Archive for September 28, 2011

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (S5) Reviews: “Butterfly”/”Decoy” (spoilers)

September 28, 2011 3 comments

“Butterfly”: In Japan, we see a martial-arts demonstration which American businessman Kellem (Russ Conway) is watching intently.  Toshio Masaki (Hawaii Five-O‘s Khigh Dhiegh), a rich and powerful man and a racist who’s considered his sister Mioshi his “enemy” since she married Kellem, stabs her to death and frames Kellem for the deed, with help from his man Shiki (James Shigeta).  Kellem makes the frame-up easy, since the first thing he does on finding his wife’s body is to pick up the knife for no clear reason and get his fingerprints on it.

On a long pier, Jim makes contact with a guy in a boat by pretending to offer to buy it and take it for a test drive, though the pretense hardly seems necessary since there’s nobody remotely near earshot.  The tape instructs Jim to clear Kellem and stop the vehemently anti-American Masaki (which the Voice mispronounces, putting the stress on the last syllable) from scuttling a new US-Japan trade agreement.  No self-destruct line; Jim just tosses the tape in the water.  The producers finally seem to have caught on that it makes no sense to say “Please destroy this tape in the usual manner” when it happens so unusually.  We get the old theme arrangement and Willy’s in the credits, reinforcing my hypothesis that there’s one theme arrangement for Willy episodes and another for Doug episodes.

Since there’s somehow no physical evidence linking Masaki to the crime (which I guess was more plausible decades ago, when forensics was less advanced), and since Masaki is kind of a latter-day feudal lord who has everyone in his pocket except the one honest cop Akita (Benson Fong), the team’s goal is to make Masaki incriminate himself.  Jim poses as Kellem’s lawyer and gets him to tell every last detail he remembers — though not until after we see Kellem’s daughter Nobu (Helen Funai) reject his pleas of innocence and denounce him.  The purpose of Jim’s interview is to recreate the moments leading up to the murder in order to create a blackmail film.  This is done by having Paris and Dana don masks of Masaki and Mioshi and sneak into Masaki’s estate while Barney films them from a nearby hill.  As a distraction, Willy challenges Masaki’s undefeated jujitsu champ to a match.  Before this, we saw Willy training with a jujitsu master to learn to last as long as possible.  Since he needs to drag it out, he kinda lets Masaki’s fighter pound the tar out of him — and his ordeal is made even worse because the impostors are delayed by some guy taking a smoke break.  Eventually Jim gives Willy the signal that the deed is done and Willy says uncle.

Dana contacts Masaki to tell him she happened to film the murder and wants money to keep quiet.  He has Akita trace her second phone call (not telling the honest cop what it’s about) and raids her place, but only gets half the film.  He has it enlarged, convinced it’s a fake, and confronts Dana about the lack of an identifying scar on his wrist, but Dana creates doubt by pointing out the graininess of the film.  He’s still on the hook.

Meanwhile… and here’s where the episode’s credibility takes a serious hit… Paris is impersonating a famous kabuki actor who strikes up a friendship with Nobu, who’s staying with Masaki.  Masaki finds her mixed blood offensive, but hopes she can be redeemed.  Anyway, blackmailer Dana contacts Nobu as well, creating suspicion in her that Masaki killed her father, and Paris convinces Nobu to go to the cops about it.  So she shows Akita the phone number the blackmailer gave her, and Akita notices it’s the same number Masaki had traced.  So he follows Dana to Masaki’s place and comes in just as he’s starting the film.  Akita insists they continue.  Just before the moment of the murder (which isn’t on the fake film, of course), Masaki stops the film, exposing his guilt — and he then conveniently admits he killed her.

Oh, and before Akita came in, Masaki’s jujitsu expert took Dana away to be killed, but of course Jim and Willy broke in to rescue her and Willy got his rematch with the fighter, redeeming himself by clobbering the guy.

This is the most conventional M:I episode so far this season, a standard caper with no significant departures from the old formula and nothing going wrong with the plan that isn’t resolved within moments — and as I said in my last review, that’s actually kind of refreshing after so many format-breaking episodes in a row.   Yet it still does something new; I’m fairly certain that it’s the first ever M:I episode (and the only one, at least in the original series) to be set in East Asia.  And for the most part, by ’70s standards, it’s a pretty authentic and respectful depiction of Japanese culture, with all the Asian characters played by Asian actors (except for Khigh Dhiegh, who was actually of North African descent and born in New Jersey, and whose real name was Kenneth Dickerson).  Plus there’s another fairly good Robert Drasnin score, which has a somewhat Asian sound at times without sounding stereotypical.  And yet it features the entirely ridiculous conceit of Paris successfully passing himself off as Japanese.  It was one thing in “Commandante” where his impersonation of a Chinese officer only had to fool some Latin Americans who might not have had much contact with Asians.  But a hawk-nosed Westerner wearing blatantly plastic-looking epicanthic-fold makeup (much more obvious than his “Commandante” makeup) managing to convince Japanese people that he’s Japanese?  Particularly the racist Masaki, whose reaction to Nobu shows that he’s keenly attentive to departures from “pure” Japanese physiognomy?  That just doesn’t make any sense.  And it’s so unnecessary, since Paris’s only roles in this episode — to let Masaki know about Willy’s jujitsu chops (so to speak) and to convince Nobu to go to the cops — could probably have been fulfilled without him.  At the very least, the reasonable thing for Jim to do would’ve been to recruit an actual Japanese person to fulfill this part of the plan.  Having Paris do it is simply a bad idea.  (Although it is kind of fun to see Nimoy in full kabuki makeup.)  The sheer wrongness of it drags down what’s otherwise a borderline-excellent episode, as routine M:I episodes go.

“Decoy”: In the cold open, Anna Kerkoska (Julie Gregg, who played one of the guest agents last season) rushes in to stop her brother Alexi (the Martin Landau-esque Paul Stevens, who’s previously appeared in “The Council” and “The Cardinal” as characters impersonated by Rollin Hand) from killing himself, conveniently arriving before he does the deed.  He tells her that the new regime in their Communist country (apparently we’re back to the countries being anonymous) is about to start a purge of everyone associated with the former premier, their late father.  He says he wants to kill himself before that happens, and rejects her proposal to turn to the Americans for help, saying they wouldn’t be interested.  “Unless,” he suddenly and conveniently realizes — they can successfully defect if they give the Americans a list placed in Anna’s safekeeping by her father, naming government officials sympathetic to the West.  By the time Anna goes off to contact the US embassy, it’s already obvious that Alexi is playing her, but then they drive it home by having police chief Petrovich (Michael Strong, a frequent M:I guest) come in and gloat that she’ll lead them to the list.

Jim gets the tape from a camp counselor on a hike, and he’s given the assignment to help Anna defect — although somehow the IMF has psychically gleaned that it’s a trap by Alexi, so the team is forewarned.  (Honestly, how do they find these things out sometimes?)  We get the new theme arrangement, but it’s a Willy episode, so that blows my theory about the two theme arrangements out of the water.

We see Barney and Willy driving in their equipment disguised as consumer electronics, and Jim and Dana driving in as brother and sister (even though Peter Graves was 20 years older than Lesley Ann Warren).  This is to establish the only viable border crossing, a tunnel (familiar from countless TV shows shot in the Los Angeles hills) controlled with a sentry post and a heavy steel gate that’s mined to prevent anyone from smashing through.  Meanwhile, Paris flies in and goes to arrange a funeral (there’s some effective humor in the Paris scenes, first with a Joo Dee-like handler when he checks in and then with the snooty, mercenary funeral director), and then contacts Anna in the park (actually the “town square” portion of the Paramount backlot that has different regional styles of buildings in different directions, this time with the camera pointing toward the “Germany” side) in order to tip off the watching Petrovich (and his agent, M:I’s designated henchman Sid Haig in his ninth and, alas, final episode) that he’s the American spy they should follow.  This distracts their attention from Jim, who makes contact with Anna as an editor for a major publishing company.  The team makes it look to Petrovich as if the US agents have kidnapped Jim’s sister (Dana) in order to blackmail him into helping them get to Anna by pretending to work with her on a book about her father, the late premier.  I guess this is so they’ll be following the wrong guy, Paris (who “disappears” by shedding his old-guy disguise), while Jim is doing his work.

But what Jim doesn’t anticipate is that he and Anna fall in love with each other.  They go for a long walk (represented interestingly, but inexpensively, by having what I suppose are photo doubles walk through a real park while Graves and Gregg are double-exposed in close-up against a blank background) and Anna waxes lyrical about the complicated, contradictory man her father was, a despot and a loving family man, and how she loved and hated him at the same time.  It’s beautifully written dialogue and Gregg delivers it beautifully, if a bit broadly by today’s standards.  And it leads to Jim and Anna making out and Anna saying he’s the first man she’s ever loved.

Eventually the “kidnappers” contact Jim and tell him to get Anna and Alexi to the funeral home at an arranged time for their defection.  They can only take a few possessions, and Alexi gets suspicious when Anna refuses to part with a music box (that’s also a cigarette case — oy).  He wrestles her for it, it breaks open, and he realizes the list is encoded on the drum of the music-box mechanism, while she realizes he was scamming her to get to it.  Anna is further stunned when Jim karate-chops Alexi unconscious and an Alexi double (a masked Paris) drags him into the closet.  Anna is outraged to learn that Jim was using her just as Alexi was, but he assures her he does love her and convinces her that she needs to come with him.

Sid Haig is watching at the funeral home, though, so they have to sneak Jim and Anna out.  Hearse driver Barney brings in the coffin and hands Jim an inflatable Jim dummy, and then Paris/Alexi asks for Anna to be shown to the little girls’ room (which is labeled in French for some reason), allowing her to be switched with Dana and snuck out into the hearse with Jim.  Petrovich and Sid Haig discover the switch, with Dana playing the kidnapped sister and Paris still playing Alexi.  Willy positions himself as a policeman so that Petrovich orders him to take Dana and Paris away for questioning, and the bad guys chase after the hearse.  But a few miles down the road, the hearse stops and opens its back door… and a teeny little go-cart (that Barney and Willy were seen assembling earlier) shoots out the back and brazenly races right past Petrovich’s car in the other direction.  It vrooms down the twisty mountain roads of Los Angeles Eastern Europe, sometimes deliberately veering off the asphalt to dramatically fling gravel into the camera, while Petrovich pursues, all accompanied by Lalo Schifrin’s climactic car-chase music from the M:I pilot episode.  When the go-cart nears the border gate, the guards start firing.  Jim pushes Anna’s head down, but since she’s the hero’s love interest in a 1970 show, it’s an open question whether she’ll live through it.  But no, getting her out is their mission, and having the hero fail was even more anathema to the ’70s TV-adventure formula than having the hero in a committed relationship.  So the teensy go-cart zooms right under the steel gate and on to freedom.  Petrovich’s car pulls up just short of the gate; I guess they didn’t have the budget to blow him up.  Or maybe the network asked them to cut down on the violence.  It does seem more of the bad guys are surviving lately.

Anyway, Jim and Anna have a final scene together, backed by some of Robert Drasnin’s lovely score to “The Play,” in which they reaffirm their love but Anna decides she needs time to discover who she is as a free woman before they decide where to take their relationship.  Which is a convenient way to write her out of Jim’s life for the rest of the series, but it’s reasonably well-handled.

This episode is mixed, but mostly positive.  The plot seems a bit odd; why try to make Jim seem like an innocent to divert the villains’ attention, yet then drag him into the middle of the defection plot?  And why fool Petrovich and Alexi into thinking the US would use kidnapping and blackmail to bring about Anna’s defection when they know full well that she wants to defect already?  It seems contrived just to allow Jim to get close to Anna.  And how did the IMF know it was a trap?  It might’ve made for a more interesting episode if they hadn’t known, if the audience had been aware that the villains were a step ahead of the heroes, creating tension and danger.  Also, Paul Stevens’s overly broad and villainous performance makes it hard to take his scenes seriously.

But Julie Gregg is luminous and soulful as Anna, and John D.F. Black’s script has its finest moments with her dialogue.  Peter Graves isn’t especially convincing as a romantic lead, but I can believe that Jim could fall in love with this woman.  This would otherwise be the most mediocre episode of the season so far, but Anna and her portrayer make it a fulfilling experience.

Farewell, Sid Haig.  The show just won’t be the same without your stalwart henching.  But of course you’re moving on to bigger and eviler things, pursuing your long-term goal of galactic conquest.

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I wish I could forget how to be forgetful…

Last night I ran out of zip-top plastic bags, so I left the empty box out on the counter to remind me, and made a plan to go to the grocery store today. This morning I made a grocery list and tried to make sure I checked everything, because I knew there were several things I needed to remember I was out of. I came back from the store just now, and needed to clear a space on the tiny counter for my bags, and I was about to move the empty zip-top-bag box out of the way when I realized… D’oh! I forgot the very thing that prompted me to plan a grocery trip in the first place! Which I think is the second time in as many weeks that that’s happened. (Yeah, yeah, of course I should’ve written it down on the list as soon as I noticed I was out. But that would require being organized!)

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