MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (S3) Reviews: “The Mercenaries”/”The Execution” (Spoilers)
“The Mercenaries”: Mission tape is an 8-track in a parked car, nothing special. The mission is to “destroy” mercenary leader Krim (Pernell Roberts in a Castro-ish beard), who’s ravaging Francophone Africa, pretending to fight for emerging nations but just bleeding them for cash, or something. The politics are irrelevant. Basically this is a very clever heist caper.
The plan is to discredit Krim and turn his allies against him by making it look as if he’s stolen the gold from the vault in his enclave (i.e. the “Arab Village” section of the Culver City backlot). To do that, they have to get him to believe he’s found a rumored treasure in gold left behind by a military regiment years before. Rollin pretends to be a deserter from that regiment who gets caught with a flake of gold, leading him to be tortured until he reveals where it is. Meanwhile, Jim and Cinnamon pretend to be gunrunners wanting to do business with Krim, and they stage a scene where Cinnamon seduces Krim and her angry “husband” Jim comes in and threatens Krim with his own gun, so they can swap out the clip for blanks, so Rollin can survive when Krim shoots him after finding the treasure (though he took a big chance that it would be Krim and not his henchman who fired the shot).
But first they have to get the gold, and this is the ingenious part. When Jim demands to see the gold in the vault as proof that Krim’s money is good, he leaves a metal ball there which rolls to the lowest point in the floor. Underground, Barney uses a gadget (stud finder?) to pinpoint where the ball rests, then he and Willy drill through several feet of rock and through the floor of the vault. They insert a device that rises through the floor, deploys an array of heating elements, and melts the gold so that it flows down through the hole! They pour it into molds to reform it into gold bars again, and once they’re done, the device sprays plaster over the floor to hide the thin coating of gold that remains, with its own cap then plugging the hole.
Barney and Willy take the gold to the planned cache just in time for Rollin to lead Krim there and get “killed.” Krim hires Jim to smuggle the gold out, holding Cinnamon as a hostage for his cooperation. (It’s unclear whether Cinnamon being taken is part of the plan, but it doesn’t create much complication, for Rollin’s easily able to get her out.) Then it’s just a question of tipping off Krim’s ally Gruner (oddly, the second M:I character to date whose first name is January) that the gold has been stolen. He offs Krim, and the team drives off in the truck, since conveniently Krim already told the gate sentry not to search it. What they’re going to do with the ton of gold in the back of the truck is not addressed.
It seems that what constitutes a “good” M:I episode at this point is one that has particularly clever gimmicks and plans, rather than something with strong characterization or a creative departure from formula. The formula is set, the characters are ciphers, the backgrounds of the missions are just excuses to set up the con game of the week. It’s all about watching the plan unfold, almost never with any real complication or suspense. So holding the audience’s interest relies on making the schemes and gimmicks really clever. In this case, they succeeded. (Good music helps too. There are a few nice new Robert Drasnin cues in this episode, though most of the music is stock from previous seasons.)
“The Execution”: Evoking the pilot episode’s opening, Jim trades a code phrase with a staffer in an electronics store and gets shown into the office where the message waits on a reel-to-reel tape deck. The mission is to stop mobster Parma (Vincent Gardenia), who’s cornered the food market and intends to parley that into broader power or some such thing that, as usual, doesn’t really matter to the story. We get a shortened dossier sequence to introduce the team consultant, a prison doctor named Loomis (Byron Keith, Batman‘s Mayor Linseed).
The only way to stop Parma is to get one of his men to talk, something they never do because they trust Parma to get them out of trouble with the law. Jim goes undercover as a produce vendor who refuses to go along with Parma’s protection racket and threatens him, making himself a target for assassination. For once, there’s a genuine element of risk and uncertainty here, since the team doesn’t know in advance who the assassin will be and what method he’ll use. But of course they’re on the ball, tapping Parma’s phone to get the hired gun’s name (Victor Duchell, played by Luke Askew), then tracking him as he buys his killin’ supplies. It takes some deduction to figure out he’s making a “rifle grenade.” That lets them figure out a defense, using a projection-TV system to make it look as though Jim and Cinnamon are in their apartment’s living room when they’re safely in the back. (An interesting bit of ’60s insight here: Barney describes the projection-TV rig as “a smaller version of what you see in a theater when they televise an auto race or a fight.” I guess movie theaters showing live TV was the ’60s equivalent of the modern sports bar with a humongous plasma screen.) I guess they were also able to deduce where Victor would fire from too, since they’re quickly able to corner him (in disguise as cops, with Willy as a bystander who chokeholds him unconscious).
Victor awakes to find himself in (a fake) prison, seemingly three years later and just hours from his execution. He’s told that he’s been claiming amnesia throughout his trial but the psychologists didn’t buy it. He’s forced to watch as another prisoner (Rollin) is readied for and taken to the gas chamber an hour ahead of him. I imagine Rollin must’ve relished the acting opportunity it gave him, to play a desperate, terrified condemned man in his final minutes. He (i.e. Landau) does a pretty good job of it.
But again, a complication arises: the team belatedly learns that Victor’s been through this for real, getting saved by Parma mere minutes before the end. They have to make sure they get nothing wrong in their Death Row simulation, or they may tip him off. And he’ll be a tough nut to crack in any case. It’s a more interesting caper than usual, because success depends on psychological factors rather than just every gimmick going off like clockwork. A bit odd, though; Vic is offered clemency if he’ll testify against Parma, which he refuses to do, but at the same time he insists aloud that Parma will get him off — and isn’t that pretty much a confession right there that he works for Parma? There’s also the plot hole that the team members have to play two roles each in dealing with Victor, first his victims and arresting cops and then the people he encounters on Death Row, and yet this doesn’t give away the fakery. There’s a handwave statement that seeing the same faces on different people would add to his disorientation and help them break him, but it’s unconvincing.
Aside from that, though, it’s a tense buildup as Victor is taken right to the moment of his execution. It isn’t until the “cyanide” is actually starting to fill the room that he breaks down and agrees to testify against Parma (and Jim turns on the tape recorder to catch it). Conveniently, Rollin has arranged (by faking Vic’s voice on the phone) to draw Parma to the warehouse holding the fake prison set just in time to hear his confession and try shooting him through the bulletproof glass, adding attempted murder to the rap.
All in all, despite a weak setup (cornering the food market? Really?), this is a tense and effective episode. The plan goes off about as smoothly as usual, but at least there’s a moderately convincing effort to create suspense and uncertainty. There’s also a good, mostly new score by Jerry Fielding and some effective, stylish direction by Alexander Singer.