly impassable bridge to the camp to get some explosives to fake a volcanic eruption, then the younger men go back across again. Grant goes to get a laser projector out of the same compartment where the dart gun was, even though it manifestly wasn’t there before. It’s magic! He’s somehow able to modify it into a hologram generator even though it apparently wasn’t designed for that.

Then Jim convinces Otagi to take him across the bridge (though why he’d need to when it’s so damn easy is unclear). Otagi takes him prisoner, though, and intends to throw him into the sacrifice as a sorcerer. So now Jim and Shannon are surrounded by spear-carrying tribesmen. But conveniently, the darts Grant used only knock people out for exactly four hours to the second, independent of individual body mass or metabolism, so Jim is able to wave his hand over the “dead” tribesmen and return them to life. And then they blow the dynamite in the volcano crater — causing all the miners to evacuate the camp, leaving Max free to rig the cyanide shed to blow up — and Grant projects an image of his face onto the smoke (makes more sense than their usual hologram-in-midair tricks) while Nicholas uses Regehr’s PA equipment (which he used to fake volcanic rumblings from the displeased god) to play his voice telling the tribesmen to let the prisoners go and turn against Regehr. So the team gets away, and then Regehr and Otagi get away in their truck, which just happens to be going across the bridge when the explosion goes off, and in a mix of bad bluescreen shots and a mediocre miniature shot, the bad guys fall to their fiery doom. (Not to worry — Grant says the explosion will “ionize the cyanide to 2000 degrees,” turning it into harmless smoke. Although I think this is completely untrue: “Sodium cyanide is not combustible itself, but contact with acids releases highly flammable hydrogen cyanide gas. Fire may produce irritating or poisonous gases. Runoff from fire control water may give off poisonous gases.” This is supposed to make things better for the locals??) Jim is pleased that the hill people will again be “untouched by man.” So, um, they don’t qualify as “man”?

Ohh, this one was painful. First off, let’s be clear about one thing: The portrayal here of a “cargo cult” as a bunch of foolish, superstitious primitives worshipping white men and the products of their civilization as  divine because they’re so incomprehensibly advanced, and thus reduced to hapless pawns of any white or civilized person with an agenda, is grotesquely wrong. Cargo cults were founded by members of Melanesian cultures as a way of co-opting the material wealth of colonizing civilizations as a symbol for reasserting their own cultural autonomy and agency; as Wikipedia puts it, “Since the modern manufacturing process is unknown to them, members, leaders, and prophets of the cults maintain that the manufactured goods of the non-native culture have been created by spiritual means, such as through their deities and ancestors. These goods are intended for the local indigenous people, but the foreigners have unfairly gained control of these objects through malice or mistake.” So far from being blind submission to superior outsiders, it’s a reaction against their material superiority, an attempt to claim their goods and symbols for indigenous use and restore the traditional social order that contact has disrupted.

Now, the horrible racial condescension, the thoughtless dehumanization of the people who were supposedly being saved and protected, was bad enough — and only slightly mollified by the fact that the mastermind of their exploitation was played by a part-Samoan actor. And the treatment of Shannon made it even worse. I’ve talked about how often she’s cast as the damsel in distress, but she’s never spent the majority of an episode under the ongoing threat of rape before. But the rest of the episode doesn’t work either. It mostly ceases to be an M:I episode after the first act, becoming more of a cliched action plot out of a B-movie. Going through all the usual ritual to set up the team’s plan seems rather pointless when the plan is scuttled so early on; maybe they should’ve taken a cue from the fifth-season episodes that started in medias res with the plan already underway. And so much about the story is inconsistent — first the bridge is impassable and what’s happening on the other side is a total mystery, but as soon as the audience is let in on the secret, the commute across the bridge becomes effortless. Also, Regehr and Otagi’s men are able to command the villagers in English, yet at other points, the team members are able to carry on conversations in English without the adjacent villagers knowing what they’re saying. The villagers are props rather than people, so their ability to comprehend is at the convenience of the writer. This is a bad episode on every level, but the racism is enough to unseat “The Devils” and earn “Cargo Cult” the title of worst episode ever.

At least, I hope this is as bad as it gets. Four more to go…

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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (’89) Reviews: “Banshee”/”For Art’s Sake” (spoilers)

“Banshee”: Writer Ted Roberts takes us to the land of Irish stereotypes and fake accents, Bally-Na-Gragh in Northern Ireland, where jaunty, cliched Irish music plays and tweedy Mr. O’Rourke (Rob Steele) actually says “Top o’ the mornin’ to ye” when greeting a young woman leading various old people–from both sides of the historic Protestant-Catholic conflict–on a trip in a tour bus. O’Rourke gives her a crate full of beers, but one of them has a bomb in it.  He seems cheerful about this at the time, but later, when he hooks up with his boss Brian McCarron (Peter Adams) to watch the pensioners go to their reward, he laments that there’s no luck in harmin’ old people, whereupon McCarron tells him he’s a superstitious fool, and already I can practically sense Jim’s team warming up their hologram generators.

At a model train yard (the big kind), Jim gets the disc and learns that the bombing has rekindled sectarian tensions (which this 1989 episode optimistically suggested had been mostly resolved already), with the sides blaming each other for the act of terrorism, and that McCarron is an arms dealer suspected of staging the bombing to bolster his business. Jim’s mission is to “bring McCarron to justice, end his trade in arms, and bring the warring factions of Bally-Na-Gragh to the conference table.” Anything else while you’re at it?

The team sets up what Nicholas calls a “command post” in an automated lighthouse before the briefing scene, which introduces two young firebrands, Skelton and Carney, who represent the rival sides in microcosm — it doesn’t matter which is which, and their role is fairly token. They even clash in McCarron’s pub and are warned by O’Rourke to stay on opposite sides of a line — yes, there’s an actual line down the middle. Shannon in the pub as a singer, and is the only team member faking an Irish accent, which I’d say isn’t very good if it weren’t for the fact that none of them are, with Adams’s accent as McCarron being the worst of all. Nicholas is her manager, but that doesn’t really matter since it’s just to get him in the door. Jim and Max show up and offer a wager for anyone who wants to fight Max, and Grant comes in as a surly sailor and takes the bet. The fight is a distraction for Nicholas to spy on McCarron as he takes one of the two token firebrands to the cellar to sell him guns, which he’s already done for the other guy. What elaborate, clever IMF spy technique does Nicholas use to spy on the meeting? He peeks through the cellar window. After he sees how McCarron locks his hidden cache, Nick moves in to sabotage all the guns. Surprising that Nicholas is doing the “Barney” work while Grant is doing the “Rollin” work, an inversion of their original roles. More evidence that the producers were recognizing Phil Morris as the MVP of the show. But Shannon’s also using the distraction to plant speakers and other gimmicks in the tavern.

So afterward, Jim lets drop to McCarron that he deals in arms, and McC takes the bait readily, while Shannon regales the superstitious O’Rourke with tales of how if old people are murdered, being so close to death as it is, they’re given “the key” to come back and haunt people. It’s a weird idea, that being near death anyway would make it more outrageous to be killed — not that I think anyone’s life is worth less than anyone else’s, of course, but if someone did believe some lives were worth more, you’d think they’d favor people who had more life expectancy to be deprived of. But that’s beside the point here, since O’Rourke is basically a suggestible idiot who’ll believe any superstition even if it’s one he’s never heard before. Case in point: When Grant rejects Jim and McCarron’s offer to go into the arms business and storms off, McC says he knows too much, and when Jim sends Max out to fake-kill Grant, McC orders O’Rourke along to finish the job, preparing to shoot him a second time after Max has fake-shot him once. So, to prevent that, Max improvises a superstition that “It’s bad luck to kill a black man.” Really, Max? You went there? Anyway, O’Rourke swallows this invented superstition hook, line, and sinker, and lets Max deliver the second (fake) shot. That night, the team regales O’Rourke with holograms of Shannon as a banshee, and he completely falls apart and begs for mercy. This cowardly idiot is the easiest mark the IMF has ever taken on. McCarron comes down to see what O’Rourke is blathering about and doesn’t believe him.

Later, Max and Nicholas convince both the firebrands to come to the lighthouse to buy arms, and Shannon tips McC off, prompting him to arrange with O’R to go kill them both. The team knocks the firebrands out and handcuffs them together to a table, telling them they can either fight or talk. They also arrange for McCarron’s car to break down near an old church, and hurl the banshee illusion at him and O’Rourke, though where the projectors are hidden is unrevealed. O’Rourke breaks easily and runs off, loudly and stiltedly declaring his intention to warn the firebrands, which just gets him a shotgun blast in the back. But McC turns out to be just as superstitious all of a sudden, since the banshee illusion, plus a recording of the song the old folks were singing when they died (how did the team know what song they were singing, and how did they get a recording of it?), drives him to the old church, where he pleads for sanctuary. Jim shows up as the driver of the carriage of the dead and prompts McC to confess that he killed the pensioners to sell arms, a confession that the firebrands are shown live on video, leading them to instantly set aside generations of grudges and agree to talk, after they’ve taken care of McCarron.

Wow, this was bad. It was broad and caricatured, the marks were too easy, the accents and music were too stereotyped, and the video effects were staggeringly awful, especially a matte shot of the lighthouse at night with a stormy sky roughly matted in and an animated yellow lighthouse beam that looked kind of like a War of the Worlds heat ray.

There’s some disagreement over the music credit; the episode itself credits Davis as usual, but IMDb credits Neil Argo, also giving him an “additional music – uncredited” listing for 16 episodes of the series. I don’t know what to make of that. Aside from the hokey “Irish” music, the score doesn’t sound any different from the usual, using Davis’s truncated version of “The Plot.” Perhaps Argo was Davis’s orchestrator or assistant, and on this one he did the bulk of the work himself?

“For Art’s Sake”: At a New York gallery, a ninja-attired art thief descends on a rope and uses infrared goggles to see the lasers protecting a painting — your standard TV/movie laser grid designed with nice big gaps that thieves can get through, instead of something sensible like motion detectors covering the whole space in front of the painting — and he uses a fancy cane with an extending knife blade to cut the painting out of its frame (somehow he only has to cut the sides and not the top and bottom). A guard interrupts, and he uses the knife cane as a spear to kill the guard. Then he takes off the mask, and it’s Alex Cord — the first actor to play Dylan Hunt in Gene Roddenberry’s Genesis II pilot movie, which I’ve reviewed on this site. As it happens, this episode’s writer John Whelpley would later write several episodes for the later incarnation of Dylan Hunt in Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda. Anyway, Cord flips his black ninja jacket (ninjacket?) around to become a white tuxedo jacket, hides the rolled-up painting in his cane, and goes downstairs to the party that’s already underway in the gallery. Wait a minute — if he was already a guest at the party and could freely come and go, why did he need to do the ninja-break-in thing? (Mainly so we’d recognize him in ninja gear later in the episode, I suppose, but it’s still awkward.)

At a ballet class, Jim does the code phrase exchange with an instructor played by Chelsea Brown, who was the first murdered IMF veteran in last season’s “Reprisal.” (By the way, the IMDb entry for this episode misspells her name as “Shelsea Brown,” so that Chelsea Brown is not credited for this appearance on her own page. If anyone reading this has IMDb editing privileges, could you please fix this?) Turns out Cord’s character is a hotelier named Travers, who’s believed to have made his fortune through art thievery. He’s colluding with Ocha (David Bradshaw), the minister of culture (read: propaganda) of the Latin American country of San Marcos; the stolen painting is their national treasure, a painting of their namesake patron saint, and their president wants it destroyed while on display in America so the US will be embarrassed. The mission is to get it back and bring Travers to justice.

Doing the briefing in the “command post” instead of Jim’s apartment seems to be a steady thing now, but for once it’s a traditional briefing scene where the team already knows most of the basics and they’re just touching base, clarifying details, and showing off Collier gadgetry whose purpose the audience doesn’t yet know. Shannon goes in as an art buyer who catches Travers’s eye (she’s got bigger ’80s hair than usual, but it looks good on her), letting him outbid her on a painting but making it costly to beat her. That gets him interested, among other things (though for once she’s not leading with her cleavage). Meanwhile, Max and Grant break into Travers’s penthouse by climbing up on top of an elevator to reach his private level, and seeing Grant climbing in an elevator shaft felt kind of like old times with Barney, though it was brief. They bug his computer and download the memory of his fax machine (interesting), but find no stash of art, so they have to try another scheme.

While entertaining Shannon at the museum, Travers encounters Ocha and takes him aside, threatening to renege on his deal unless the San Marcos president gives him coastal land for a hotel. Travers spots Shannon eavesdropping and threatens her, until she talks herself out of it.  She lets him figure out that she’s a fence, and having learned that he’s totally obsessed with Edgar Degas, she lets on that she knows the whereabouts of an unknown Degas. The purpose of Grant’s gadget, a “simulator,” is to use a computer program to extrapolate the essentials of Degas’s style and use a, err, paint-jet printer to create a convincing Degas pastiche to tempt Travers.

Jim, playing the painting’s owner, meets with Travers and Shannon in a faked Central Park, with an impressionistic rendering of the Manhattan skyline matted in over the far side of a lake — more resembling the view of the skyline from somewhere in New Jersey than Central Park (and way on the right, I think they’ve put the Empire State Building right next to the World Trade Center). And in nearer reverse-angle shots, there’s a row of low houses beyond the edge of the park.

Mission Impossible "For Art's Sake" fake Central Park

And I fixed the aspect ratio this time!

Anyway, Travers is convinced enough by the painting to call in a discreet appraiser to confirm it, but Jim holds out for an unreasonably high price, forcing Travers to steal it later on — coming upon Shannon in the bubble bath and apparently stabbing her to death, though she had a knife-proof vest and blood packs on under the bubbles. The faux Degas has a tracking device, and the team follows Travers down into the maintenance levels under his hotel in hopes of finding his secret gallery. Amazingly, John E. Davis uses nearly the complete melody of Schifrin’s “The Plot” to score this portion, leaving off only the last three bars. I think it’s the first time he’s ever used that much of it. But the team loses the signal when Travers enters his vault-like gallery. A new plan is needed!

So NYPD captain Jim and Interpol agent Max go to Ocha, telling him the painting has been recovered. An angered Ocha calls Travers, who assures him that he still has the original and whatever’s been found must be a forgery, inviting Ocha to come see for himself. The team uses an entertaining bit of slapstick to deal with Ocha: dog-walker Shannon tangles his legs in her leashes, so he falls down behind Grant’s hot dog stand, which opens up to reveal Nicholas disguised as Ocha, who trank-darts him and swaps places with him in seconds, all under his unwitting chauffeur’s nose. So Travers shows his private gallery to Nicholas instead. (And Bradshaw is another actor who’s well cast as someone Nicholas is impersonating, having a similar facial structure.) Nick takes photos of everything with his lapel-pin camera, but Travers won’t let him take the St. Marcos painting without a signed document giving him the coastal land. And without Travers’s palmprint, nobody can get to the painting without a booby trap exploding. Another new plan is needed!

So Grant and Max break into the gallery when Travers isn’t there (Nick caught the access code), Grant planting flame bars and hologram generators while Max recovers the stolen art and replaces them with hastily printed copies. Jim and Nicholas release the real Ocha, telling him he hit his head on the sidewalk when he fell, and unleash him on Travers. When he arrives, they start the fake fire and set off the vault alarm, leading Travers and Ocha down to find the gallery seemingly burning. Ocha sees that Travers cares most about the Degas, so he threatens to destroy it unless he gets the St. Marcos painting. Travers gives hims that painting, and Ocha, who wants it destroyed, conveniently tosses it into the holographic fire (lucky break that he didn’t aim for one of the real fires). Travers kills him with the knife-cane, and the team assembles before him to gloat and adds insult to injury by igniting the fake Degas before leaving him for the cops to find.

This is a fun episode, one of the most entertaining of the season, with an intricate plot, some interesting setbacks requiring readjustment on Jim’s part, some pleasantly old-school M:I touches, and a nicely sexy turn by Shannon (although she still gets damsel-in-distressed a bit more than I like). But my main problem with it arises from something that I was wondering about from the start and that was actually spelled out in dialogue in the episode. When Ocha calls Travers after the Interpol scam, he says that if the American government recovers the painting rather than losing it, then San Marcos will fail to score its propaganda points and the plan will be ruined. Okay, so in that case, why is the American government using an IMF team whose involvement will be disavowed if it’s discovered? As with “The Haunting” last season, this is a case where you’d think the government would want its involvement openly known. So this is one of those cases that doesn’t really make sense as an IMF mission — especially with the disavowal disclaimer included in the briefing, something that the original series usually skipped in episodes dealing with domestic criminal cases.

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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (’89) Reviews: “Target Earth”/”The Fuehrer’s Children” (Spoilers)

“Target Earth” is an oddly sci-fi name for an episode of this series, but it’s written by former Star Trek scribe Stephen Kandel — also the only writer other than Walter Brough to contribute to both the original and revival series, having been the seventh season’s story editor and scripting the excellent “The Deal” and “The Question” as well as the more disappointing “Incarnate” and “The Fountain,” plus the okay “Movie” and “The Fighter.”

We’re back in Australia again, at what’s supposedly the Outback launch site of the first privately built and operated space shuttle — although the private shuttle looks exactly like the American one so they can use the stock footage. There’s a weird shot panning down what looks like a life-sized wall mural of the shuttle (visibly 2-D) to where a blonde woman, Alina (Gosia Dobrowolska), is dragging an unconscious man under the shuttle’s rockets. Alina then goes to Mission Control, where they’re puzzled that the pilot is missing this important test firing, and she cheerfully orders the rocket ignition that vaporizes that very pilot.

Jim’s briefing today is by Robert Louis Stevenson, or at least that’s where he finds it shelved once a librarian directs him there. The shuttle, called Frontier One and operated by the Eurospace Consortium (whose initials are ESS for some reason), is carrying a powerful laser for destroying orbital debris, taking mineral samples, and nice stuff like that, but the IMF suspects that the disappearance and suspected murder of the pilot was part of a plan to take over the shuttle for terrorist purposes. They don’t know of a specific group or individual behind this, they’re just speculating, but they’re still sending in Jim’s team to find out, an oddly nebulous mission profile for them. And I hope the self-destructing disc didn’t start a fire in the book stacks.

The apartment scene establishes that Jim has done something I’ve often thought would be a good idea: Instead of having everyone just show up on the same day, he’s already had Grant and Shannon embedded at the ESS center for three weeks by the time he briefs Nicholas and Max — Grant as one of the scientists, Shannon as one of the two candidates for replacement pilot, with Grant coaching her through her radio earring. Jim goes in as a NASA observer, Max as a technician, and Nicholas as a doctor (or something) who’ll approve the winning candidate. Shannon has her hair pulled back in a severe bun to play a cool, competent professional, and I’ll be damned if it isn’t one of her sexiest looks yet. Anyway, her main competition is Rhine (Lewis Fitz-Gerald), and for some reason they’re competing in a piloting simulation in the actual shuttle cockpit, with Grant helping Shannon cheat to win. The simulation involves dodging asteroids, a situation that any space shuttle pilot would have little chance of ever encountering. It’s really unclear what the plan was going to be once they got Shannon the job; evidently they had no intention of having her actually fly the thing into space. Because they’re all shocked when Alina takes control and remotely launches the shuttle — which for some reason was fully fueled and powered up for launch even though it was just a simulation. Shannon Reed becomes the first IMF agent in space (that we know of!), and Rhine turns out to be a traitor, working for Robard (Eli Danker), a beret-wearing, chain-smoking revolutionary of unspecified origin whose band of soldiers storms in and takes over the command center. Robard is mad that Alina sent Shannon up with Rhine. She explains she figured Shannon was useful for her (cover identity’s) laser expertise, but Robard still kills Alina for taking initiative without clearing it with him.

Rhine uses the laser to blow up a communication satellite drifting past the shuttle’s viewports, even though those orbit 22,000 miles higher than any shuttle has ever gone. Robard threatens the world on TV, saying he’ll blow up all communications satellites unless America cedes control of a weapons satellite he intends to use to defend the borders of his own nation, which he doesn’t bother to identify. Cut to NORAD, where a general who’s poorly hiding his Australian accent orders a missile strike on the space center if they can’t resolve the problem otherwise.

Grant communicates with Shannon to get her to sabotage the laser, and she has to find ways to respond without tipping Rhine off that she’s talking to someone. (I remember when I first saw this episode, I had the idea that if I ever wrote an undercover agent in that kind of a situation, I’d have her, or him, establish a habit of muttering to herself under her breath, so that it wouldn’t seem suspicious when the need to communicate arose. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten around to using that idea, but it’s interesting what you remember after so long.) Anyway, the sabotage works, so Rhine makes her spacewalk to fix it — something her cover identity is trained in, but Shannon isn’t. Jim says Shannon is “gutsy enough,” as if that alone were sufficient qualification for performing an EVA. But her “spacewalk” consists of tiptoeing slowly across the set of the top of the shuttle — I guess it’s the old magnetic-boots dodge — and then standing next to the laser to fix it. After which her tether gets snagged (I guess it didn’t get the memo about guts equalling competence) so she has to unhook it, whereupon Rhine swings the laser around to knock into her (dude, you’re just gonna break it again!), and she goes spinning off into space like Sandra Bullock in Gravity. Except that when we come back from commercial, she’s suddenly stabilized, despite a complete lack of thrusters, and perfectly oriented so that purging her oxygen valve will jet her back to the shuttle. (I wonder, are spacesuits even designed to be able to purge oxygen? Seems kind of counterproductive.)

Meanwhile, Jim and Max have planted the notion that there are loose radioactive materials on the base — none of the techs bother to question this, perhaps because they sense these guys are helping them, or more likely because they’re extras who aren’t being paid to do dialogue. They fake a radioactive steam leak next to Robard, get him into the bio lab for decontamination, and use a rigged cigarette to knock him out so that Nicholas can impersonate him using the mask generator that Grant just happens to have with him even though they didn’t know they’d need it. Nicholas-as-Robard orders the troops to follow Max to a “bunker” against the missile strike, so Max can lock them up. Once Shannon knocks Rhine out by purging the airlock to suck him into it (more wasted oxygen) and locking him inside, she uses the shuttle’s relay to patch Jim into NORAD, where he gives his “government cryptonym” — US Alpha 716 Charlie — and tells the general the base is secure. (The general doesn’t actually confirm the cryptonym with anyone first, though.) Then it’s just a matter of Shannon single-handedly flying the shuttle home, which she somehow does effortlessly.

Okay, so the spacey stuff is rather ridiculous, the special effects are cheesy as hell, and Earth is never actually a target, unless you count the part of Earth that the ESS base was on, which was targeted by people on another part of Earth. Still, despite all that, this is a fairly good format-breaking episode of the type seen mainly in the fifth season, where the original mission (ill-defined though it was) is blown in the first act and the rest is all improvisation. Shannon continues her streak of being the team member most commonly placed in danger, but she’s also the one who must do the most single-handedly to resolve the situation, so it’s a strong showing for her. And even John E. Davis’s music is relatively interesting for a change, since he’s doing some more spacey stuff, a bit grander than his usual scoring. All in all, I rather enjoyed it, though parts of it made me wince.

“The Fuehrer’s Children”: Or perhaps “Fuhrer’s,” as it’s spelled on the DVDs. The first of two episodes written by supervising producer Frank Abatemarco, who would later write Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s abysmal “Man of the People,” but then redeem himself by co-writing the classic “Chain of Command” 2-parter.

We open in Oregon where white supremacist Richard Kester is holding a meeting of his White People’s Coalition and spewing a nauseatingly vicious racist screed (complete with the n-word) to his eager followers. Kester is played by Albert Salmi, who was such a ubiquitous character actor in the ’60s that I’m surprised this is his first M:I appearance. Anyway, Kester’s daughter Eva (Nancy Black) informs him that there’s a “race traitor” in their midst, a government agent they capture and hang.

Peter Graves is showing off his equestrian skills again, for Jim gets the disc at a show-jumping ground from a fellow rider. It’s hidden in a haystack by a jumping fence — again with the flammable locations for the self-destructing discs! But “flammable” is the word, for Kester’s WPC is the most violent Neo-Nazi faction around, and he’s meeting in Germany with other international Neo-Nazi groups to unite them under his leadership and start a global race war. The mission is to discredit him and undermine the Neo-Nazi movements.

Jim sets Shannon up as a manager at the inn near Hamburg where the meeting is being held, while Jim himself takes the place of a real South African computer expert Kester has reached out to for help (no word on how they intercepted the real guy, who looks nothing like Jim). The others are basically responsible for tracking down the “secret weapon” Kester supposedly has to support his cause. There’s a setback when Eva catches Grant bugging Kester’s suite just before Kester arrives. Jim is fortunately there too, and is able to talk Kester out of shooting Grant then and there, but they lock him up to be the prey for a special “hunt” the next day.

Then Kester goes out to a freighter he’s owned for a dozen years, just sailed in from the Philippines. Max, Nicholas, and Shannon have already come onto the ship as customs inspectors, and here’s a blast from the past: Their cover was that they were looking for contamination by the Mediterranean fruit fly virus — a slightly garbled reference to the problems that the US and other nations had in the 1980s with infestations of the invasive “medfly” species (the actual flies themselves, not a virus), including a deliberate release of medflies in California as an ecoterrorist act in the summer of ’89, just before this season of the show. Anyway, Nicholas follows Kester and discovers his “secret weapon”: Horrifyingly, it’s a room full of young boys that he’s held captive on this ship since abducting them as infants, raising them to know nothing but his Nazi propaganda, the perfect Hitler Youth. They’ve been trained by Kester’s man Vogel (John Bell), who leads them in singing a Nazi song (a familiar one, but I can’t place it) in their sweet little boys’-choir voices, while Nicholas and Shannon look on in horror through a window. It’s really rather horrific.

Meanwhile, Kester talks to Jim about setting up a computer network to allow hate groups to communicate worldwide. Oh, for the days when that was still science fiction. Jim proposes connecting it to the world’s financial network, both because it’s the most secure and because it would let him set up a program to embezzle insignificant amounts from many banks and thereby steal a lot of money undetected. To make this work, though, the team needs to rescue Grant, who’s been strung up by his feet by Vogel and had a tracker put around his neck so the kids can easily find him — quite an unsporting “hunt,” though that’s the least of the things wrong with it. Nicholas and Shannon knock out Vogel and Eva, and Nicholas somehow has a Vogel mask all handy and intercepts the boys before they can shoot Grant full of crossbow bolts. Then they take the boys back to their cabin and Grant introduces himself as a friendly human being and begins to show them that what they’ve been taught all their lives is a lie. It doesn’t prove hard at all to change their minds once they’re faced with the benign truth.

So Jim is able to make the funds transfer successfully (or Grant is, doing it remotely so it looks like Jim did it), and all the Neo-Nazi leaders agree to put their financial info on the special cards he hands out. This will let the team bankrupt their organizations. And Eva almost escapes, but Shannon chases her down and recaptures her, while Grant and Nicholas-as-Vogel give the kiddies a lesson about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. So that night, when Kester proudly presents his Hitler Youth to the waiting Neo-Nazis, they begin singing a song about the Rev. Dr. King while Grant hijacks the video projection to show the “I have a dream” speech and clips of John and Bobby Kennedy, and Jim and Nicholas slip out in the tumult as the other, about-to-be-financially ruined Neo-Nazis turn violently on Kester.

Okay, so it’s hokey and unsubtle, but I love it. What Kester did to those children is probably the most horrific and sick thing any M:I villain has ever done, and it creates a sense of a more palpable threat from this group than you usually get from M:I villains. And while the racial message is kind of awkward, I love it that this becomes a story about rescuing and redeeming the children, about good ideas winning out over evil ones. It gives it a more optimistic feel than M:I episodes usually have. And seeing Nazis get their comeuppance never gets old. The climax reminds me of a line I wrote in Only Superhuman, about some of the things that Emerald Blair’s Freakshow gang did on behalf of persecuted transhumans: “They cracked the computer net of the Fourth Reich Neo-Nazi habitat, wiped their database, and replaced it all with endlessly looping video files of The Great Dictator, Casablanca, and The Producers.” I wonder if maybe I unconsciously remembered this episode when I wrote that.

New Sherlock Holmes essay on Locus Roundtable; Publication date revealed for “Butterfly’s Wing”

Announcements about two things what I wrote:

First, the editor of Locus Roundtable, the blog of the Locus Online webzine, invited me to write a column for him on whatever subject I wanted, and I submitted an essay comparing the two current Sherlock Holmes television series, “The Problem with Sherlock in a Post-Elementary World.” Its publication is a bit delayed so it’s not as timely as it was when I first conceived it, but at least it’s finally out there. Since I neglected to mention it in the essay itself, I want to thank fellow local author and Holmes expert Dan Andriacco for offering some useful information about Holmes’s screen history which I mentioned in the article.

Second, the folks at Buzzy Mag have informed me of the publication date for my novelette “The Caress of a Butterfly’s Wing,” which I announced back in April. The story is scheduled to go out on November 14, 2014. It’s already been through the first stage of editing, and I feel that editor Laura Anne Gilman’s story notes have helped me improve the tale considerably.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (’89) Reviews: “Countdown”/”War Games” (spoilers)

“Countdown”: Written by Chip Hayes.

We meet religiously motivated terrorist Su Lin (Julie Ow) praying to a photo of her Dalai-Lama-like Holy One, who looks a lot like Nicholas in glasses and a pointy hat — oops, spoilers. A subordinate arrives in a truck with a stolen item, and when it turns out he peeked and saw what the item is, Su Lin kills him. Because it’s a French-made nuclear warhead. Jim has a one-sided code exchange with a mime in a park (praising his art, as if anyone would believe that), and the Voice on Disc tells him that Su Lin stole the warhead on behalf of General Xang Kai (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa in an eyepatch — IMDb calls him Vang Kai, but I’m going by the subtitles and the pronunciation). He’s one of several military strongmen ruling the fictitious and oddly Anglophone Asian country of Kangji (of course, all M:I foreigners speak accented English), and he plans to nuke the capital and blame it on America in order to kill off his competitors and seize absolute power. He got Su Lin to help him in exchange for a promise to rescind the Holy One’s exile. For some reason, Voice finds it necessary to describe Su Lin as “beautiful but deadly,” as well as encouraging Jim to stop the general’s “evil plan.” He’s in a melodramatic mood today. It’s also the first of three times in this act that she’ll be called beautiful or a beauty, though I don’t think she quite lives up to the hype.

The plan is to take advantage of Su Lin’s religious loyalties, but Jim warns the team that Xang Kai would kill her as casually as swatting a fly — and would do the same to any of them. But when Su Lin meets with the general and tells him where she hid the bomb, she points out that he won’t just kill her because he can’t know what plans for retribution she might already have in place. So she leaves intact — but Xang Kai tells his aide Major Chung (John O’Brien) to swap out her control keypad on the bomb for his own.

Su Lin plans to board a train to where the Holy One is staying. Nicholas rather crassly impersonates a Buddhist to convince a monk to tell him where that is, and Shannon arranges to make contact with Su Lin on the train, with Max running interference with Chung, who has orders to kill Su Lin if she seems to be making contact with anyone. The team rigs a track signal to make the train stop suddenly, and Shannon bumps into Su Lin and uses a knockout-needle ring on her. Su Lin wakes up in the hospital ward the team is using (they’ve convinced the hospital that they’re running an inoculation program), and is told she was in a train wreck that killed over a dozen followers of the Holy One. Grant plays a fellow patient, a mercenary who bonds with her in their mutual resentment of Chung (played by a masked Nicholas, who comes to threaten them both). He also uses the latest IMF gadget to digitally edit the general’s speeches to fake a news broadcast where he says he’s rescinding the Holy One’s exile so he can commiserate with the victims of the “tragedy.” Horrified that the general has tricked her into nuking her own religious leader, Su Lin convinces Grant to help her break out. The team contrives to let her escape with Grant, then track them to a shrine in the center of town,where the bomb is hidden. (It’s a shrine to past leaders, not the Buddhist temple.) Su Lin is dismayed to discover the keypad has been swapped out for a tamper-proof one she can’t disarm. Pulling at Grant’s lapels, just when it looks like they’re heading for a romance beat (since Grant is clearly into her), she exposes the tracker under his clothes, accuses him of being a spy for Xang Kai, wallops him good, and runs off screaming bloody vengeance against the general. Chung guns her down before Grant can catch up, and Grant grieves over her corpse. Hmm, I guess the “beautiful” part trumps the whole murdering-terrorist part.

So now the team needs a Plan B to get the general to deactivate the bomb. And it entails more crass manipulation of sincere believers, as Nicholas starts a rumor that the Holy One is at the shrine in order to get them to go there (right toward the bomb? Oh, nice, guys!), then briefly dresses up as the H.O. to make an appearance before the believers (complete with fake epicanthic folds — something I’d hoped they would’ve stopped doing by 1989). Jim has Grant use the video-editing software to make a tape of Su Lin telling the general that she’s stopped the bomb’s timer. This provokes Xang Kai and Chung to go to the shrine, where they find the bomb still counting down with minutes to spare, so the general is forced to enter his shutdown code. He and Chung conveniently incriminate themselves with their dialogue, which Grant’s bug broadcasts over the shrine speakers, leading to a people’s arrest of the bad guys and a “not with a bang but with a whimper” quip from Jim.

Okay, so there’s some cultural insensitivity and a few bits of silliness in this one, plus a labored attempt to set Su Lin up as a romantic interest for Grant, but mostly “Countdown” is a strong and effective episode, a solid M:I story with high stakes. It continues what’s evidently a trend this season to have the plans go awry and the team forced to improvise and adapt, but for once the adaptation led to a second clever caper rather than being an excuse for more conventional action storytelling, so it really feels like an authentic M:I story in the vein of the best of the original series. And it seems to me that the producers are building up Grant’s role to take more advantage of Phil Morris’s talent, since here he was in the key roleplaying capacity that would normally go to Nicholas. Morris continues to be the one cast member who gets the most chances to emote, and for once it’s not involving his father.

“War Games” is the last episode of the revival to be written by original series veteran Walter Brough. General Szabos (Kevin Miles) of the Eastern European socialist republic of Sardavia (as if M:I-verse Eastern Europe weren’t crowded enough already) is conducting war games, but a junior officer (later revealed to be a US agent) is asking questions about the amounts of live ammunition and such, suspecting there’s more going on. So Col. Garva (Lewis Fiander) contacts Szabos, who arranges to have the officer’s jeep blown up. Jim gets the briefing in a restored Rolls, learning that Szabos is using his war games as a cover for an impending invasion of neighboring Bucaraine — against the wishes of his own superiors in the Politburo — and has ballistic missiles ready to launch. The team has very little time to prevent the war. Fortunately, Szabos, like his “war hero” Hitler, is nuts for astrology, and that’s Shannon’s way in.

Jim and Nicholas play good cop/bad cop as UN observers of the war games (Jim sympathetic and appeasing, Nicholas suspicious and hostile) so they can get pictures of the big board in the war room and scans of the circuitry behind it (Nicholas’s pen is a digital camera, an advanced technology for 1989). Grant is their driver. Max tries to break into the military compound to find the hidden missiles, but an alert captain catches him promptly and interrogates him. Surprisingly, this turns out not to be part of the plan, but somehow Max and Grant already have the necessary tech to break him out (Max has a beacon in his coat button, and Grant has a tracker that turns into a gun that fires an explosive round and blows out the cell wall). They almost catch Grant when he hides Max in the limo’s trunk, but Max has hidden behind a false panel by the time the soldiers get the trunk open.

Meanwhile, Shannon is playing a countess related to the deposed royal family, and the haughty persona Jane Badler puts on was like seeing her play Diana from V once again, albeit with a faux accent. She makes subversive comments and insinuates knowing what the murdered officer/agent knew about the invasion plans, in order to get herself arrested, and then impresses Szabos with her astrological technobabble, convincing him that his auspicious horoscope was the result of his astrologer’s incompetence. I think this is mainly just to get his attention, since the key thing she does is to say the agent disarmed the missiles, so that Garva will go check on them and the team can follow him to them, whereupon they disarm the missiles themselves. Then Grant sneaks in behind the big board in the war room and rigs it so he can send false orders to the troops, making them retreat, while showing Szabos the invasion he wants to see. The one hitch is that Szabos has had Shannon taken out into the field to be a target. Max rescues her, but their jeep is being targeted, until Grant changes the target to Garva’s bunker. So much for Garva.

Grant makes the missiles self-destruct, but Szabos believes he’s successfully bombed the enemy and advanced across the border, and with the Rubicon crossed, he makes a statement on TV ordering the Bucarainians to surrender and promising to overthrow the Sardavian Politburo — who of course promptly come to arrest him while the team saunters away.

Not a bad one — a pretty classic type of M:I caper, and continuing the season’s practice of having things genuinely go wrong with the plans. That hasn’t happened this often since season 5. Still, I’m getting a little tired of Shannon being the damsel in distress. And Szabos is too broad a character, too irrational and easily fooled. On the other hand, while this borders on being the first supernatural-themed con of the season, there’s no attempt to use technology to fake supernatural occurrences, just a lot of empty talk about horoscopes that doesn’t really accomplish anything (just like actual astrology!). And John E. Davis finally deigns to work a few more notes of “The Plot” into his score, though it’s still just snippets.

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