Home > Reviews > MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (S2) Reviews: “The Phoenix”/”Trial by Fury”

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (S2) Reviews: “The Phoenix”/”Trial by Fury”

“The Phoenix”:  Stock opening as usual.  The mission: a former Eastern European security minister, Stefan Prohosh (Alf Kjellin, an actor-director who directed “The Bank,” “A Game of Chess,” and “The Condemned”), has been demoted to minister of culture and head of the national art museum.  Wanting to get back in the game, he’s stolen a sample of a valuable metal alloy (presumably something with defense applications) and hidden it in a new steel sculpture arriving soon in his museum, a sort of abstract tree of metal rods.  He intends to trade this McGuffin metal to “one of the major Red nations” in exchange for backing in his return to power.  The team must retrieve the metal and scuttle Prohosh’s return to power.

At the museum (whose exterior is the same backlot facade used in “The Bank”), the team sets up a fake assassination attempt on Prohosh, a tyrannical, paranoid sort who refers to himself in the third person.  He even soliloquizes to his gun (yes, he talks to his gun) about how his enemies have never been able to bring him down.  Rollin allows himself to get caught as the shooter, while Cinnamon plants a trail to lead the guards to her as the hidden accomplice when the time is right.  Rollin is interrogated and refuses to talk.  Jim, Barney, and Willy arrive as the investigative team, who must act quickly before the Chairman arrives for the sculpture’s debut.  Jim investigates and “finds out” that the rifle had no line of sight (it was fired through a stained-glass window, actually broken by a charge planted by window-washer Willy).  It must’ve been pre-aimed and fired on a signal from an accomplice inside the museum.  He calls for a search that leads to Cinnamon, and Jim gets Rollin to talk by roughing her up a little.  They claim they’re brother and sister, survivors of a massacre Prohosh ordered during his days as security minister — no doubt a real one, or he’d know it was a lie.  Prohosh’s total lack of emotion, casually taking a drink as this tale of his brutality is related, is rather chilling.

Meanwhile, Barney and Willy use their roles as security agents to slip into the hall containing the new sculpture.  This is the really cool and clever part.  To remain hidden while working on a sculpture that’s periodically checked by a guard, they borrow a trick from bunraku puppetry.  They angle the base lights of the sculpture forward and strip down to all-black suits, so that if the guard comes in, they can hide by standing still against the black curtain behind the statue.  Barney has a motion sensor hidden in an ashtray outside to warn them if the guard is coming.  First they identify the McGuffinite rod hidden among all the others in the sculpture and mark it for later reference.  Then they take welding torches to the thing and weaken and rearrange it.  Yeah, it stinks that their plan requires vandalizing a work of art, but it’s still cleverly handled.  Their plan is endangered by two of the funniest obstacles I’ve seen on this show.  First, the maid empties the ashtrays, so Barney’s motion detector goes bye-bye.  They have to chance continuing their work, so they’re caught off guard when, well, two guards come in to look at the sculpture.  They’ve just worked a big piece of the sculpture loose, so Willy has to hold the heavy piece perfectly still while the guards engage in some impromptu art criticism that threatens to go on forever.  Finally the guards leave and our guys are able to finish their work, retrieving the McGuffinite and planting a small explosive charge.  (I surmise they had to weaken the sculpture so that it would fall apart in a way suggesting a larger explosive, and rearrange some pieces to minimize the danger to spectators.  But that isn’t spelled out.)

Jim manages to slip a duplicate detonator into Prohosh’s jacket before the Chairman arrives.  The Chairman is kind of a sweet old gentleman (Charles H. Radilak), a bit oddly considering that he’s supposed to be the head of a Communist government.  But I guess the idea is that Prohosh is the only real threat.  If the Chairman didn’t come off as a nicer guy, it wouldn’t seem as if the team had accomplished anything by preserving the status quo.  Anyway, Jim is concerned that Barney & Willy aren’t done yet, so he tries to stall the Chairman by claiming his father served with him — a plan that almost goes south when the Chairman asks his father’s name, but just then our boys come out, back in suits.  They arrange to get Prohosh to go off and call his assistant just before the bomb goes off, making the Chairman suspicious.  Jim finds the remains of the radio trigger and tells the guards to search for a detonator, which they find in Prohosh’s pocket.  Jim walks off while Prohosh protests his innocence, and a couple of karate chops later, Rollin and Cinnamon are free and the whole team leaves.  There’s no obvious reason why the Chairman should’ve suspected Prohosh — especially since Barney quite audibly called him away to the phone just a few feet away from the Chairman — but given how the Chairman smiles to himself as Prohosh is taken away, it’s clear there’s no love lost, and this guy did demote Prohosh to a minor job in the first place.  Maybe he just seized the opportunity to get rid of the guy once and for all.

I guess the formula of this show demands that the villain be doomed at the end, and scripter John D. F. Black (formerly a story editor on Star Trek) effectively paints Prohosh as a monster whose return to power would be disastrous.  But I have to wonder if it was necessary to frame him for an attempt on the Chairman’s life.  All that would’ve been necessary was to remove the McGuffinite from the sculpture, so that Prohosh’s attempt to get back into power would’ve been discredited.  I suppose it could be argued that he would’ve kept trying, but that’s too vague and abstract a threat to make it convincing.  Usually in plots like this, the villain is on the verge of doing something immediately menacing and so arranging his death or downfall can be justified (at least by the harsh logic of a spy show).  But as evil as Prohosh is, he doesn’t have any clearly established goals beyond restoring his political influence.  True, if he became security minister again, thousands of people in his country would suffer.  But how is that a grave enough threat to America’s security to justify sending in the IMF?

So all in all, it’s a clever and effective episode, but the underlying threat that motivates the story is too vague.

——

“Trial by Fury”: Oddly, this is the second episode in a row where the briefing scene begins with a closeup on Cinnamon’s lips (since in both episodes her lipstick is one of the gadgets of the week).  The mission: In a totalitarian Latin American country, resistance leader Delgado (Ernest Sarracino) is being held in a prison camp, passing messages to the resistance through his follower Cardoza (Michael Tolan), who’s had himself arrested and been a model prisoner so he could become a trustee and thus gain access to Delgado.  But his good behavior has made the hardened prisoners suspect him of being the informant who rats them out to the Commandante (Joseph Bernard, Tark from Star Trek‘s “Wolf in the Fold”).  So his life is in danger.  Barney asks why they can’t just break Delgado and Cardoza out, but Jim says they want to stay in prison, since it makes Delgado a martyr and a rallying point for the resistance.  They need to go in and expose the real informant in a way that preserves Cardoza’s cover.

What follows is one of the most intense, intriguing M:I episodes to date, written by Sy Salkowitz, who also wrote the format-breaking “The Town.”  It also features a strong guest cast anchored by the great Paul Winfield (known to Trek fans as Capt. Terrell in The Wrath of Khan and Dathon in TNG: “Darmok”) in one of his earliest roles, a prisoner named Klaus who rules the barracks along with Sperizzi (frequent M:I heavy Sid Haig in his biggest role yet) and Leduc (Victor French).  The “Latin American” prison camp bears an uncanny resemblance to Stalag 13, since it was shot in the same part of the Culver City backlot where Hogan’s Heroes was lensed.

Rollin plays a military driver who brings in a new group of prisoners including Jim and Barney, who stage a fight right off the bat in order to get thrown in the barracks with the hardened prisoners.   He asks Col. Klink — err, the Commandante — if he can stay until the next scheduled prisoner transfer since he doesn’t like the mountain roads.  The next day, Jim and Barney get acquainted with the prisoners — after witnessing the brutal murder of a prisoner attempting to escape, since the informants tipped off the guards.  Furious at the execution, Klaus and his cohorts become determined to kill Cardoza.  But Barney, still new to the prison, happens to let slip to Cardoza that he’s planning an escape.  Sperizzi and Leduc tell him of his mistake; Cardoza is sure to tip off the Commandante.

The challenge faced here by Jim and Barney is a great  departure from the norm.  Typically an episode of M:I is about the team playing out an elaborate, clockwork scheme revolving around manipulating people and events with assorted gadgets and tricks.  They have every move planned in advance and the whole operation is a cold, intellectual exercise.  But this is nothing like that.  Jim and Barney are thrown into the barracks with no resources but their wits.  They don’t know who the informant is and have to find out somehow.  And most of all, they have to convince an angry mob of hardened criminals not to murder the man they’re convinced is their betrayer.  Instead of tricks and gimmicks, Jim and Barney have to rely on their persuasive skills, and they have to do it without giving away their true motives.

That night, Klaus and Sperizzi kidnap Cardoza and drag him to the barracks.  (Sgt. Schultz sees nothing.)  Luckily for the team, they don’t kill him outright.  First, they put him through a gauntlet that’s harrowing and compelling to watch, forcing him to make a walk of shame, enduring the chanting (“Walk!  Walk!  Walk!”), accusations, and abuse of the prisoners.  Jim and Barney have to play along, and can only hope they’ll be able to prevent Cardoza’s murder somehow.

Meanwhile, Cinnamon arrives as a Red Cross worker, accompanied not by Willy (who sits this one out), but by Valesquez (Edmund Hashim), an actual local Red Cross representative helping the team.  (I have a hard time believing the Red Cross would get involved in a spy mission like this; if anyone found out, it would jeopardize their neutrality.)  They are nominally there to check on Delgado and the other prisoners, but the care packages Cinnamon delivers (while Klaus and Sperizzi are hiding Cardoza in the shower) include a couple of special packages for Jim and Barney.  Also, Cinnamon’s job is to wait in the Commandante’s office until he gets a message from the informant, then find a way to get Jim and Barney the necessary info to expose him and clear Cardoza.

As the prisoners prepare to hang Cardoza, Jim and Barney try to delay things by confronting him themselves, asking questions that sound accusatory but give him the chance to speak, to give his side of the story.  Cardoza asks what they’ll do tomorrow when he’s dead and the real informant tells the Commandante, and Jim argues that he may be right.  Still, Klaus and the others aren’t convinced.  Jim and Barney get weapons from Cinnamon’s care packages and threaten the others, telling them not to kill Cardoza until their escape the next day.

But the Commandante has gotten a message from the informant on a sheet of foil from a cigarette box.  As it happens, Leduc had earlier been established with a habit of making animal figures out of the foil from empty cigarette boxes.   Cinnamon and her Red Cross cohort arrange to get hold of the foil wrapper once the Commandante throws it out, then Cinnamon signals Rollin to come get it, and he contrives an excuse to visit the barracks, slipping it to Jim.  Afterward, Klaus and Sperizzi overpower Jim and Barney and start to proceed with the hanging, while the ever-noble Cardoza offers to write a suicide note so they won’t be punished.  But Jim calls for them to wait, claiming to have picked Rollin’s pocket and found the tinfoil message.  Luckily, the prisoners don’t stop to question the convenience of this.  It’s enough to tip them off that Leduc is the informant.  At Jim and Barney’s request, the prisoners keep Leduc alive until after they make their escape the next morning.  Leduc makes an attempt to speak to the Commandante, but Rollin prevents it.  Then Rollin, Cinnamon, and Red Cross Guy arrange a collision of their respective vehicles as they leave, and Jim and Barney take them hostage in the confusion and use the Red Cross car to break out.  Klaus and Sperizzi stab Leduc in the back, and the prisoners cheer on the escape.

All in all, a marvelous departure from routine, like Salkowitz’s previous script, but this time achieved within the context of a conventional mission.  The trick was that this mission operated on a far more personal level, requiring the characters to use their wits, strength of will, and persuasiveness.  And it forced Jim and Barney to spend the episode in a very dangerous situation where their control was minimal.  Far from the usual episode where the plan goes like clockwork with only the occasional brief snag at the act breaks, this time the danger faced by the team is ongoing and palpable.  This is the kind of story they should do far more often.

And yet I wonder if maybe this episode was conceived as a money-saving bottle show.  It takes place mostly on a few backlot sets and is dependent more on drama and human interaction than action, gadgets, or effects.   Such episodes often turn out to be dramatic high points of a series, such as “The Drumhead” on Star Trek: The Next Generation or “Duet” on ST: Deep Space Nine.  In this case, with most of the story being a tense personal confrontation on a single set, the story has a very theatrical feel, in the best sense of the word.

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  1. Christy
    December 8, 2011 at 12:26 am

    I had to grin to myself at your “McGuffinite” comments. So glad someone else noticed that most of the missions were all McGuffins to show off the creativity and cleverness of the characters and their plans.

  2. Christy
    December 8, 2011 at 12:28 am

    I hated “Trial By Fury,” probably for all the reasons you seem to have loved it. Much prefer the “cold, intellectual exercise” missions.

  3. Catarina
    March 21, 2012 at 5:39 pm

    What I was never able to discover in this episode is why the neon lipstick that shows up under blacklight for Cinnamon? Or did I just miss something? I watched it twice and fwd through it a couple times.

    • March 21, 2012 at 5:59 pm

      It’s been a while since I saw them, but if you’re talking about “Trial by Fury,” I seem to recall Cinnamon using her lipstick to make a mark on the window of the commandant’s office, with Rollin shining a light on the window to see if the mark had been left yet, thereby signalling him to come get the message on the foil wrapper.

  4. Catarina
    March 21, 2012 at 7:47 pm

    Good memory! Thank you for the quick answer!

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