Archive for May, 2014

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (’89) Reviews: “The Princess”/”Command Performance” (Spoilers)

“The Princess”: Written by Ted Roberts. We open with Grigor Caron (Robert Coleby) getting intel on the title princess from a nervous man who feels guilty about betraying his country — there’s some interesting dialogue and characterization bits in their exchange. Caron pays him with money in a briefcase that, predictably, blows him up. Jim gets the disc from a rowing coach who directs him to a racing shell, and we’re informed that the target is the princess of the tiny Monaco-like principality of Valence (pronounced the French way), an American ambassador’s daughter whose influence has persuaded her husband the prince to pull away from the Warsaw Pact and propose a US alliance. An Amurrica-hatin’ resistance called the Red Guard, led by Caron, intends to assassinate the princess as part of a terror campaign to prevent this. In the briefing, for once, Grant seems to be hearing things for the first time along with the rest, though Nicholas has some knowledge about Valence already. The princess refuses to leave the country because she’s sponsoring a film festival, so the team goes in as a film crew.

While movie-producer Jim and starlet Shannon schmooze at the festival, Nicholas — inexplicably using his full real name — makes contact with Caron and convinces him that he and Grant have a plan to mount an armored car heist. Since the Red Guard bankrupted itself hiring their assassin (and blowing up all that money in the teaser), this is an effective lure. They stage an actual armored car heist, orchestrated to ensure the guards are unharmed by using knockout gas, and then when Nicholas and Caron drive off in the hijacked car, the gas “accidentally” comes on again. Caron wakes up in the interrogation-cell set at Jim’s rented studio, and Jim and Max play brutal interrogators who “kill” Nicholas before Caron’s eyes, getting him to confess that he hired a noted international assassin called Coyote, whom he only knows through his female contact. Concluding they’ve learned all they can, Jim reveals the scam to Caron and has him taken away for the authorities to find. (I was surprised they didn’t just fake the entire armored-car heist, but I guess they wanted to implicate him in a real heist attempt to get him put away.)

Which leaves the new problem of identifying Coyote, and the beginning of the episode’s second caper. Two for the price of one! Grant researches Coyote and finds that though “he” leaves no evidence behind, all his assassinations are committed before large crowds; Coyote loves an audience. They decide to appeal to the assassin’s ego, so producer Jim announces that he’s abandoned the film he’d been touting before in order to do a new project based on the true story of the assassin Coyote — including the killer’s next crime, which writer Grant tells the press he’s been able to predict given all he knows about Coyote. A woman is watching — the “contact,” whom I’d already guessed was the real Coyote (Dale Stevens) — and she decides to pay them a visit and find out how much they do know.

Oddly, even though this whole thing was bait to lure in Coyote, Jim and the team are ill-prepared to respond when she takes the bait. It’s unclear what they actually planned to do, or why they didn’t anticipate that Coyote would be there waiting when they got back to their rented studio. The assassin prepares to shoot Jim, but Shannon senses the intruder and shoves Jim aside, taking the hit. Coyote then gets away without anyone seeing her. I was unclear on whether this was part of the scheme, but the next act begins with Shannon in the hospital and the team out of character, so somehow they really let the bad guy get ahead of them. Maybe it’s because they were forced to improvise, but Jim is usually so many steps ahead that this lapse is surprising. Anyway, Shannon’s in bad shape, so she can’t tell the team how she detected the intruder’s presence in a darkened room — except to mutter one word, “Camion.” I’d already guessed that Shannon smelled the assassin’s perfume, but I had the advantage of already knowing it was a woman. Grant and Max figure out that Camion is the name of that perfume through an Internet search — or since this was 1989, I guess it’s supposed to be a search of IMF Research’s database.

So Grant rigs a laser spectrometer to identify the unique chemical signature of that perfume interacting with Coyote’s skin chemistry (which he knows because she left some transfer traces on the things she touched at the studio). The plan is to scan every woman at the princess’s big speech — but gasp, Coyote is disguising herself as a male waiter! That’ll teach you to profile, Grant. But Grant catches a lucky break, since the “waiter” steps into the path of his spectrometer beam after planting a bomb on the podium. So Grant fingers her, the team chases after her, she jumps out a window, Grant throws the bomb out the same window, and she’s a victim of her own bomb — though her eyes are open and moving when we last see her, so it’s unclear whether she’s supposed to have died or not. Then there’s a very silly ’80s-ish jokey tag scene with Shannon and the team in the hospital.

Although there were some conceptual problems here, I really liked this one. There was some nice dialogue writing and characterization (still limited by today’s standards, but something), and I like these formula-breaking episodes where the team faces real crises and needs to adapt and improvise — even if lately the trend has been to use those as excuses for conventional action-adventure stuff, which was somewhat the case here. I would’ve preferred it if the second caper had actually played out longer rather than falling apart after the first move. Still, I found it enjoyable and effective. There was even a nice bit of music from Davis for a change, accompanying the parallel scenes of the assassin preparing her bomb and Grant explaining his spectroscope.

“Command Performance”: Written by Robert Brennan, but bearing similarities to one of my favorite first-season episodes, “Old Man Out.” A dissident runs from troops in uniforms bearing a generic swastika-esque insignia that I could swear I’ve seen in past M:I episodes, and manages to hide a gold cross he’s carrying before they shoot him. He gets to a church and tries to pass a message (the name David and the number 1769) to Father Thomas Vallis (Ivar Kants, previously appearing in last season’s remake of ‘The Legacy”), a dissident leader. Vallis is arrested by the head of the security police, Defense Minister Savitch (Grigor Taylor, who looks kind of like a cross between Sean Patrick Flanery and Henry Darrow), who wants the location of the cross.

Back in San Fauxsisco, Jim gets the disc from a flower vendor. Savitch’s nameless Baltic country is democratic, but Savitch’s secret police has carried out a reign of terror under the clueless prime minister’s nose, and the cross — a relic called the Cross of St. Boniface — hides a microchip containing proof of his atrocities (how this happened or how the IMF found out about it is unknown). The mission is to free Vallis from a mountaintop fortress prison and expose Savitch. Jim’s plan involves infiltrating a circus that will be giving a command performance for the PM in a few days (he basically blackmails the owner into letting him join), and will also involve a helicopter that Max says is like the one he flew in ‘Nam. Wait a minute, I thought Max was too young for Vietnam but mounted a rescue mission to save his POW older brother. Maybe that’s what he meant — that he flew the chopper during the rescue — but that isn’t what the line implies. Meanwhile, by a staggering coincidence, the world’s greatest expert on the Cross of St. Boniface just happens to look exactly like Nicholas with a cheesy goatee and gray temples, which lets Nicholas get into Savitch’s circle without the need for latex.

Jim makes several phone calls to Nicholas, whose phone Savitch’s paranoid henchman Braun (Nicholas Bell) has bugged, and that leads Savitch to the circus to meet him. The idea is to set Jim up as a relic hunter searching for the cross. Shannon plays Jim’s unhappy wife (talk about your May-September romances) and basically uses her cleavage to catch Savitch’s eye, while making it clear she’s not particularly loyal to hubby, so that she can later pass Savitch fake info about where the cross is hidden and also trick out his phone with an interactive recording of Nicholas speaking in Savitch’s voice. Savitch is a violent man, using a knife to cut a couple of buttons off of one of Shannon’s few tops that don’t display her cleavage (although we get one hell of a closeup as the buttons come off), and forcing a kiss on her — though fortunately this is commercial TV so a forceful slap is enough to dissuade him for now.

Meanwhile, Grant and Max climb up the studio cliff toward the matte-painting fortress (in case I haven’t made it clear, the special effects on the revival are kind of lame), using a fanciful sci-fi “disruptor” device that slices through stone, and having to dodge some Indiana Jones-ish deathtraps. Nicholas uses a forged letter and the phone voice thingy (see last paragraph) to get Braun to let him in to see Vallis, where he knocks out Braun, lets in Max and Grant through the hole they’ve cut in the wall, and helps the father escape in Braun’s uniform, while putting Braun in Vallis’s cassock and a mask of his face. Obviously Nicholas is setting up Braun to be shot by Savitch (and he is, once Savitch has retrieved the fake cross), but the priest seems to have no objection to this. He and the team later figure out that the dead guy’s message was referring to verses 6 and 9 of Psalm 17, which was a really, really obscure clue to the fact that he’d hidden the cross in a statue with wings. Once workmen Grant and Max retrieve the cross, they just have to get out of the country even though Savitch has closed the borders.

And they choose to do it right under Savitch’s nose, probably to provoke him into Gestapo tactics in front of Clueless Prime Minister so he’ll get a clue. Jim causes the ringmaster to lose his voice so he can take over. (When the circus owner asks Jim what he knows about being a ringmaster, Jim replies, “I know more than you could imagine, my friend.”) Then Grant, Nicholas, and Vallis dress up as clowns and they and Shannon get lifted up out of the tent as part of the clown routine, getting out to the helicopter Max has hijacked for their escape. Vallis drops the cross, but Jim retrieves it with Savitch close after him, and they get to the choppah and fly away.

If this was meant to be a reworking of “Old Man Out,” it wasn’t handled nearly as well. The circus angle seemed rather random, and the escape was quite inelegant compared to the one in the original episode. The matte-painting prison fortress with its B-movie death traps felt kind of tacked on too. And Savitch is such an impulsively violent and cruel man that it’s hard to believe he could’ve kept his brutal tendencies hidden from the prime minister for any length of time. All in all, and throwing in the sex-appeal angle with Shannon, this felt like an exercise in flash over substance. It had its moments, but wasn’t very smart or subtle.

Categories: Reviews Tags: ,

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (1989) Reviews: “The Golden Serpent” Parts 1 and 2 (spoilers)

And now we begin my reviews of the second and concluding season of the Mission: Impossible revival. This season’s reviews were made possible by a generous donation from Michael Erdmann. Thank you!

The 1989 season debuts with the 2-parter “The Golden Serpent,” written by Michael Seims, Ted Roberts, and Jeffrey M. Hayes from a story by Seims. We open in Southeast Asia with an unnamed intelligence agent spying on the heroin-smuggling operation of Prince Selimun of Benarli (Patrick Bishop), then getting discovered and killed by Selimun’s ponytailed, shuriken-throwing henchman who, I kid you not, is named Baal (Adrian Brown). The title sequence has been re-edited to incorporate more clips from season 1 episodes; the first shot after the match-lighting opening is now the cleavage-tastic shot of the wet Shannon in a bathing suit. Which is clearly pandering and a bit misleading, implying a level of skin and sexuality that the episodes have yet to live up (or down) to.

The show is again taking advantage of being shot in Australia. Jim receives the disc briefing at what I believe is Fort Denison in Sydney Harbour with the Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge in the background, a nice callback to the season 7 openings where he got the tapes at scenic San Francisco locations. The murdered spy is revealed to have been another IMF agent, now disavowed — that’s two IMF agent deaths and disavowals in the new series, but this agent’s name is never given. There’s still another member of his IM team undercover in Selimun’s operation, ready to assist Jim’s mission to expose Selimun’s crimes and bring down the Golden Serpent drug-smuggling triad to which he belongs. This is the latest step the revival has made in expanding the scope of the IMF: It’s the first time we ever hear of another IM team operating simultaneously with Jim’s, running their own missions. Although the nameless team leader seems to have handled things differently than Jim, more by conventional spying and sneaking around rather than Jim’s elaborate con games, and his “team” seems to have been only himself and his undercover partner. (Also there’s a slight variation in Bob Johnson’s spiel — he says “If any member of your IM team is caught or killed,” rather than the usual “IM Force.”)

The team assembles on a boat near the Barrier Reef, spying directly on Selimun’s bikini-babe-filled yacht as they do the “apartment” briefing. Jim explains that the goal is to play both sides against each other — make Selimun think the Golden Serpent organization is turning on him and make the GS bosses think he’s betraying them. The plan is to exploit his fear that his long-dead twin brother, who had the senior claim to the throne by minutes and whom he’s suspected of murdering by arranging a swimming accident, is alive and has come back to reclaim his rightful place.

The plan depends on the IM agent already inside Selimun’s organization, and Grant is confident he can do the job — because it’s Barney Collier! Yes, Greg Morris is back for a return engagement. Odd that he’s still working with the IMF but not on Jim’s team. Well, rather, I would’ve expected him to graduate to team leader a long time ago, so it’s odd that he’s in a subordinate role here. It would’ve been so easy to change Voice’s lines a bit to say that Barney was the leader and the murdered guy was his subordinate. It’s not clear what role Barney has in Selimun’s organization, but it’s fairly high in status, since he’s wearing a white tuxedo and giving orders. At a party at Selimun’s mansion, Grant slips Barney a scanning device to make a 3D scan of the vitamin bottles in which the heroin is being shipped, so that Grant can make replicas to switch with them (so that the shipment delivered to the Golden Serpent will be worthless and they’ll think he’s double-crossing them, I gather). Intriguingly, the device Grant will later use to make the fake bottles is effectively a 3D printer! That was pure science fiction in 1989, but what’s depicted, a laser darting around in a container of liquid and producing a solid plastic object, is pretty much what a 3D printer does. But that’s later.

At the party, Shannon gets Selimun’s attention with a photo of him and his twin brother as children, then warns him that she’s gotten involved with people who plan to kill him — people involving Jim and Nicholas, whom she points out before making a getaway while Grant runs interference with Selimun. Then, Barney slips the scanner to Grant so he can do that thing with the 3D printer later. Meanwhile, Nicholas dons a mask of Selimun in order to appear to be his twin brother meeting with Jim and a reluctant Shannon, for the benefit of Selimun’s spies. We’re shown Nicholas putting the wig of Selimun’s hair on before he puts on the mask, which is kind of backwards.

By the way, oddly enough, Jim, Nicholas, and Shannon are all using their real first names in their aliases, with only their last names changed. And Barney is undercover as a Mr. Collier. Huh?

But Barney is caught on video passing the scanner to Grant, so Barney is captured and interrogated. Unfortunately, the video animaion effects for the laser-eye-torture device they use on him look really goofy rather than disturbing. He doesn’t crack, but the torture drives him close to a heart attack. The team is relying on him to open the underwater gate to Selimun’s grotto so they can scuba in with the fake bottles, so when the bad guys dump him in a room, believing him to be at death’s door, he recovers enough to break out and let Max and Grant in through the pool — but the exertion gives him a heart attack. Grant wants to get him out of there, but Barney insists they complete the mission, and so does Max, reluctantly. Phil Morris does a great job as Grant has to watch his father die (apparently?) in front of him. Max persuades him to leave Barney behind so they can escape and fulfill the mission. Later, Jim tries to commiserate with Grant on their boat, with Grant upset that he hardly knew his father because the job took everything, and Jim saying that Barney gave everything instead.

Selimun has Baal bring Shannon to him, and she agrees to become part of his gaggle of babes on the yacht (though she’s the only one fully clothed), but when reporting to Jim, she has to drop her walkie-talkie into the ocean to prevent its discovery. Things come to a head at the Sydney Opera House, where Selimun is giving a speech — he’s being honored as a philanthropist for supporting drug rehab programs, oh, the irony. The plan is to rig a fake assassination attempt against Selimun with Max playing the sniper on the Sydney Harbour Bridge (for realsies). The shots go off, but they didn’t count on Selimun having Baal in a chopper, ready to dive down on Max and chase him all over the bridge (mostly for realsies, but with some fake bridge components on the bluescreen stage for more dangerous shots). Max bests him and Baal falls to his doom in a really fakey bluescreen shot, but then the helicopter knocks Max off and he falls — and freezeframes, since that’s the end of Part 1.

Part 2 revives the M:I tradition of really long recaps that open with a replay of the Voice’s briefing, although it’s more tightly edited than in the old days, running only three and a half minutes before we catch up and discover that Max conveniently had a parachute under his jacket (and they do a real parachute stunt, despite the lousy bluescreened falling shots). Then comes a really big Bond-style boat chase through Sydney Harbour with the bad guys’ boat finally crashing and going up in a disproportionately huge explosion.

So the team delivers the fake drugs to Selimun’s boss, and when the boss discovers the double-cross and confronts Selimun over the phone, Shannon’s phone bug lets Grant pick up the conversation, but it’s scrambled. He uses the record of Selimun’s voiceprint as a baseline to decrypt the scrambling, which lets him extract the other voice and rely on IM archives to identify the Golden Serpent head as the Bondishly named Conrad Drago (Rod Mullinar) — who sends his sexy blonde crossbow-loving assassin (Nadja Kostich, billed only as “Big Blonde” — for her height, so get your minds out of the gutter) to crossbow-assassinate Selimun. But the mission isn’t over, since the team now needs to go to work on Drago and get him to reveal the details of the drug operation. So after Grant uses computer magic to drain Drago’s bank accounts (and make it look like Selimun did it), Jim and Nicholas give the drugs back to the financially desperate Drago and convince him they want to buy his operation. The payment will be a hoard of gold that they allege Selimun had hidden in the grotto back at his mansion. This will be an holographic CGI illusion that Grant will plant at the bottom of the grotto.

By the way, Drago has a henchman named Burroughs (Max Fairchild) with a kind of bulldog baby face reminiscent of a more squared-off Colm Meaney, and he’s like many TV characters in that he has the ability to do instantaneous chemical analyses of the narcotic content of powdery substances with his tongue. He uses this superpower twice, once to identify the heroin disguised in Vitamin C bottles as actual vitamin C (well, I guess it would taste bitter), and once to confirm the heroinicity of the actual heroin. I know, this is a standard and dangerously stupid TV/movie cliche, but this is just such a classic example of it because of how instantly he’s able to identify the substances with such certainty, and because it’s repeated. And because it’s pretty much all Burroughs does besides standing around looking menacing. It’s his superpower!

Meanwhile, for no apparent reason, Shannon breaks into a room on what used to be Selimun’s yacht, only to find that Barney is there! Selimun’s doctor kept him alive for information and he’s continued to play his part in the con. But Shannon can’t tell Grant the good news without her walkie — not until the team infiltrates the mansion and Max spots Barney being carried in and saves him. The three of them make their way to the grotto, knock out the guards, and open the undersea gate so Grant can rig the hologram, and Barney hides just before Jim and Nicholas get there with Drago and Crossbow Blonde. The fakery convinces Drago to unlock a screen that shows all the drug network’s growers, buyers, distribution lines, etc., with Nicholas’s camera lapel pin transmitting it all to Grant’s CD-R on the boat. Mission accomplished!

But then Drago attempts a double-cross and has Big Blonda shoot Jim, but Barney knocks him aside and is wounded by the bolt, and a big fight scene ensues complete with Shannon and the Blonde falling into the water and having a catfight (oh, hello, eighties, I’d almost forgotten you were there!). And then the Blonde shoots the control panel and reactivates the laser grid (the same kind of stupid random laser beam security gizmo from back in “The System” a season ago), which kills her and somehow sets things on fire, and everything in the grotto starts to explode.

At this point I was saying “Seriously?” to the screen.

The team retreats (there’s a continuity error with the elevator doors starting to open in a long shot and then being closed in the nearer shot) and leaves Drago there amidst the ongoing orgy of explosions. And then the whole mansion (miniature) starts to blow up.

Whereupon I said “Seriously?!” to the TV.

Anyway, after what seemed like several minutes of explosions, there’s a tag scene to reassure us that Barney’s okay, and then Jim has the last word by saying “The Golden Serpent has lost its sting.” Umm, Jim… scorpions have stings. Serpents have fangs.

So, um, this was a decent ’80s action B-movie, with lots of action and explosions and flamboyant villains and henchpeople with exotic weapons and great scenery and sexy babes and catfights and even some father-son drama and a tearful death scene. The use of Sydney Harbour was impressive, and although I’m hard-pressed to understand what caused all those explosions in the climax, the pyrotechnics were pretty excellently done. But there were only so many parts of it that felt like a Mission: Impossible episode. There was still an elaborate caper going on — in fact, a 2-stage caper, dealing with one villain in part 1 and the bigger villain in part 2, more or less — but there were times when it was lost among the big action set pieces that served little purpose beyond being big action set pieces. I doubt this episode will be typical of the season ahead — they won’t have the budget to do this kind of action every week — but we might be seeing a step in the evolution of M:I toward the big action franchise it becomes on the big screen.

Not much to say about the music. John E. Davis is still doing pretty much the same stuff he does every week. The one notable thing was that in Max’s skydive, Davis used a longer fragment of “The Plot” than he usually does, though still far short of the full melody.

The best part of all this is Phil Morris’s performance in Barney’s “death” scene and afterward. He’s the only character in the new series who’s gotten to do anything really emotional and character-based like this, and both times because of his relationship with his father. And the younger Morris does a really good job with it. Greg Morris unfortunately doesn’t get as much to do dramatically this time out because he’s busy almost dying and later fighting. It’s weird that in both his appearances, Barney has spent much of his time in pretty rotten physical condition. I know Morris had some serious health issues a few years earlier, and would be diagnosed with cancer the year after this episode was made. But in both his appearances here, and in other work he did around the time (like the episode of War of the Worlds: The Series he was in), he was clearly capable of a normal level of physical activity. It would’ve been nice to see him in an episode where he didn’t spend much of his screen time lying in bed looking sickly.

Unfortunately this is the last we’ll see of Barney, and one of the last roles Greg Morris performed before his death in 1996. It’s too bad he didn’t have more to do in Barney’s swan song. But Greg Morris got to give his son an excellent showcase for his talent, and I’m sure he was happy about that.

Categories: Reviews Tags: ,

Movie thoughts: ENDER’S GAME (spoilers)

Another movie I’ve seen this week is Ender’s Game, borrowed from the library. I reread the book before watching the movie, since I haven’t read it in a long time and I wanted to be able to compare them. I think the movie is a very good adaptation and distillation of the book, quite faithful within the limits of what was feasible for the screen, and a solid SF movie in its own right with good acting and terrific set/technology design. It captured the characters and themes of the book well.

In fact, it drove home for me that Ender’s Game is at its heart a story about empathy, about the importance and advantages of learning to see through others’ eyes. In the book, even the Valentine/Peter subplot is about empathy, because it’s by deliberately choosing to adopt online personas opposite to their own respective beliefs, essentially learning to think like each other, that they’re able to be effective at influencing policy, tempering the extremes they might have gone to otherwise. By embracing the other’s view rather than fanatically clinging to their own, they were able to avert a war, in contrast to the way the IF brought about an unnecessary xenocide because of its unbending us-or-them mentality. But it’s Ender’s empathy for the Other that offers a chance of redemption (even though it’s what the IF exploited to destroy them in the first place).

It’s ironic, of course, that this book is such a powerful statement about empathy and love for the other, given that this is something Orson Scott Card himself seems to have completely forgotten in recent years. That’s why I think the boycotts of this film were missing the point; not only did none of its profits go to Card’s current political causes, but Ender’s Game itself is one of the best counterarguments to the stuff Card spews these days. It shows that he used to know better.

The film naturally makes some changes to make it more filmable, changing the preadolescent leads into teenagers and compressing the time frame from years to months. I think aging the characters up is an improvement, because all the emphasis on supergenius preteens in EG and the Bean spinoffs I read (only the first one or two before I lost interest) got kind of silly. And Asa Butterfield was excellent as Ender, conveying his calculating intellect, his shyness, and his sensitivity quite well. Harrison Ford is also terrific as Col. Graff, though he’s a lot thinner than the novel’s version. The casting of the kids other than Ender didn’t impress me much (although I liked the diverse casting, effectively capturing the diversity in the book and expanding on it), and the attempt to tack on a borderline romance with Petra Arkanian didn’t really fit the story, although fortunately it didn’t go beyond subtext. The actor playing Bonzo was effectively jerky, but it was weird how much shorter he was than Ender, when in the book Ender was supposed to be the small and weak one. I guess that in this version, Bonzo’s attitude was overcompensation.

The film also introduces Bean much earlier in the story, which is a good change because it allows externalizing a lot of Ender’s internal thought process. One of the hardest things about a book-to-screen adaptation like this is translating internal monologue to external dialogue, and this film handled it deftly for the most part, without a lot that seemed awkward or contrived — aside from the opening bit of narration by Ender, which I think would’ve worked better if it had been from a propaganda film, say (but maybe that would’ve seemed derivative of Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers). Bean is sort of a junior Ender anyway, so using him as a way to externalize Ender’s reasoning is good.

Battle School is well-handled; the film treats zero-gee physics pretty well, although that realism goes out the window when it gets into the space travel and battles in the final act. I would’ve liked to see more of the book’s clever strategies like using your own frozen legs as a shield, but I guess showing a bunch of kids flying butt-first toward their rivals and shooting between their legs would’ve looked silly. My main issue is that Ender’s learning curve was hugely compressed, not only with the battle room fights but with the computer game and the Giant. That was inevitable in order to fit it to movie length, but it still made some things feel kind of rushed.

Well, no, on second thought, my main issue is with the visuals. The dialogue pays lip service to Ender’s key realization that in free fall, he can choose whatever orientation he wishes, and the catchphrase that “The enemy’s gate is down.” But in all the scenes where this is relevant — from the shuttle to the battle room to the final space battle — the visuals totally fail to reflect this key revelation. There’s a bit in the climactic battle where Bean reminds Ender about their catchphrase and Ender rotates the field of view to put the planet downward, but then that’s forgotten and the rest of the sequence sticks relentlessly with a conventional horizontal orientation, just like the battle room scenes mostly did. That’s the greatest visual failure of what’s otherwise a visually effective film. Well, that and the absurdly cluttered space scenes, but the orientation issue is actually relevant to the story and used in dialogue, so it’s a greater mistake to fail to orient the scenes accordingly.

I also wasn’t happy with the film’s addition of the idea that the Formics came to Earth looking for water so they could colonize. That’s one of the most ridiculous and ill-informed sci-fi cliches, since the amount of water you can find in the comets and asteroids and ice moons of just about any star system would be thousands or millions of times greater than what you could find on Earth. So that doesn’t make any sense as a reason to target Earth itself. But there are two things in the movie that ameliorate it and make it more forgivable than it usually is. One, we were shown a scene of Formic ships harvesting water from a giant planet’s rings, so there was some awareness of the idea that water can be found in places other than Earthlike planets. And two, the Formics were given a rather organic technology based on burrowing and carving, and they also seemed to be very much creatures of ant-colony instinct, so that could justify a compulsion to colonize planets like their own. Still, it was a regrettable echo of a tiresome cliche, and not something that needed to be added to the story.

I was initially uneasy with the change of the Command School location from Eros to a planet in Formic space; the explanation that they had to get within ansible range didn’t make much sense, because ansibles, by their very nature, are not range-dependent. Also it risked giving away the surprise twist. But I could see why it was necessary, so that the finale where Ender found the egg could be done without the need for him to spend years traveling first. And again, the bonding with the Formic queen at the end had to be made more external, more physical, for the movie screen. So it’s a change that works for the most part.

I do regret the diminution of Valentine and Peter’s roles. Of course something had to give to fit the story into movie length, and all that stuff with Locke and Demosthenes wouldn’t have worked well in film (although it impresses me how much Card predicted the age of the Internet, tablet computers, and the like — his net was more regulated than ours, but that makes sense in the somewhat totalitarian society of the book). But it has the effect of making Valentine a weaker character whose only real role is as a supporter for Ender. The film even changes the ending so that Valentine stays behind rather than joining Ender on his journey. Also, her argument at the lake to convince Ender to go back to Battle School doesn’t work as well for me as her reasoning in the book. There’s actually a deleted scene where Graff makes the same argument to her (about trying vs. not trying) that she makes to Ender in the book, so it was in the filmmakers’ minds. So I’m not sure why they changed it.

As for the deleted scenes, I think the filmmakers were mostly right to delete them. Most of them were fairly redundant or were added bits of characterization that only elaborated on what was shown elsewhere. And a couple of Graff’s exchanges with Anderson and Rackham gave away the big twist, so I’m amazed they were scripted at all. The one missing thing that I think should’ve been included was a second dream or game sequence with the Formic queen, just to establish that there was a pattern.

Director Gavin Hood’s commentary on the DVD is pretty interesting at times. As a military veteran who’s been through things similar to Ender’s training, he had some interesting insights into the philosophical and moral questions of training young people to be instruments of war. I think he gets what the story is about and brought some insights of his own to the telling, so he was a good choice to direct — except for that ongoing mistake with the camera orientation in free fall. Well, nobody’s perfect. It’s still a good translation of the book and a pretty good movie.

Categories: Reviews Tags: ,

Movie thoughts: X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (Spoilers)

I saw X-Men: Days of Future Past today. It’s a very good movie, and while its time travel isn’t entirely plausible (when is it ever?), it’s at least self-consistent and straightforward in its internal logic. The character work is good, although Wolverine doesn’t really seem like Wolverine. The premise requires him to get out of his comfort zone and adopt a role very different from what he’s used to, which is a good place to take a character, but it would’ve helped if we’d gotten to see it balanced with more of who he normally is, either in his 1973 or 2023 mental state. The one moment where he lost control was one that could only really be understood in the context of what came before.

But really, this whole movie only works as an installment in a series, a continuation of things the audience has seen before — indeed, as a culmination of the series to date, bringing the whole thing together more coherently than it’s often been in some of the middle installments. What’s impressive — spoiler alert — is that even though the ending resets the timeline and undoes the events of the not-well-liked The Last Stand (and possibly every other movie except First Class), the film nonetheless acknowledges and uses all of what came before and thus gives the series a greater sense of unity. Which is a good place from which to move forward for future installments.

The recreation of the ’70s was pretty good, seeming reasonably authentic without coming off as a caricature. Although some of the technology seemed anachronistic, like some of the plastics being used in the anti-Magneto guns and the Sentinels. Trask’s mutant-detecting remote control looked more like a product of the 2000s than the 1970s; it should’ve been big, boxy, and black or brown, or maybe that sickly green that was oddly popular in the ’70s. I was also concerned that some of the vocabulary was anachronistic, like when Charles said Trask would “weaponize” Mystique’s powers, but Merriam-Webster said that usage has been around since the ’50s. There was one other usage that seemed too modern, but I can’t recall it now (I think it was something Charles said to Wolverine after his failed attempt with Cerebro). And how did Magneto know “I don’t know karate but I know crazy,” from an early-’70s song, if he’s been locked in a cell with no access to electronic devices since 1963? Maybe he overheard a guard singing it?

Speaking of which, the Quicksilver breakout sequence was just as awesome as the reviews have been saying. Quicksilver’s a great character, despite the goofy silver hair — isn’t it supposed to be white? I hope he’s back for the next movie.

My one big disappointment is that we never really got to see the ’70s Sentinels being what they were meant to be, a threat against mutants.  They just went right to being Magneto’s weapon against humans. Sure, we saw the future Sentinels, but they were more like scaly T-1000s than the classic Sentinels of the comics and cartoons — or the Sentinels I wrote about in X-Men: Watchers on the Walls (shameless plug). So it wasn’t quite the same. It also leaves me wondering about the original timeline. If Trask had the Sentinels designed in 1973, and if his assassination led the government to go ahead with the program, then that implies that the X-Men must have faced them sometime before the movies we saw. The use of a Sentinel simulation in the Danger Room in The Last Stand certainly supports this. So what happened to them? Why wasn’t the government using them against mutants during the original two films?

I also wonder how Xavier got his act together in the original history where Logan didn’t come back. We’ve seen in X-Men Origins: Wolverine that within six years after this movie, he’s assembling the X-Men (and is bald and is walking, though with his telepathy intact). And of course he eventually becomes the wise mentor we see in the first three films and the future scenes here. So he must’ve found his way on his own somehow — Logan just helped him do it sooner. I’m curious how it originally happened.

The big thing that bugged me was giving Kitty Pryde this time-travel power out of nowhere. It doesn’t really make sense. I understand why they couldn’t be faithful to the original story and have Rachel Summers send Kitty’s mind back, because in the movie universe, Kitty wouldn’t have been born yet in the ’70s. Given the 50-year gap, sending Wolverine makes sense. But giving Kitty an arbitrary power just to keep her involved in the story doesn’t really work for me. What’s the connection between phasing through objects and telepathic time transference? Unless… hmm… unless she phases by putting herself out of temporal sync with matter. Or something. I would’ve liked some kind of explanation. It’s all very contrived.

Also, the timing puzzles me. From the assassination attempt in Paris to the unveiling of the first Sentinels probably took a few days, even if Trask already had the prototypes built. So Wolverine’s mind was back in the past for quite some time. If time in the future was moving at the same rate, does that mean Kitty was sitting there with her hands against Logan’s temples for days on end? Without sleep or food?

And while we’re at it, why can’t Mystique use her shapeshifting to heal her bullet wound? Just shift the tissues back into an intact configuration? If we assume it required an effort of concentration to hold a form, it wouldn’t be a permanent fix, but couldn’t she at least have used it as a temporary patch to aid her getaway? This is a common trope, shapeshifters retaining injuries when they change forms, and it always seems inconsistent to me. (Although come to think of it, this was established about Mystique way back in the original film, where Wolverine’s claws left wounds that remained when she shifted forms.)

Okay, every movie has plot holes, but for the most part this one held up very well and there was a lot to like. In the future portions, I was particularly fond of Blink’s power, which was rendered very nicely. I loved the way her “doors” let you see an action from two angles at once. And in the past, I guess what struck me the most was how much it was the story of Mystique’s redemption — and Charles’s through her, in a way. She’s ended up playing a role in these past two movies that I never would’ve expected from her prior screen and comics appearances. I’m still a little underwhelmed by Jennifer Lawrence, though. She’s reasonably good, but I don’t find her as impressive as a lot of people seem to.

Oh, and I liked the in-joke of the clip from “The Naked Time” showing on Hank’s TV. Although they kind of looped back through the scene a couple of times — Kirk said “A time warp?” at least twice. (So he was doing the time warp again?)

About those final scenes… I’m glad the altered history brought Scott and Jean back, and it was neat to see Kelsey Grammer’s cameo as older Beast (although I convinced myself that wasn’t really him, and it’s only in looking online afterward that I found it was). And since Rogue is back at the school (I didn’t blink, so I didn’t miss it), I assume that means she never got the “cure” and still has her powers. So it’s nice to see the band back together. The problem is that I don’t think we’re likely to see that timeframe again, with the focus shifting to the younger cast in historical settings. Also, I’m not sure how I feel about the events of the better films — the first two X-Men movies and The Wolverine — being implicitly removed from continuity. I would’ve liked some reassurance that they still happened pretty much as we saw. Although I guess The Wolverine can’t happen the way we saw, because that whole movie is about Logan dealing with the impact of Jean’s death, and its post-credits scene is a setup for the dark future of this movie.

Well, I guess I can still believe those movies “count,” because it was that sequence of events that led to the circumstances that sent Logan back in time with the consequences we saw here. So there’s still a causal progression that makes them relevant. Still, I’m sure there’s going to be a ton of debate about this continuity reboot in the years ahead. Though less so than there was for something like Star Trek, since it was widely considered that the X-Men franchise had lost its way and the reboot was an opportunity to fix that. Which it certainly did. Bryan Singer himself may not have the ability to go back in time and undo the mistake of doing Superman Returns instead of the third X-Men film, but he’s done the next best thing, at least where this franchise is concerned.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 1988 Season Overview

As I thought about how to sum up this season for this overview, what struck me was how much it feels like a direct continuation of what came before. Yes, there’s been a gap of 15 years, the cast and crew are almost completely different, and the technology’s been updated, but the basic formula and approach of the show are essentially unchanged, and most of its tropes and conventions are intact. It even continues the conventions specific to the final couple of seasons of the original, such as the use of cold opens and the establishment of San Francisco as the site of Jim’s mission briefings. It really feels like it picked up right where it left off. I can’t think of many other series revivals that have picked up with so little change after so much time. Looking at the Revival page on TV Tropes, maybe The New Avengers, The New WKRP in Cincinnati, or the recently revived Red Dwarf might qualify, not to mention Jack Webb’s revival of Dragnet in the ’60s.

Indeed, in some ways, this revival was even more formulaic than the original. Aside from the replacement of Casey Randall with Shannon Reed, the team composition was the most uniform it’s been in any season, with every regular player appearing in every episode (even though Casey often had very little to do). It’s the only season other than S6 to have no off-book missions; even the episodes with personal stakes for Jim were still assigned IMF cases. Every episode therefore had a disc-briefing scene. And every briefing, even the domestic crimebusting ones, had the “Secretary will disavow” line whether it made sense or not. And while the original series periodically featured cons with supernatural elements, this season returns to that well more often than any previous one, five times out of nineteen episodes (over a quarter of the cases!).

The changes we do get are quite subtle. There’s more interplay and expository dialogue among teammates during the missions; more is told rather than simply shown, and it gives the actors more moments to play off one another. The apartment briefings are less focused on methods and mechanics and more on general mission overview. And the team often assembles on site for the initial briefing, though the norm is still to have it in Jim’s apartment — and Jim still lives in San Francisco as he evidently did in season 7.

I’d expected that the revival would feature more character development and continuity than the original, but I guess it wasn’t until the ’90s that those things really came to be demanded by audiences. This season does have a number of episodes that have personal stakes for the characters (mainly Jim Phelps), like “The Killer,” “The Condemned,” “The Lions” (kind of), “The Fortune,” “Spy,” and “Reprisal,” but the majority are standard M:I capers with no particular significance for the leads. And only a few episodes have missions going awry in any significant way — “Spy” is the prime example, though there are several where the team doesn’t have all the facts ahead of time and is engaged as much in investigation and improvisation as manipulation, e.g. “The Killer,” “The Condemned,” “The Legacy,” “The Fixer,” and “Reprisal.” (True, there are a lot of episodes where they’re trying to find where something or someone is hidden or discover a piece of information, but those are more McGuffins than anything else.)

As such, we don’t learn much more about the new characters than we did about their predecessors. Jim Phelps believes in meticulous planning and cares about his former and current teammates; Grant Collier loves his father and forgives him for being an absentee working dad; the team members like each other and have a friendly rapport; and that’s about it. We learn a bit more about the characters’ backgrounds and reasons for joining the IMF than we did about the originals, but it never comes into play. (For instance, if Casey Randall was a “top designer on three continents,” how come the police needed Jim to identify her body?)

It implicitly seems that Grant Collier is Jim’s second-in-command or closest confidante, and probably a lifelong family friend. He always seems to be the first one Jim briefs, joining him in explaining the plan to the others — although Nicholas also has advance information more often than the other two, further suggesting a certain hierarchy in the team. The new team is a little less specialized than the old ones, or comparable to the season 6/7 team, since all team members participate in role play. Still, Grant is the principal technical genius, Nicholas the principal role player, and Max the principal muscle and pilot. Jim often takes a less central role than he would in the past, frequently favoring eccentric character parts; perhaps after all these years in the game, he’s gotten a bit self-indulgent.

One substantial change in the new series is that we get a bit more insight into the IMF as an organization. The original series never showed us an IMF agent who wasn’t a part of Dan’s or Jim’s team; indeed, it was implied that the “agents” were civilian assets only loosely or unofficially affiliated with the agency. (Which is actually a bit like how real intelligence work operates today. Contrary to fiction, actual spies are pretty much useless in the field, since other governments already know who they are. So they mostly just work out of embassies and solicit local civilian assets to be their eyes and ears in the field. Though that’s just for listening and observing, not engaging in elaborate deceptions or risking death.) But here, we meet other IMF assets, including Jim’s successor as team leader and an inventor formerly with “IM Laboratories,” as well as the teenage son of another IMF agent. We also learn that IMF operatives perform advance research for the briefings Jim receives. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s the beginning of a fleshing-out process that would culminate in the much larger IMF bureaucracy of the movies.

The IMF’s mission as of 1988-9 seems like an evolution from its past as well. For five seasons, it was mostly focused on international espionage and security missions with occasional diversions to deal with organized crime in the US. In season 6, it shifted exclusively to stateside mob-busting. But while season 7 was mostly crime-focused, the number of overseas and/or intelligence missions started to creep up again. This season references overseas spy missions as early as six years after season 7, and in itself it portrays a mix of espionage and crimebusting missions, with many of the latter now occurring overseas. Specifically, eight episodes deal with criminal foes, including two international drug cartels and one international slave-trafficking ring. Three of the other criminal cases involve crimes directed against IMF agents, and thus could qualify as intelligence-related, while one (“The Haunting”) is a simple murder but has possible international ramifications. I’m not including the blackmail schemes in “The Fixer” and “The Devils,” because they involve the manipulation of government officials and thus fall more into the spy/intrigue category. I’m also not counting the fake refugee-smuggling scheme in “The Wall,” because its perpetrators abducted the daughter of an arms negotiator in order to influence international policy. Other criminal acts such as the arms dealing in “The Cattle King,” the chemical-weapons dealing in “Spy,” and the bioweapon theft in “The Plague” are in support of terrorism and thus count as national-security cases. Still, the number of straight-up espionage/political stories in the season is fairly low, and we don’t begin to see them until a quarter of the way into the season. This is yet another way that the ’88 season feels like it’s picking up right from where season 7 left off.

So how does the new cast measure up? Well, Peter Graves is still a stalwart presence, bringing the same mix of deadpan seriousness and avuncular charm that worked for him on the original, but he’s also showing some of the comedic chops he began to exercise in Airplane! and continued to draw on in subsequent works (like fellow Serious Sixties Actors William Shatner, Leslie Nielsen, and Lloyd Bridges — that movie transformed a lot of careers). But I’d say the real breakout and MVP here was Phil Morris as Grant Collier. Casting him was a terrific idea, not only because of the nostalgia/legacy factor of being the son of Greg Morris/Barney Collier, but because he’s a strong, charismatic actor in his own right, and probably quite popular with female viewers. Tony Hamilton also did an impressive job as Max Harte, good at being a tough guy but also able to give engaging performances in a variety of roles. And Jane Badler was capable and sexy as Shannon Reed. I said in an earlier overview that Lynda Day George was the most beautiful M:I leading lady, but Badler is a contender for the sexiest one — while also conveying competence and a tough edge. Thaao Penghlis as Nicholas Black was a decent leading man, at his best reminding me of a poor man’s Roger Rees; but he was playing a part that called for more of a chameleonic character actor, and in that respect he just didn’t measure up, his range far too limited for the job. And then there’s Terry Markwell as Casey Randall — attractive, more or less, and competent up to a point, but lacking in range and ultimately just not measuring up. I still have mixed feelings about her brief and disappointing tenure; sometimes I feel she wasn’t really given a chance to live up to her potential, but then I recall there were a couple of times when she was given a chance and fell short. Whatever the true reasons, it’s safe to say that of all M:I’s main-cast female regulars, Markwell made the least significant contribution to the series — except in the trivia-question sense of being the only M:I series regular to be killed and “disavowed.” But that’s kind of an ignominious honor.

Rating the episodes, I’d say the best one of the season was “The Pawn,” followed by “The Fortune” and “The Legacy.” These are solid and clever capers with interesting twists and various qualities that lend them added appeal — the music in “The Pawn,” the guest cast and personal stakes in “The Fortune,” and “The Legacy”‘s improvements on the episode it remakes. “The Killer,” “The System,” and “The Fixer” were all strong, effective capers, and “Spy” was also quite effective for its formula-breaking tension and danger, even if it ended up turning into too much of a conventional action-show episode. The remake of “The Condemned” and “The Lions” are imperfect episodes made stronger by their character elements, particularly the return of Barney Collier in the former. “The Plague” is a good story with some awkward writing, while “Holograms” is a flawed and formulaic story improved by a strong guest star and a good score. “The Wall,” “The Cattle King,” “The Greek,” “Reprisal,” and “Bayou” are mediocre, sometimes with good qualities cancelled out by their shortcomings, others just run-of-the-mill. “Submarine is also mediocre but comes out a bit more on the negative side of the ledger due to problems of plot coherence, and in contrast to the superb episode it was a very loose remake of. “The Haunting” was a silly mess, and “The Devils” was simply awful, quite possibly the worst episode of the franchise to date. Basically the season starts out reasonably strong, then has a mix of better and worse episodes in the middle, then ends up fairly weak and mediocre. Overall, a lot of the stories were less clever or less intricately worked out than in the original; complications that didn’t quite make sense increasingly took the place of intricacy. Also, the season started out with strong guest actors like John DeLancie, James Sloyan, and Gerard Kennedy, as well as a memorable turn by BarBara Luna later in the season; but toward the end, the villains began to become increasingly cartoony and grotesque, undermining what would’ve been stronger stories otherwise.

There were six episodes that were remakes of originals. “The Killer,” “The System,” “The Condemned,” and “The Legacy” were fairly close remakes with largely or mostly identical plots and verbatim dialogue, while “The Wall” (based on “The Bank”) and “Submarine” reused only the basic premises while changing the specifics, the characters, and the dialogue. Of these, the ones that most improved on the originals were “The System” and “The Legacy,” while the one that suffered most in adaptation was “Submarine.”


Jim Phelps, Nicholas Black, Grant Collier, and Max Harte were in every episode. Casey Randall was in episodes 1-12 (sometimes just barely), Shannon Reed in episodes 12-19. Episodes featuring guest agents or other assistants included:

  • 01 The Killer: Anonymous two-member team of hotel dressers/extras
  • 03 Holograms:  Kieron Taylor (Gavin Harrison), son of IMF agent
  • 04 The Condemned: Former IMF agent Barney Collier (Greg Morris)
  • 07 The Cattle King:  Shaman Mulwarra (Warren Owens) and tribe assist
  • 08 The Pawn:  Magician Joseph Rultka (Philip Hinton) and chess champion Gregor Antonov (Bryan Marshall) assist
  • 09 The Haunting: Honolulu Police cooperates
  • 13 The Fixer:  Senator Tom Oxenford (Terence Donovan) cooperates
  • 14 Spy: KGB colonel  Dr. Yuri Nikolai (Shane Briant)
  • 17 Reprisal: Former IMF agent Lisa Casey (Lynda Day George)
  • 18 Submarine: Possible offscreen assistance of submarine soundstage crew
  • 19 Bayou: New Orleans Police cooperates

However, only “The Killer,” “Holograms,” “The Cattle King,” “The Pawn,” and “Spy” mentioned these additional team members in the initial briefings, and only Rultka in “The Spy”‘s case; Barney, Lisa Casey, Antonov, and Oxenford were initially rescuees who became involved in the plans later on, and the others were incidental.

Additionally, we learn of several other IMF assets who did not participate in Jim’s teams:

  • 01 The Killer: Tom Copperfield (Vince Martin), Jim’s successor as team leader for up to eight years prior to 1988
  • 03 Holograms: Taylor, IMF agent
  • 17 Reprisal: Former IMF agents Laura Ann Wilson (Chelsea Brown) and Marilyn (Paula Goodman); former IM Laboratories consultant Russell Acker (David Cameron)

Not to mention the Voice on Disc (Bob Johnson), the one person who’s been with the IMF longer than anyone else we know of, except maybe Barney Collier (I don’t recall whether Barney was retired or not in “The Condemned”).

Due to new union rules by the 1980s, every episode has a mostly or entirely original score. However, only three composers contributed to the season: original M:I composer Lalo Schifrin did the first three odd-numbered episodes, Ron Jones did the first six even-numbered episodes, and John E. Davis did the other ten. The best scores are Schifrin’s “Holograms” and Jones’s “The Pawn,” with Schifrin’s “The Killer” and Jones’s “The Lions” and “The Fortune” also being memorable. Davis’s work is adequate but fairly uniform and lacking any real standout episodes, and his avoidance of any full statement of “The Plot,” instead reducing it to a simple 7-note phrase, is annoying.

The locations this season were mostly overseas, with only five episodes set on US soil (though none produced there), including Honolulu, the Florida Keys, the District of Columbia, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Most overseas episodes were set in real locations, and unlike in the original series, Warsaw Pact powers like the USSR and East Germany were mentioned by name as adversaries. The only episodes set in fictitious countries were “Holograms” and “The Lions,” though several villains were from unspecified hostile powers, and the villains in “The Fortune” were from the fictional Central American nation of Alcante. Two consecutive episodes, “The System” and “Holograms,” were set in the Caribbean (although I’m unsure of that in the latter case) — the former in the Bahamas, the latter in a fictitious island nation. Seven episodes are set in Europe: “The Killer” and “The Devils” in England, “The Legacy” and “The Wall” in Germany, “The Pawn” in Prague, “The Greek” mostly in Athens, and “The Plague” in Paris. The teaser of “The Greek” is in Southeast Asia, and other Asian locations include the fictional Himalayan nation Bajan-Du in “The Lions” and Hong Kong and the South China Sea in “Submarine.” Only one episode, “Spy,” is set in Africa (an unspecified Central African country), and one, “The Condemned,” is in the Mideast (Istanbul). “The Cattle King” is the first M:I episode set in Australia — and thus the only one in the season shot on the actual locations it portrays.

The downside of this more international flavor, however, is that the show’s portrayal of ethnic diversity has not improved. In fact, it’s gotten worse, since the original series rarely attempted to portray non-Western cultures. The amount of stereotyping and condescension toward groups such as East Asians, Indigenous Australians, and “Gypsies” is distasteful. It’s a reminder that the timeframe of this series — and the culture of that era — was closer to the original series than it was to today.

So that’s season 1 of the revival — or season 8 of the series as a whole, since it is such a smooth continuation in so many ways. The season grew beyond its predecessors in some ways while hewing closer to the formula than a number of earlier seasons. It was a surprisingly authentic and respectful continuation, but with some lapses in insight and quality, and not quite living up to the cleverness of the original at its best. It’s better than what we might have gotten from a show that was commissioned simply as a way to work around a writers’ strike and was initially planned as a straight remake; but in other ways, it’s pretty much just what we’d expect from such a show. It’s not the finest season M:I has produced, but neither does it feel like it’s just going through the motions or that it’s missed the point. It is, quite simply, more Mission: Impossible, and that’s not a bad thing.

And yes, I will be carrying forward with the second and final season of the revival, since one of my readers was kind enough to help pay for the purchase of the DVD set. So I should be able to start in on that pretty promptly, other responsibilities permitting. After which I intend to proceed to cover the movies, allowing me to complete this review series at last.

Categories: Reviews Tags: ,

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (’88) Reviews: “Reprisal”/”Submarine”/”Bayou” (spoilers)

“Reprisal”: Walter Brough’s second script for the revival brings back a character he’s written for before — though with her name changed.

We open with the familiar sight of Jim Phelps walking through a San Francisco marina — but instead of getting a disc message, he meets Laura Ann Wilson (Chelsea Brown), a very attractive woman who was once a member of one of Jim’s IMF teams sometime during the gap between the original and revival series. (Brown was actually a regular Laugh-In performer in its 1968-9 season, though I never would’ve known it from how young she looks here.) They begin to catch up, but then — shockingly — Jim pulls out a garotte and kills her!

After titles, along comes Jim — again? — getting the disc at a pawn shop, and Voice gravely informs him of the murder of Laura Ann, with Jim’s prints found at the scene. Jim is so shocked by the news that he rewinds the disc to listen again.  The IMF knows that Jim was on a mission in Thailand at the time and the Secretary has pulled strings to delay an arrest warrant for a week. “Your mission,” Voice says, “which I feel you must accept,” is to stop the murderer and clear his name. Jim almost forgets to close the box before the disc self-destructs.

Before the apartment scene, Jim visits the maximum-security mental institution housing Russell Acker (David Cameron), a former IMF consultant institutionalized a dozen years ago. Jim clearly thinks he’s the killer, but Acker tauntingly pretends to know nothing about it — after all, he’s been locked up the whole time. (Unfortunately, Cameron’s interpretation of insanity is giving Acker a gravelly pirate/Popeye/Beetlejuice sort of voice that makes it hard to take him seriously.) At his apartment, the various team members explain to newcomer Shannon that Acker was a genius inventor at “the IM Laboratories”; Barney Collier often consulted with him and he’s responsible for much of the tech the IMF uses today, including the latex they use in their masks. (Meaning either he invented the formula in his teens or they’ve adopted a new formula since the original series.) But a car accident damaged his brain and turned him into a serial killer of beautiful women. Twelve years ago (four years after the original series ended), Jim assembled a team of three women (Jimmy’s Angels?) as bait to trap him, including Laura Ann and one rather familiar face. Now he’s out for revenge.

The team goes to work on the mental institution to set up surveillance and study the files of the orderlies with access to Acker to figure out who’s helping him — although orderly Talbot (Marshall Napier) is obviously villainous from our first glimpse of him, and he smuggles Acker a mask of Talbot’s own face and leaves the cell unlocked, allowing Acker to slip out once he’s projected a video loop into the surveillance camera. Meanwhile, Jim makes contact with that familiar team member, played by Lynda Day George. Now, George was the leading lady in the original M:I’s final two seasons, playing a character whose only known name was Casey. But since the revival had its own Casey (Randall), this episode retcons George’s character name to Lisa Casey, and her full name is only given once. It’s weird to see Peter Graves addressing her as “Lisa,” and it creates the question of why everyone called her by her last name in the ’70s. Annoying to see an original cast member’s identity altered to accommodate a revival cast member who didn’t even contribute much. Anyway, it turns out their last mission together was in Hong Kong in 1980, bringing down an international drug lord. Evidently Jim hadn’t been retired for long when he was brought back into the game at the start of this season — eight years at the most. Anyway, Casey — err, “Lisa” — is now directing a musical, and Jim tries to convince her to hop a plane to Paris (the city, not Leonard Nimoy) until Acker can be caught.

But Acker has been using IMF-style phone-intercept techniques to keep Jim from contacting the final team member, Marilyn (Australian actress Paula Goodman), while drawing her to San Fran, donning a Jim Phelps mask to meet her, and murdering her in front of many witnesses. Jim arrives just in time to get chased by the cops. Now Casey — err, “Lisa” — is determined to stay and fight, and she confronts Acker in his cell (where he’s returned to throw off suspicion) to let him know exactly where she’ll be.

Max discovers Acker’s secret room in Talbot’s apartment, and when Jim arrives, he finds plenty of evidence of the murders as well as the Jim masks he’s been using. Jim picks up one of the busts of his head, triggering a taunting recording from Acker that paraphrases the standard tape/disc briefing formula. It is immediately obvious to the viewer that the last line will be “This room will self-destruct in five seconds,” but somehow Jim and Max just dawdle around unconcerned until they actually hear the line. It makes no sense for seasoned spies to be so blind to danger. Also, after the blast which has supposedly destroyed all the evidence, we get a final glimpse of the room while Jim and Max leave, and most of the evidence is still totally intact!!! Arrgghh!

Anyway, Acker finally gives Talbot his “payoff” in the form of a lethal garotting, then breaks into Jim’s apartment to drug his computer keys so he can knock Jim out and plant the murder weapon for later, then goes off to kill Casey — err, “Lisa.” But Jim was faking being knocked out, and the team has prepared its trap at “Lisa”‘s theater. With Grant videotaping the whole thing, she lets Acker get the garotte around her neck, then reaches back and pulls off his mask. Then the team torments him with mirrors and video, and being confronted with his own face is too much for him, as he insists the murderer was someone else and tries to rip off the “mask” that is his own face before collapsing into catatonia.

For a Very Special Episode bringing back an old cast member, this one isn’t as strong as it could be.  It’s nice to see a departure from formula, with the team having to apply its methods more toward detective work and actual spying than the usual preplanned con games, and taking on an adversary armed with their own methods. It also continues the fleshing out of the IMF into a larger organization than we were ever shown in the original series, as well as filling in some more of what occurred in the interregnum. But Acker is too cartoony a villain, Lynda Day George is underutilized, and that scene with the secret room was just ineptly done. This is a significant episode from a continuity standpoint and an “event” standpoint, but it’s not as strong as it deserves to be.

“Submarine”: Although credited solely to Dale Duguid, this is a very loose remake of season 4, episode 7, my favorite episode of the original series. Which gave me an excuse to rewatch that episode, which is still just as much fun as ever. But this one is very different. We open with Mitchell Ryan dropping a submarine distress beacon into the South China Sea, where it somehow infects a US Navy sub with a computer virus that destroys it with all hands. (How? Radio waves can only propagate a few hundred meters underwater at most, so wouldn’t an undersea beacon be acoustic? How, then, could it infect a computer?) After a shortened title sequence, Jim is helicoptered into an airbase where he walks up to a taxiing fighter jet and gets invited to listen to the disc in the cockpit. Excuse me? I thought the whole point of the tape/disc drop sequences was to be inconspicuous. If the military was going to airlift him in anyway, why not just tell him the mission face-to-face?

Anyway, the unknown maker of the computer virus is going to auction it, and the IMF has identified one of the bidders, a representative of “an extremist state” named Reynard — played by yet another future Farscape cast member, Jonathan Hardy (the voice of Rygel), who wears a fez because fezzes are cool. Grant explains in the apartment scene that they need to find the virus purveyor in order to find the antidote — after first explaining to 1989 TV audiences that computer viruses don’t infect people, but can make computers do dangerous things like blow up subs. So they trail Fez Rygel to Hong Kong, and Jim contrives to put a sticker on his laptop that’s tricked out with both tomcat scent to attract the drug-sniffing dogs and a silhouette of a gun and grenade, so as to get Reynard out of the way once they’ve identified his contact (Ryan), who turns out to be Admiral Edgar Gene Sheppard, a Naval cyber-warfare expert embittered that recent disarmament talks have scuttled his computer-virus project, so he’s selling it to the highest bidder to prove it can work. Nicholas convinces Sheppard that he’s Reynard’s backup, and gets taken to the auction.

In fact, it turns out that Sheppard has already given away the virus beacons and is selling the antidote, which will make it safe for use. But Max rigs anaesthetic gas in Sheppard’s sprinkler system and Grant taps into the satellite TV, and they fake a toxic-chemical disaster caused by computer failures aboard two tankers, evidently because someone unleashed the virus without the antidote. (How did the team know Nicholas would be taken to a private home with a sprinkler system?) But as Sheppard passes out, he crumples the 3.5-inch floppy with the antidote on it, destroying it. (And there’s a close-up on one of those little wraparound stickers you put on those floppies with the “Write Protect” and “Write Enable” indicators on the back. I remember those!)

So Jim orders “Phase 2,” and that’s where we finally begin to converge roughly with the namesake episode. Grant and Max play a Naval crew that apparently airlifts Sheppard to a submarine commanded by Jim (similar to the role he played in the original), and they feign an ever-escalating disaster, including a nuclear explosion that temporarily “blinds” Sheppard thanks to Grant swapping out his contact lenses with adjustably opaque ones. At this point it’s already clear that this is being faked, but unlike in the original episode, the nature of the fakery isn’t yet exposed. Anyway, they make Sheppard think the sub has the virus and is sinking, so he has to input the antidote to save himself. As in the original, the team abandons the fake sub once they get what they want (including a rant where he conveniently confesses the whole crime to an empty escape bell, with the team taping it) and leave him to discover the fakery, which takes far longer than in the original as he goes through all the sub sets and discovers all the trickery. But when he finally emerges on the conning-tower set piece on the soundstage and sees the surrounding water tank and projection screens, it’s oddly cruder and less convincing than the sub exterior we saw before — and then we see the team standing in front of the sub interior set, which is open on one side and entirely separate from the conning tower, so how the hell was he ever fooled and how the hell did he ever get from one to the other? Also, how did they switch him from being airlifted in a real helicopter to being deposited inside a soundstage? The feigned semi-blindness may have been intended to help hide the flaws in the illusion, but the initial airlift and his later gradual discovery happened while his vision was unimpaired.

Of course this can’t hold a candle to the original “Submarine.” They couldn’t really show us the fakery convincingly because they didn’t have the advantage the original had, namely an evidently pre-existing submarine set on hydraulics (that the episode was presumably written to take advantage of), allowing them to show the truth behind the illusion. Here, they had to fake much more of it, so the behind-the-curtain stuff had to be minimized and was terribly unconvincing when it was finally shown. So that leaves the merits of the story itself, and that’s fairly routine, with a lot of plot points that make little sense. What made the original “Submarine” so compelling wasn’t just the nifty gimmick, but the nifty characterizations of the villain and the Eastern-bloc colonel closing in on the team, as well as the tension of trying to achieve the goal before the colonel discovered the team. Here, Sheppard isn’t much of a character, just a one-note villain. He is to some extent motivated by pride like his counterpart in the original — he deployed the virus to prove his work had merit — but the team doesn’t play off his pride to trick him, just his sense of self-preservation. So it’s a lot more by-the-numbers than the original, a routine episode that isn’t awful but doesn’t quite hold together. “Submarine” Mk 1 was a terrific balance of gimmickry and characterization, as well as fine direction, timing, and scoring; “Submarine” Mk 2 is just a succession of gimmicks, most of which it either can’t reveal properly or can’t explain coherently.

The best thing that can be said about this episode is that it’s so different from the original that there’s no trouble reconciling them. It can be taken as just a case of Jim hauling an old strategy out of the files and applying it to a new crisis. Although I think he embellished it more than was necessary.

“Bayou”: The season finale is written by executive producer Jeffrey M. Hayes.

In the Louisiana Bayou, a young blonde woman is on the run from a hunting party, dogs, and stock-footage alligators, but is caught by the people she’s running from: Pepper Leveau (Paula Kelly), a New Orleans nightclub manager, and her boss Jake Morgan (Frank Thring), a grotesque individual who looks like Boss Hogg as played by Alfred Hitchcock. After the short version of the titles, Jim gets the skinny on the fat man on a movie set: Morgan runs an international sex-slavery ring (they call it “white slavery,” as if that were somehow less normal than the alternative) with Pepper as his lieutenant. Now, he’s abducted dozens of young women, but typically, the government didn’t take action until the abduction of a rich man’s daughter, who’s the girl we saw in the teaser. But to his credit, Jim is just as committed to saving all the girls. Once more, the team is already on site in New Orleans for the expository briefing. It’s becoming kind of a standard pattern at this point to establish a warehouse or other such site as the team’s base of operations (in this case a theatrical warehouse) and have multiple scenes of the team meeting there and discussing their next move. This did happen in the original as well, but usually without as much expository dialogue and out-of-character discussion. The team this season spends more on-camera time as themselves than was typical in the original.

And this being the Big Easy, of course the show can’t resist yet another supernatural-themed con, taking advantage of Pepper’s belief in vodoun (“voodoo”) to drive a wedge between her and Morgan. Shannon plays a “voodoo” priestess who gives Pepper a tarot reading warning of betrayal. Huh? Tarot cards originated in Northern Italy (as just a card game) and came to be associated with European occultism — would they be part of vodoun practice, except as a sort of New Agey syncretism? Anyway, Grant plays a trumpet player (and a trumpet) at the club, but he’s there to be supposedly zombified by Shannon later on. Jim plays a private detective who gets Pepper thinking that Morgan’s shutting her out and working with Shannon instead, then takes her to see Nicholas in a Morgan mask at a voodoo ceremony. Pepper becomes the latest in a long line of M:I marks who can’t tell the difference between projected film (in this case, of chanting cultists) and real life.

Meanwhile, Nicholas and Max have played bidders for the slave girls so they can track them down — but Morgan’s idea of showing Nicholas the merchandise is to have his men abduct him off the street and blindfold him, so no joy there. (When Nicholas “inspects” the rich girl from the teaser, he says to her “I’m going to buy you.” Or is it “I’m going to bayou?” The true meaning of the title is revealed! Or not.) But Pepper turns on Morgan, and Nick and Max make it look like they’ve taken her away and shot her. She wakes up in a fake ship cabin on hydraulics — a miniature version of the elaborate fake sub in the original “Submarine” — and thinks she and Shannon have been taken as slaves as compensation for Morgan welching on the deal. So Pepper tells them where the girls are being held so they’ll let her go, and then the team fakes a shipwreck and knocks her out again. Nicholas and Max find the girls and beat up the guards sent to retrieve them, as payback for getting roughed up earlier.

Anyway, Grant has found an old tunnel, ironically from the Underground Railroad, leading right into Morgan’s study. Yes, a tunnel in New Orleans — but then, we knew before that the water table in M:I-verse New Orleans must be lower than it is in real life. Or maybe Hayes just took the “Underground” part too literally. So he rigs Morgan’s study with voodoo symbols and a hologram generator, as well as loading his gun with blanks, and then Jim lets the “shipwrecked” Pepper wake up on the beach and go after Morgan while Shannon gets herself abducted by Morgan — somehow they knew he’d take her to his study — and activates the hologram of Pepper haunting him. The goal is to get him to run, since he’d have to keep his list of slaves on his person if he were forced to flee. He ends up confronted by the real Pepper, who’s unhurt by his shots because they’re blanks, and she brandishes a machete and drives the terrified Morgan back into his own alligator pond. Whereupon cop-car lights suddenly shine on her and she’s taken away, while Jim finds the list of slave girls in his fallen cane — lucky it was there instead of on his person when the alligators ate him.

Wait a minute. So the cops were just sitting there watching the whole time… and they allowed Pepper to drive Morgan to his death? Aren’t cops supposed to, like, prevent murders or something?

This episode has some vague similarities to “Incarnate” from season 7, which also used a voodoo-based scam and holographic ghosts. But in many ways, it’s very much a typical episode of the new series. The on-site base and frequent conversations for the team, the supernatural con, the use of holograms and projections, the tacked-on action, the ethnic/cultural stereotypes, the plot contrivances that don’t quite hold up to fridge logic. Not to mention the team members being a bit too obvious about pushing the bad guys where they wanted them to go — not a frequent problem of this season, but a characteristic one. And a lot of it was typical of the franchise as a whole — throw in the divide-and-conquer strategy and the ending where the villains are maneuvered into killing each other off. Unfortunately it showcases the season’s weaknesses more than its strengths. Musically it’s slightly more interesting than usual, with some decent jazz source music at the club, but otherwise pretty typical of John E. Davis’s work. Maybe it’s fitting that the season finale should be so representative of the season as a whole.

Overview to come!

Categories: Reviews Tags: ,

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (’88) Reviews: “The Devils”/”The Plague” (spoilers)

“The Devils”: Written by Ted Roberts.

Oh, dear. We open with a scene of a drugged blonde being led by chanting guys in hoods to an altar where a guy in a goat-demon mask sacrifices her. One of the spectators looks on in horror, then wakes up screaming — it was his dream. Or was it? After the titles, when Jim gets the disc from a shrimp boat captain (and John E. Davis for once uses the main theme rather than “The Plot” to score it), we learn the guy is a diplomat in London who’s catatonic in an institution, while two others have committed suicide — all of them guests of Lord Holman (John Stanton), who’s believed to be a traitor who’s blackmailed these guys into sharing state secrets. Holman likes to indulge in New Age druidic practices, with a big celebration coming up the next week — and the episode treats these alternative spiritualities as indistinguishable from Satanism. This alone got me fearing the worst — but then Grant brought out the stupid-looking magic helmet that read the catatonic diplomat’s “electrotelepathic emanations” in order to get video images of his thoughts, which reveals the goat-head sacrifice. With total deadpan gravitas, Graves intones, “He’s been involved in Satanic rites.”

M:I The Devils

Seriously. This actually happened.

It’s like a scene out of a parody of this very show.

As if there weren’t enough cultural insensitivity already, Shannon and Nicholas are going undercover as stereotyped “Gypsies” — and for once we get a gadget demonstration in the apartment briefing, a video crystal ball for fortune-teller Shannon, as well as a few other gadgets in a second group discussion later on. Shannon makes contact with Holman’s groundskeeper Challis (Ron Graham) — no word on whether he holds the brew that is true — and gives a reading in which the video crystal ball is a totally pointless embellishment, and in which she fingers Jim, arriving in a limo and dressed in a black suit with a bright red tie and handkerchief, as The Evil One. Yes, folks… Jim is undercover as Satan. Oy. Freaking. Vey. Holman is skeptical of this at first, but Jim and Max uses various gadgets like glowy-evil-eye contact lenses, shoes that burn cloven hoofprints in the rug, and a gas that causes a brief lapse of consciousness so Holman thinks they’ve disappeared before his eyes.

Grant makes contact with the local Constable Egerton (Russell Newman), initially putting on an act as an uncaring American cop who’s only making a pro forma investigation of the three murdered girls who’ve turned up near the Holman estate. It seems random, but I guess this is to provoke a reaction from Egerton, who seems to express genuine concern for the victims — so Grant (with Jim’s approval) soon drops the role altogether and lets Egerton in on their investigation linking the pond where the bodies were found to an underground stream passing through Holman’s estate. Really, most of the elaborately set-up scheme seems to get tossed aside pretty quickly this week. But confiding in Egerton is a mistake, since the constable is on Holman’s hook and tells him about the investigation — but not much of a mistake, since when Holman orders Egerton to kill Grant, Egerton refuses to play along anymore, killing himself — along with any possible tension or suspense that plot thread could’ve generated.

Oh, and there’s an earlier scene where all four junior team members break into Holman’s underground devil-worshippin’ catacombs to scope them out. It’s unclear why they all had to go, especially since they don’t bother to split up and search to find the captive girl slated for the next sacrifice, instead having to make a separate effort later on to trail Challis to her cell. Why wait? Anyway, they free the girl, but by that point I’d already predicted that Shannon would get captured to take her place and end up as a cliched damsel in distress on the altar, and I was right. There’s even a scene where Holman’s upper-class, all-male cabalists (wait, are they being blackmailed or willingly part of the cult?) strip the drugged Shannon to put her in a white shift for the sacrifice — and it’s hard to believe they wouldn’t have taken some liberties with her in the process, but the episode is totally unconcerned with that. I sometimes forget how much sexism still remained in ’80s TV. Anyway, even though they kidnap her and dress her up, they somehow fail to discover that she’s wearing a wig.

All this culminates in a rather unfocused climax where Jim convinces Holman that he’s already claimed the latter’s soul, which shocks and terrifies Holman — why? Hadn’t he already pledged his soul to Satan? I guess the idea was that it was just a pretense for his blackmail, though the episode never addresses why so many prominent British politicians are sincerely Satanists and murder cultists. (At one point, Jim says that if the truth came out it would bring down the government, but if the government consists of men like that, doesn’t it deserve to be brought down? The episode implies that they were just weak-willed men that Holman pressured into going along with devil worship and serial murder, but that’s not much better.) And just as Shannon’s about to be sacrificed, the team springs some gratuitous gadgetry like red spotlights on Jim and Max’s faces, and Jim basically drives Holman back to fall into his own underground river, which is on fire because of another Grantism. So, yeah, that happened.

Wow. I think this is the worst episode of the entire franchise so far. It’s sometimes hilariously awful, but there were moments when I couldn’t tell if I was laughing or sobbing. The stupid, it burns! And the ethnocentrism, the reduction of women to passive victims, the over-the-top horror-movie villain scheme… this was more like a second-season Man from U.N.C.L.E. episode than an M:I episode, but it was played with absolute seriousness, only unintentionally emerging as farce. Graves makes an effectively suave Prince of Darkness, but even he has trouble selling some of the dialogue or the ridiculous situation.

“The Plague” is written by Rick Maier and features two-time Bond girl Maud Adams as the villain, Catherine Balzac, who’s our third blackmailer in the past four episodes. She’s blackmailed a French general into stealing a hyper-deadly US-made (and US-renounced) bacteriological weapon from a facility with amazingly lax security; when he sets off an alarm, we see the guards running around in response, but then they disappear and the guy just walks out and hands the petri dish to Balzac right outside the building, whereupon he asks “Now will you stop blackmailing me?” and she rewards his stilted expository question by shooting him. Right next to the building that was surrounded by guards on alarm just a few moments before. (But, to her credit, she did stop blackmailing him.)

Jim gets the disc from a bikini-clad aquarium employee, after Jim quotes a really condescending adage that dolphins are “God’s most obedient creatures.” Just for that, he’s not getting any thanks for all the fish. Anyway, Voice tells him that if the bioweapon was stored in unsafe conditions, it could breach containment and spread a plague across Europe.

This is another episode where the team is already at the site (Paris — the city, not Leonard Nimoy) for their first briefing. The plan involves using subliminal audio to do a couple of things, the first of which — for reasons that never quite become clear — is to make the audience at Balzac’s nightclub go gaga over Shannon’s singing. (Her first number is “La Vie en Rose.”) I’m pretty sure it’s Badler herself singing — the episode was probably written to let her show off her talent. Four episodes in, Shannon has already gotten more to do than Casey had in twelve episodes. Which seems to support the idea that Terry Markwell was let go for not being up to the job, rather than leaving because the producers didn’t give her enough to do. (I have a memory of watching this episode when it first aired and hearing my father criticize Badler’s lip-syncing to the prerecorded music. Even when it’s the performer’s actual voice, onscreen singing is almost always prerecorded in a sound studio for best quality and then lip-synced for the camera. I think my father’s complaint was that she was visibly just mouthing the words rather than putting her breath into it, but I couldn’t really tell the difference then or now.)

Anyway, Max gets himself noticed as a nightclub guest with an obviously fake cover, and when they question him, he makes a break and leads them on a motorcycle chase to Jim, whom they catch when Max gets away. Jim pretends to be the scientist who created the bacteria and warns Balzac of the danger that she’s infected. Grant then reinforces this by playing a US agent offering satellite secrets in exchange for the return of the bacteria before it goes virulent. And Nicholas replaces the eyepatched scientist sent by the terrorist buyers of the bioweapon, whom the team intercepts. When Balzac and her henchman leave Nick alone in the lab, Grant (via walkie-talkie) guides him through the procedure to use the waldo arm to secure the sample in the team’s special container. Even though he needs Grant to explain the workings of the equipment, he still knows what buttons to press even though Grant just gives him very generic directions. But then he’s startled by a noise and fumbles the waldo arm, cracking the glass. But the bacteria politely waits 15 seconds before becoming dangerous, so Nick has that much time to secure it in the case, although of course it’s really far longer than that, because seconds are longer in TV-land.

So Shannon swaps out one of Balzac’s earrings with a subliminal-sound earring that will induce anxiety and loss of balance, symptoms of the bacteria, and Nicholas contrives a lab accident that coats their skin in a harmless polymer Grant prepared that will dry in a way that makes it look like they’re breaking out in hideous sores. (Actually the exposition says the bacteria causes rapid aging of the internal organs, but that never becomes relevant.) Somehow the bad guys never notice that Nick cracked the glass. Oh, and Shannon makes the lights flicker so Balzac and henchguy think they’re going blind. Jim agrees to work up an antidote if they tell him where the rest of the bioweapon is stored, and she accedes; Nick and Shannon find the container intact and safe. Jim tells Balzac that there’s only enough antidote for one,  so the henchman fights her for it, and a fire breaks out in the lab. The heat melts the polymer coating on their skin and they see they’ve been tricked, but the fire has already trapped them in the lab and Jim trades a solemn look with Balzac before leaving her and henchguy to their fate. “You know what I say?” he says to the team. “A plague on both their houses.” Uh, that’s not quite what that line meant.

An okay but flawed episode, and a decent attempt to fake Paris as a location. Having an actual Bond villain as the antagonist lends it some prestige, I guess, and Adams was reasonably effective, even if the villains are starting to blend together lately. And Penghlis broke out another accent, something Eastern European this time. Why can’t he manage American? Meanwhile, John E. Davis’s paraphrases of “The Plot” continue to drift further from the original melody, although I guess that’s better than just using the same 7-note phrase over again. (I said before that it was six notes, but it adds a final note to resolve to the tonic.) And he’s still using fragments of it to score the villains’ actions in the teaser, but less so than before. Beyond that, I can’t say much more about the scores, because they’re all pretty much the same. Which is disappointing, since the original series was so heavily reliant on strong music.

Categories: Reviews Tags: ,

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (’88) Reviews: “The Fixer”/”Spy” (spoilers)

“The Fixer”: This is the first non-remake episode of the revival series to be written by a veteran of the original series: Walter Brough, who wrote “Squeeze Play” and “Casino”, and who’s also on board the revival as a co-producer. It’s also the second episode in a row to feature a guest star from the original series, Richard Romanus, who played a guard in “Gitano.” Romanus plays Arthur Six, a Washington journalist who’s blackmailing many US government officials with the dirt he’s accumulated on them — much the same setup as the original series’ “Mastermind,” though the plot is very different. The teaser shows him backing a federal judge into a corner and driving him to kill himself.

The main titles have been redone to feature Jane Badler in place of Terry Markwell, recreating similar shots in a couple of cases (which don’t work as well for her since her background is in journalism rather than fashion), but adding a new one of Badler soaking wet in a bathing suit with a plunging neckline. The new shot of Shannon Reed’s passport gives her the same March 8 birthday Casey’s passport showed. And the shot of Badler accompanying her credit is much better than Markwell’s, looking over her shoulder and smiling alluringly where Markwell was piling her hair up over her head for some reason. There’s also a new shot of a mask-fabricating device (Grant’s invention) that debuts later in this episode. (Meaning that Richard Romanus’s likeness is in the credits every week from now on, apparently. Did he get residuals for it?)

Jim gets the disc player from a news vendor. The mission is to destroy the blackmail files that Six is using to sway the members of a Senate committee investigating him, and to ensure that he’ll be indicted. Since Brough has done this before, the apartment briefing feels more like it should, with the team comparing notes about a plan in progress rather than being told about the mission for the first time — although the focus is still just on assumed identities and planning rather than showcasing gadgetry to be used later.

Jim gets Six on the hook by playing an old friend of the Senate committee’s chair, Senator Oxenford (Terence Donovan) — a friend who (according to a fake fax the team sends Six) was involved in a fatal drunk-driving accident. I guess the idea is that the senator helped him cover it up or something, giving Six dirt he could use to blackmail Oxenford, though that isn’t clear. He and Six meet in front of a bluescreened Lincoln Memorial (I think they were still using blue rather than green at the time.) Jim’s using the name of a real friend of Oxenford’s who died heroically decades ago, and he convinces Oxenford to play along with the scam. Meanwhile, Shannon (oops, typed “Casey” at first) is catching the eye of Six’s loyal muscleman Doyle (John Calvin) in order to set him up for a divide-and-conquer ploy. While Badler’s acting is rather broad (and involves quite a lot of headshaking as she talks), she’s definitely better at the femme fatale game than her predecessor was — and evidently the producers and costume designer think rather more highly of Badler’s cleavage, given how much they show it off.

Grant and Max are mostly filling Barney and Willy’s traditional roles, with Grant behind the scenes doing tech stuff and Max mostly looming as a security guard. But Grant does a bit of role-play as a delivery man bringing in a giant American flag for Six’s upcoming party, which he uses to conceal his break-in to Six’s safe — a plan that goes awry when he finds the safe empty, then gets shocked by a security system when he tries to plant an incriminating document as “Plan B.” Apparently this is a genuine setback in the plan, but it doesn’t seem to have a major impact on the team’s operation, except for Jim deciding to “turn up the heat” — i.e. send Nicholas in as the guy behind the planted evidence, demanding half a million bucks for his secrecy, and setting himself up to be killed by Doyle (though he wears a bulletproof vest and blood packs),with Max snapping shots of the murder. There’s another setback when the team can’t figure out where Six keeps his blackmail files, though that’s resolved rather easily when they break into his office later.

Anyway, everyone’s there for the party, and Jim tips off Doyle that Shannon is actually one of Oxenberg’s investigators. He drags her into Six’s office (almost catching Grant in the act) and roughs her up a bit, but she continues to play her part, showing Doyle the photos of his “murder” of Nicholas and saying that Six plans to throw him to the committee as the scapegoat. While Six is in makeup preparing for his TV broadcast from the party, a Six-masked Nicholas comes in and further sells the illusion to Doyle. We see the return of an old M:I standby, the knockout-needle ring (although now it’s an actual ring rather than the palmed joy-buzzer-esque needle from the original), which Nick uses to drug Doyle long enough for Max to empty his gun and Nick to ditch the mask. (There’s an attempt to do something clever by bluescreening Romanus against a window, having him walk out of frame, then show a “reflection” of Penghlis pulling off the mask, then have Penghlis walk back into frame. But the positioning and timing of the reflection don’t match what it’s supposedly reflecting.) So when the real Six comes in — having been told by Jim that Doyle is going to testify against him — they get into a highly incriminating argument that Grant, who tapped into the security cameras earlier in the episode, switches into the live national TV feed, bringing Six down. (Although technically Six doesn’t say much that’s decisively incriminating; it’s mostly Doyle alleging that Six has ordered him to commit crimes. Six does threaten to kill Doyle, but that doesn’t really prove anything.)

This was a pretty solid episode, feeling a lot like the original, but with a bit more tension than usual. It felt like there were some genuine setbacks and uncertainties in the plan, although they didn’t really seem to affect the flow of events that much because Jim already had fallback plans ready. There were also some nice, brief moments where we got to see team members drop character and show glimpses of their true feelings, like when Grant was hurt and the others showed concern. But my favorite was where Six told Jim that he believed planning every detail in advance was the key to success, and after he walked away, Jim said, “I couldn’t agree more.” Hearing it put into words like that made me realize how much M:I’s meticulous plots are a reflection of Jim Phelps’s character, since he’s the master strategist who devises these clockwork schemes. I never really thought about it that way before. (Although of course it was Dan Briggs who set the template.)

Musically, we’re into the era where John E. Davis will be the permanent composer, with one exception in season 2. He’s still using “The Plot” to score the disc scenes, but at least here he doesn’t use it for the bad guys. And he seems to have settled into using a specific, briefer variant of the opening bars of the melody, cutting out the middle six notes of the initial twelve-note phrase, and only occasionally using snippets of other portions. I don’t think he used the entire phrase at any point in the episode, or in his past few scores. He also makes less use of the main title theme than either Schifrin or Jones did.

“Spy”: Wow, and I thought it was generic when the original series did an episode called “The Spy.” Now they aren’t even bothering with the article. Anyway, this is not based on that episode; it’s an original script by executive producer Michael Fisher.

We open with a British agent named Crosby, entering a Central African village where everyone is dead, along with all animal and insect life for miles around (the plants seem fine). He’s recording a report and taking photos, calling the massacre “Christie’s work.” But John Christie himself (Tim Hughes) is watching and has the agent killed. (You could say he stills Crosby.)

Jim gets the disc in Chinatown after exchanging code phrases with a shop proprietor in Chinese (no idea how good his accent was). The Voice warns Jim that this is a particularly hazardous mission, since Christie is one of their own — an MI6 agent who’s gone to the other side. (For some reason, the Voice finds it necessary to explain to Jim, a seasoned intelligence agent, that MI6 is the British intelligence agency.) He must be stopped before he unleashes the massive stockpile of chemical weapons he’s been amassing for sale to terrorists. Since the superpowers have a common interest in stopping Christie, the team is being assisted by an expert from “way outside the team,” as Jim puts it: KGB colonel and physician Dr. Yuri Nikolai (Shane Briant).

Christie’s based at a hotel in Central Africa, and the chemical weapons plant is believed to be nearby. Grant and Max get themselves hired for Christie’s band of mercenaries, with Max’s job interview consisting of beating up Christie’s henchman Carl (Lee A. Rice II) with help from another drug-tipped ring that weakens him enough for Max to win. This is so they can get inside and find the weapons plant, which they do quite easily, although Max has earned Carl’s enmity. Nicholas plays an elderly French monsignor who grew up in the hotel in the time of Hemingway, and Shannon plays a reporter doing a memoir of his life, in order to convince Christie to let them visit his office so they can plant a bug. Amazingly, Thaao Penghlis actually adopts a French accent. It’s a pretty bad French accent, but at least it’s not the same Australian accent he’s used week in and week out even when playing Americans or Englishmen.

Jim’s part in the plan is to impersonate a representative of the people Christie plans to sell his hoard of diamonds to in order to fund his weapons plant, so that he can steal the diamonds and hobble the operation. But Dr. Nikolai — who was Jim’s opponent on a mission a decade earlier — warns Jim that this is risky. Christie’s access to US intelligence was cut off 5 years ago, so the rest of the team is safe, but Jim could be found out. Jim tries to avoid getting his fingerprints taken (refusing to give up his coffee cup or to accept a glass of brandy from which his prints could be taken), but Christie has a hidden camera and uses facial recognition to identify “Name: James Phelps — Nationality: American — Occupation: IMF Team Leader.” Oops! Christie pulls a gun on Jim. But Nicholas and Shannon have been listening in on the bug (which was for capturing the sound of the safe tumblers) and manage to blow out the hotel’s power long enough to get Jim away and for Nicholas to knock out Christie and swipe the diamonds. However, Jim is shot and needs to rely on the KGB doctor to save him. Fortunately, he spared the doctor’s life ten years ago, and Nikolai returns the favor. Grant and Max are also exposed and have to shoot their way out of the chemical plant.

Once Nikolai identifies the chemical mixture — which conveniently becomes explosive with harmless fallout if it’s mixed wrong — Jim’s new plan is to fake Shannon’s death in a car wreck so Christie can recover the diamonds and proceed with the chemical mixing, with the labels switched (thanks to Grant’s handheld scanner and portable printer) to precipitate the kaboom. But Grant and Max are discovered planting the labels and have to fight their way out again, with Max having to take on Carl barefisted without any drugged needles this time, and just barely winning. Christie discovers the switched chemicals and blithely drives away without warning anyone else in the plant, so presumably they’re all killed when it blows up. Jim says they’ll bag Christie next time, though we won’t see the character again.

Have you noticed this stopped sounding like Mission: Impossible a few sentences ago? Generally I like it when the plan fails and the team has to improvise a solution, but that’s when the solution is another clever plan. Here, once Jim is found out, the usual con-game approach mostly gives way to a more conventional action story complete with very long shoot-’em-ups and pointless fistfights. And the big shootout is practically A-Team style, with tons of automatic weapons firing and nobody appearing to get hit. (Although to be fair, automatic weapons are extremely hard to aim, what with all the recoils. Apparently continuous fire mode is used more for suppression fire than actually hitting people.) It’s a major departure from the way this show usually works — and it feels like a precursor to the movies to come.

That said, it was nice to see more of the team out of character, and to see Jim speaking openly with fellow spies — both Christie as an adversary and Nikolai as a former enemy who’s now an ally. Although that too feels more like a conventional spy story and less like M:I — which, as I’ve said before, is really more of a con-artist or heist show dressed up as a spy show to give its protagonists legitimacy.

Hmm, if Jim clashed with the KGB doctor a decade earlier, that would’ve been 1979 — six years after the original series ended and eight years after the IMF became a domestic mob-busting agency. I guess it went back to international espionage sometime in the interim.

Not much to say about Davis’s score, except that I’m starting to get tired of his stripped-down “Plot” variant. The thing about the original “The Plot” is that it was long and complicated, so even though it was used extensively in every score, there was a ton you could do with it, lots of possible variations on its parts, and even just a straightforward statement of it took you on a journey. But reducing it to just six or seven notes repeated over and over gets tedious in a way the whole thing never did. Ron Jones has only been gone for two episodes and I’m already missing him.

Categories: Reviews Tags: ,

Thoughts on Godzilla: 2014 Reboot — “The Legendary Era?” (spoilers)

Well, here I am, continuing my Godzilla reviews with the new movie reboot, and as you see in the title, I’m proposing a name for the new series that we’re probably going to be getting, now that the film has done so well on its opening weekend that a sequel has already been ordered. Since Legendary Pictures is the production company behind this film (in collaboration with Warner Bros. and under license from Toho), “Legendary Era” seems a fitting name for the new age of Godzilla — though time will tell if it’s worthy of that name. (Or if anyone other than me will want to call it that. Edit: Turns out Wikizilla is already using “Legendary Series.” Later edit: The official Legendary title is “MonsterVerse.”)

So here we are… the fourth film in total to bear the title Godzilla (alternately transliterated as Gojira), and the second American one, sixteen years after the previous attempt at a US reboot — which, as per my previous analysis, is best seen as a movie about a different creature that was simply mistaken for Godzilla (arguably occurring in the universe of GMK: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack, which alludes in passing to its events). So this is the first American-made film about the genuine article — unless you count 1956’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters!, which is altered enough from the 1954 original that it arguably constitutes a distinct film running in parallel to it. Let’s say, then, that this is the first fully American-made film about the actual Godzilla (or one of his many avatars across the cinematic multiverse).

But this film is definitely a new start. Previous Godzilla universes (see above link) have almost invariably shared a common origin story: The American nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands in 1954 awoke the beast in one way or another (either driving him from his natural feeding grounds and turning him radioactive as in the Showa Era, or mutating a smaller carnosaur into a giant, nuclear-powered creature as in the Heisei Era) and led him to rampage through Tokyo later that year, after which Dr. Daisuke Serizawa’s Oxygen Destroyer weapon either destroyed the beast (followed by the emergence of a second Godzilla at some later point) or crippled him (after which he spent decades regenerating before re-emerging). But this film changes that. The 1954 atomic tests are still part of the backstory, but their meaning is changed. Here, as in Showa, Godzilla was a naturally occurring prehistoric alpha predator, one of a breed of creatures that fed on radiation and evolved to live deeper in the Earth as the surface became less radioactive. (Not great paleontology, but then, the first movie said the dinosaurs died out 2 million years ago, so what the heck.) An American nuclear submarine awoke Godzilla, so one could say that America’s culpability for unleashing him is intact; but this American-produced film gives the US military a chance to redeem itself, since the Marshall Islands tests are now explained as an attempt to kill off Godzilla. I’m not sure that’s in the best of taste, considering that the original film was an allegorical protest for the deaths of Japanese fisherman and the poisoning of Japanese soil and water as a result of those tests. Although I’ll grant that the film paints those attempts as a futile gesture, at least. Every attempt in this film to use nuclear weapons as a solution proves ineffectual, and the bomb is ultimately shown as more a threat than a benefit, which is reasonably true to the spirit of the series. So it’s not as jingoistic as the American dub of the 1984 reboot (which was altered to make the Soviets more evil), but it still lets the Americans come off somewhat better, as one would expect of an American Godzilla.

Also, Godzilla’s 1954 raid on Tokyo is apparently absent from this universe, unless it happened in a different way that was covered up as a natural disaster. That’s perhaps the biggest departure from prior continuities; six out of the seven Toho Godzilla universes include the ’54 attack as an iconic part of their history, and the other (Godzilla 2000: Millennium) is agnostic on the question. Perhaps we can assume that in this reality, the American nuclear attack injured Godzilla enough that he didn’t attack Tokyo. So the world is mostly unaware of kaiju until 1999, when a mining operation unleashes one of the film’s original monsters (called MUTO for “Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism” — not as colorful as the Japanese kaiju names), which causes a Fukushima-esque disaster at the nuclear reactor where Bryan Cranston’s Joe Brody and his wife work, causing his wife’s death (boy, the Brody clan can’t catch a break) and turning Brody into a conspiracy nut searching for The Truth, eventually drawing his Navy-lieutenant son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) into events just in time for the winged male MUTO to hatch from its cocoon around the damaged reactor (they feed on nuclear material and absorb the associated radiation for energy, a trait they share with Heisei/Millennium Godzilla) and begin a rampage toward Nevada, where its larger mate’s cocoon has been stored by the US government until it, too, breaks out. (I guess this is vaguely an allegory for how the danger of atomic waste may not be as containable as we like to think, or maybe it’s just an excuse to bring the action to the US.) The MUTOs not only feed on radiation, but emit electromagnetic pulses that knock out all electronics around them, part of the reason the military is helpless against them. And of course, the EMP is portrayed as fancifully as it always is in fiction. It expands in a visible blue sphere — much, much slower than light — and while it’s able to knock out military hardware that’s presumably EMP-hardened, it somehow leaves a commercial GPS device on a civilian boat completely undamaged. Also, its effects are temporary, with devices coming back on again after the MUTO threat recedes. No. Nope. EMP induces currents so strong that they burn out electrical equipment that isn’t built to handle such intense currents (even if the equipment is turned off, since the pulse itself creates the current). It’s permanent damage, not just a suppression of activity.

Since Joe has information that was believed lost in the ’99 incident, he and Ford come to the attention of Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe), who’s named after the original film’s director Ishiro Honda as well as Daisuke Serizawa, and is perhaps implicitly Daisuke’s son, in this continuity where Godzilla never attacked Tokyo and he never had to sacrifice himself. (Watanabe was born in 1959, so the timing would work. And sure, he said his father’s watch stopped when Hiroshima was bombed, but that doesn’t mean his father died there. In fact, the tie-in comic Awakening reveals that Ishiro’s father was a survivor of Hiroshima.  Although Ishiro wouldn’t be the son of Emiko Yamane, because she presumably would’ve still left Serizawa for Ogata.) But it’s odd that Watanabe’s scientist-hero is named for Serizawa, since he’s more reminiscent of Professor Yamane, the thoughtful scientist who strives to understand Godzilla and argues against the military’s efforts to destroy it.

Anyway, Cranston is taken out of action pretty early on, so the narrative shifts focus to Ford, Serizawa, and Admiral Stenz, head of the American anti-kaiju task force, played to crisp perfection by David Strathairn (whose marvelous speech to the troops from the trailers is sadly missing from the final cut — perhaps because they figured we’d all heard it already). Ford kind of happens to stumble into the heart of all the action through a series of contrivances while just trying to get home to his wife (Elizabeth Olsen — try not to think about the fact that she’s also playing his sister in the upcoming Avengers: Age of Ultron) and their young son. Meanwhile, Serizawa tries to talk Stenz out of his plan to use a nuke as bait to draw in and kill all three kaiju, taking the position that Godzilla’s natural role is to restore balance and that we should let the monsters fight it out. It ultimately comes down to a confrontation in San Francisco, where the mommy MUTO (which was born pregnant, just like tribbles!) has laid its eggs — a plot point surprisingly similar to the third act of the ’98 Godzilla, which I would’ve expected this film to try very hard not to remind anyone of. Although it’s handled very differently here, more of a sidebar to the main confrontation between Godzilla and the MUTOs and to Ford’s attempts to get the nuke out of the city in time to save his family.

Yes, what’s surprising here is that Godzilla is pretty unambiguously the hero. That’s not what I expected, given this film’s effort to return to the serious spirit of the original. Most of the serious-minded Godzilla movies before this have cast him as the villain, or at best as a force of nature that had a right to exist but was very, very dangerous to the puny humans in its path. The idea of Godzilla as a defender of the Earth against more ruthless monsters is generally associated with the kooky, kid-oriented films of the ’60s and ’70s. But this Godzilla is almost tame. He does unthinkingly cause a lot of damage that threatens and probably kills a lot of humans — the “tsunami” in Hawaii, the destruction of the Golden Gate Bridge (for the umpteenth time in film history) — but it comes off more as benign neglect than anything else, and the casualties are mostly off-camera, so it doesn’t really make Godzilla seem all that scary. Maybe it would be enough, though, if it weren’t for certain beats that make Godzilla seem almost solicitous of humans, like when he dives beneath an aircraft carrier rather than smashing it (although his wake does threaten to capsize some other ships), or at one moment where he’s fallen in battle and makes eye contact with Ford, his fellow protagonist, in what’s essentially a moment of bonding. We’ve seen other movies where Godzilla deigned to notice an individual human (King Ghidorah, Godzilla 2000), but in those cases he destroyed them a moment later. This is the friendliest Godzilla we’ve seen onscreen since 1975. Honestly I find that a little disappointing. Also puzzling, given that the first time he met humans, they tried to nuke him. You’d think he’d see us as more of a threat, or at least an annoyance. But I guess this Godzilla was designed with a franchise in mind — the alpha predator charged with preserving the Earth’s balance as more of those ancient radiation-feeding critters are drawn to the surface by the energies of the atomic age.

Still, in other ways, this Godzilla is very impressive. The visual effects are top-notch, though I’m inclined to agree with the critics that say the Big G’s new design is a bit too pear-shaped. And the 3D created a marvelous sense of scale for the kaiju. In that shot from the trailers where the soldiers in Hawaii fire the flares and Godzilla’s flank comes into view, even though I knew what was coming, the moment of the reveal still sent a shudder through me. Also in the railroad-bridge scene with the MUTO looming overhead, the 3D gave it a palpable sense of “it’s coming closer!” that really alarmed me on an instinctive level. The MUTOs are a cool design (although angular in a way that suggests a Gamera foe more than a Godzilla one). And Godzilla is truly huge and awesome here, the CGI letting us see him in a way we never really could before. Although in the final act he doesn’t seem quite as massive, both because he’s pitted against two monsters that match his size and because the camera is often at a higher vantage point to let us see the fight. There’s even a classic Godzilla-movie side-view shot of Godzilla and a MUTO facing each other down amid the skyscrapers.

And it is an excellent final battle, capturing one of Godzilla’s key characteristics: The fact that he’s not just about brute force, but is a clever and calculating fighter. When the enemy seems to have him on the ropes, he’ll suddenly rally with a sudden surprise move and totally trash his opponent. Although the greatest moment had to be when we first saw his spines begin to light up through the dust. That was classic. I’m glad they saved that for the right moment.

Which brings me to the question of pacing. I’ve seen a lot of viewers complaining that we don’t see enough of Godzilla in this movie, but I think the pacing was handled just right, very similarly to a lot of the Toho movies: The first act features mainly the villain kaiju with some hints of Godzilla, then he makes a big appearance in the top of the second act and has his first clash with the enemy, then we focus mainly on the humans trying to cope with the situation, and the bulk of the kaiju action is saved for the big battle in the third act. I think it was right not to overuse Godzilla in the first two acts, to build up anticipation. That’s a perfectly appropriate technique as long as the payoff is satisfying, which it was. As for the complaint that the human characters were boring, well, it’s true they didn’t have that much depth to them, but the performances and direction held my interest. It was appropriate to keep the focus more on the human-scale reactions to the ongoing disaster. Kaiju films are basically disaster films, and I think disaster-film protagonists tend to be kind of everyman/woman types so that we can identify with the universal dread we’d all feel in a similar situation.

The main issue for me with the characters is that I wish more of them had been Japanese. Godzilla is a Japanese creation and franchise, and I’d prefer it if Japanese characters played a larger role in the film. Even in the scenes set at the reactor in Japan, both in 1999 and 2014, most of the people in charge are Westerners. Why are so few Japanese officials involved in events happening in Japan? It didn’t help that the film was so heavily populated with the same actors who show up in every TV show made in Vancouver or Toronto. They had Garry Chalk, Hiro Kanagawa, and Terry Chen in the ’99 scenes. They had Brian Markinson and Ty Olsson at the reactor in 2014. They had Jill Teed as Mrs. Brody’s hospital coworker. I’m surprised Mike Dopud and Roger Cross didn’t show up too. It kind of undermined the Japanese flavor of the Japan scenes when they were so obviously shot in Vancouver. The movie did location filming in Honolulu and Las Vegas, so why couldn’t they do some filming in Japan, where Godzilla was born? I don’t mind Hollywood lending its budgets and talent and technical knowhow to realizing Godzilla like he’s never been seen before, but I don’t want the films to lose their Japanese flavor altogether.

Indeed, that’s the worrying thought that occurred to me the other day. This film is cleaning up at the box office and a series of films — the “Legendary Era” I mentioned above — seems assured. But I have to wonder — what does that mean for the prospects of ever seeing a Japanese-made Godzilla film again? Could Toho ever match the level of money and technology that went into this movie, and if not, would audiences be interested in a smaller-scale Godzilla movie ever again? Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad this movie succeeded and that there’s finally a viable American Godzilla series. I just wonder what the cost of that success will be.

Let’s see, what else? Well, I loved the opening titles. Lots of Easter eggs to be reviewed on DVD, with the text being “censored” as we watch. Plus it’s just great to see a movie using a full opening-title sequence.

As I said, for the most part, the 3D worked very well for me. But I feel it fell short at one point where it could’ve done wonders — the scene where Juliette Binoche and the people with her were running down that long corridor, trying to escape the radiation leak. It would’ve been great to get a really good sense of depth there to convey just how far away the end of the corridor was, but the scene seemed flat to me, lacking that sense of distance.

Not happy that they never quoted Akira Ifukube’s themes. This isn’t the first Godzilla film to omit them altogether, but they would’ve been nice to hear. Even if they weren’t used in the film proper, it would’ve been nice to hear them quoted in the end credits.

The new roar is pretty effective, but I wish it had been a bit closer to the classic roar. And they didn’t use the full roar with the upward flourish at the end very often, just a couple of times, it seemed. That was disappointing. Although one thing I found intriguing: The first time he gave the full roar, his nostrils changed shape in the final flourish, suggesting it represents an inhalation after the long outburst of breath. Interesting.

Keep an eye on my Godzilla: Final thoughts thread, which I’ll be editing to add discussion of this movie.

Categories: Reviews Tags: , , ,

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (’88) Reviews: “The Greek”/”The Fortune” (spoilers)

“The Greek”: Written by Ted Roberts.

We open in Southeast Asia, where drug tycoon/yachtsman Socrates Colonnades (Cesare Danova) murders an American agent who’s disguised as a fisherman in a passing boat, while his flighty, flirtatious opera-singer girlfriend Serina (Dina Panozzo) entertains his guests on the yacht. John E. Davis’s score reminds me of Jerry Goldsmith’s Rambo music — maybe both drew on Southeast Asian influences? But Davis also uses snatches of “The Plot” during this sequence. I complained before about using “The Plot” to accompany Jim getting the disc briefing — but using it to score the villains’ actions? That’s just not right. Davis seems to have, as it were, lost the plot. (Although the rest of his score is reasonably good. Although he seems to be getting into the habit of using just snippets of “The Plot” rather than fuller statements of its lengthy melody.)

Back in Stock-establishing-shot Francisco, Jim gets the briefing in a brewery, and I find myself starting to wonder about the people who exchange code phrases with him, both here and back in the original series. Does the IMF, or the larger American intelligence community, really have so many different agents embedded within the US population, doing ordinary jobs? If so, why? It’s not legal for the CIA to operate domestically. Or are these just ordinary citizens, the actual holders of the various jobs we see, who’ve been paid by the government to meet some guy, exchange a code phrase, and point him to a particular location, without having any idea what it’s all about? Do they also clean up the smoldering boxes after the discs have self-destructed? If so, where do they take them? Is there a point to such a complicated way of contacting an operative? And why did it take me seven and a half seasons to start asking these questions?

And about those boxes… The thing about the original series’ tape drops is that they were always played on ordinary equipment, with only the tapes (or records or films) themselves specially treated to self-immolate after playing, or (in early seasons) just thrown in the fire afterward. Often, before the little tape player became standard, we’d see Dan or Jim playing a record or tape on a normal piece of playback equipment. So once the message was destroyed, presumably there’d be nothing there but an ordinary record player or tape deck or other audio device, maybe with some strange residue or charring, and nothing more suspicious than that. Yet the new disc-player boxes are these elaborate, specialized, high-tech devices that are supposedly left just sitting around San Francisco. Sure, you need an authorized thumbprint to open them, but the very existence of these unusual instruments would tend to attract attention, and give potential enemy agents something to look for. So it’s nice and modern, but it’s too conspicuous to make a lot of sense in practical spy-biz terms. This being 1988-90, it would’ve made more sense for the IMF just to leave cassette tapes for Jim to play in his Walkman.

So anyway… Colonnades leads an international drug cartel that steals medical relief supplies meant for refugees and disaster victims, then resells them as “drugs of addiction,” as the Voice puts it. He’s meeting on his yacht with his five main distributors, and luckily, not only have they never met, but the authorities have nabbed two of them. As with “The Haunting,” the team is already on site, this time in Greece, when Jim briefs them, and as with several prior episodes, this is clearly the first time most of the team is hearing it. Usually it seems that Jim and Grant are the only ones fully briefed before the others are brought in, implying that Grant is possibly the second-in-command — much as his father effectively was in the last couple of seasons of the original. Grant will be impersonating the West African distributor, and Jim will play a Canadian agent allegedly sent by the English one (who conveniently sounds exactly like Nicholas, apparently, since Nick’s able to vouch for Jim with a phone call). When they fax Jim’s picture to Colonnades, Serina finds him “dashing.” I guess she likes older men.

Of the other distributors, the only one who matters is Woodward, a mean-tempered American thug played by Nicholas Hammond, who to me will always be Peter Parker from the ’70s Spider-Man TV series (the mediocre US one, not the awesomely insane Japanese one where Spidey had a giant robot). The team sets things up to make it look like Serina is cheating on Colonnades with Angry Spidey, which is easy enough since she flirts with him readily. Casey records a line or two with Serina’s accent, and somehow Nicholas is able to move a single slider on the audio equipment and make it an exact match for Serina’s voice. Then Casey and Max break in to plant the mini-disc in Woodward’s room, after Jim has drugged Angry Spidey to knock him out so they can abscond with him.

By the way, earlier in the episode, Max swam under the yacht to tangle its propeller in a fishing net so they’d be stuck in port. I wish they’d had Casey do that, since it was established back in “Holograms” that she was a trained scuba diver, and it would’ve been nice if the show had established she actually had a useful specialization other than being female. Instead, she’s relegated to the “tag along with others and occasionally make a minor contribution” role she’s been saddled with for most of the season.

Anyway, Grant sneaks into Colonnades’s quarters (while he’s in them, oddly) to swipe his ledger and plant a fake page to make it look like he’s screwing over the distributors. The safe is opened by a mock desk phone, and the episode uses the lame “guess the password based on obvious names associated with the owner” conceit rather than some IMF codebreaking gadget. Worse, the password turns out to be the name of the yacht they’re on at that very moment. And then they do the lame act-break cliche where a Mr. Collier is about to be discovered at the end of one act and then the threat harmlessly passes at the start of the next. Although they sort of make up for it later. First, Grant’s fake-page-printer gizmo causes electronic interference on the yacht equipment so he’s at risk of discovery, though this is another threat he dodges effortlessly. Later, though, while he’s returning the ledger, Colonnades and Serina come in and have an argument (that leads to her safe departure) and Grant has to hide in the bubble-bath-filled tub until they leave. The look on his face when he surfaces and gasps for breath is a nice moment of comedy.

Okay, so the captured Woodward wakes up in a fake cell where Nicholas, pretending to be a fellow prisoner, claims to be the real Australian distributor, with the guy on the boat being a ringer working for Colonnades. Nicholas helps Angry Spidey “escape,” getting “killed” by Max in the process (Casey at least gets to trigger the squibs), and Angry Spidey hies it back to the yacht to have it out with Colonnades and the Australian, insisting on seeing the ledger with its fake numbers showing that the two are in cahoots to profit at the others’ expense. Jim and Grant make an excuse to get out of the cabin before the bullets start flying. There’s a nice final beat where a wounded Colonnades comes out on deck, sees Jim and Grant rendezvousing with the rest of the team, and almost shoots them, but Angry Spidey shoots him, unknowingly saving them before he too succumbs to his injuries.

A pretty routine episode, and one that didn’t give any of the cast beyond Jim and Grant much to do — Nicholas a bit more than the others, but not much more. But it’s interesting to see the rapport that’s emerging between Jim and Grant. Given that Peter Graves worked closely with Greg Morris for seven years, I’d imagine Phil Morris was aware of him growing up, maybe knowing him as a friend of the family. In-universe, we did see M:I episodes where team members socialized when they weren’t on missions, for instance “The Town” and “Homecoming”, so evidently they were friends as well as colleagues, and it’s thus possible that Grant also knew Jim growing up — at least in the reality of the revival, where Barney was a husband and father during his time with the IMF, as opposed to the reality of the original series where he was a confirmed bachelor. Okay, I’m contradicting myself by both drawing on the original show as evidence and pointing it out as inconsistent at the same time, but that’s the nature of fictional continuity a lot of the time, retconning some things while keeping others. Anyway, it’s nice to think that Jim and Grant are more than just teammates, that there’s a special connection between them as there arguably was for the actors.

“The Fortune”: Written by Robert Brennan.

This one is a Very Special Episode in several ways. First off, its two main guest stars are both veterans of the original series: BarBara Luna, who was the title character/love interest in “Elena” and  a guest agent in “Time Bomb”, and Michael Pate, who was a supporting character in “Trek.” Luna, as we’ll later learn in the disc scene, plays Emilia Berezan, formerly the ruthless power behind the throne of Pate’s Luis Berezan while he was the figurehead ruler of a Latin American country named Alcante. When Luis fell ill and lost his mental clarity, they were deposed and sought asylum in the Florida Keys, but not before ripping off the nation’s treasury and leaving its people in poverty.

But the episode opens with the paranoid, hypervigilant Emilia monitoring her estate’s security feeds, where an intruder is being chased by guards and dogs. The intruder is Casey! And the chase is cued with one of those Ron Jones melodies I’ve never forgotten even though I haven’t heard it in a quarter-century. This is partly because the scene it accompanies made quite an impact on me when I first saw it. Emilia’s men catch Casey and bring her before Emilia — and incidentally before Luis, but he’s too busy watching Mitzi Gaynor sing the title song in the movie Anything Goes as Emilia confronts Casey and, not even bothering to question her, gives her a lethal injection. Yes, Casey’s finally been given something big to do: die. Perhaps the movie Luis is watching was chosen to make a statement: anything goes on this M:I, even the killing of a main cast member.

Okay, nominally a main cast member — in practice, not much more than a decoration. Casey’s surprising murder at the opening of an episode hit me hard when I first saw it, because I had kind of a crush on Terry Markwell at the time. But now I can more clearly see why she was replaced, given how little she contributed — or was allowed to contribute. I’ve done a bit of Googling on the question, and apparently it’s unclear whether Markwell was let go by the producers for not measuring up or asked to be let go because she wasn’t being given enough to do. Perhaps it was a mutual decision, though given how ignominious her demise is — and given that she isn’t even allowed any valedictory lines beyond “No, no” — it seems there wasn’t any love lost on the producers’ part. But in any case, her death scene is the most impressive bit of acting she’s done in the entire series. And it’s the briefest role she’s played in any episode she’s in — but not by that much.

What surprises me on the rewatch is that the team, for the first half of the episode, is totally unaware of Casey’s murder. Jim gets the briefing as normal on an elevated train (meant to be BART, I guess), and the mission is simply to return the Berezans’ funds to Alcante so they can’t bankroll a return to power. In the apartment, the mood is jovial as Jim tells the others that the Secretary sent Casey ahead on special assignment to do the research for this mission. It’s an interesting fragment of insight into IMF procedures, touching on the never-before-addressed question of how they get the information they deliver to Jim. Although it’s never explained why an actual team member was sent to do preliminary research. Anyway, Jim assures the team that they’ll be meeting up with Casey when they get there (although once they arrive, nobody wonders at her absence), and in the meantime they’ve been assigned a fill-in lady agent: Shannon Reed, a 5-year Secret Service veteran with a background in broadcast journalism. Shannon will be Casey’s permanent replacement, though the team doesn’t know it yet. She’s played by Jane Badler, who’s best known as the villainous Diana from the miniseries V and V: The Final Battle and later from V: The Series. (Badler would later play another character named Diana in the dreadful 2011 remake of V, as an homage to her original character. That means she’s been a regular or recurring player in two TV-series revivals.)

Jim and Grant present themselves to Emilia as oil-company representatives willing to help the Berezans reconquer their country in exchange for drilling rights. The plan involves letting the marks in on the team’s trickery, an unusual twist: Nicholas is playing an actor and master of disguise who will impersonate Luis in order to give a speech showing that he can still be virile and commanding and win back the respect of his people. This will be staged for Emilia’s benefit using a pre-taped speech (Nicholas will insist on working without an audience so she’ll watch the speech from the security room), while Nicholas, still disguised as Luis, slips out to the bank and convinces Luis’s banker to transfer the funds back home, using account numbers provided by Grant when he hacks the computer. Shannon plays a reporter who agrees to broadcast the speech (and her bona fides is a shot of her terribly chroma-key matted over riot footage, which convinces Emilia she was in Alcante even though the video fakery is obvious). Meanwhile, Max’s role is to become the latest of Emilia’s many young boy toys in order to gain access to her highly secured home and help the others with their infiltration. Not an unpleasant task; at this point it had been 23 years since Luna had played Martin Landau’s love interest in “Elena,” but she still looked pretty good.

At least, this was the plan. Halfway through, while the team is preparing to fake the broadcast, Jim alone notices a TV report about an unidentified dead woman washed up on shore, a woman he recognizes as Casey. At first, he doesn’t tell the others, presumably not wanting to throw them off their game. Or maybe he just wants to make sure first, because he eventually does tell them. The team is angry and devastated, and Max doesn’t think he can go ahead with his part and seduce the woman who probably killed Casey. Jim says he understands, that Casey was like a daughter to him — although that’s the first indication we’ve ever gotten of that. But Jim convinces the others that continuing the mission is the best way to get justice, since Emilia’s cameras capture everything and may contain evidence connecting her to Casey’s death. Once Max helps smuggle out the security tape, Grant digs through the layers of recordings and re-recordings to try to reconstruct the magnetic palimpsest from the night Casey was captured — allegedly an infrared image according to his expository dialogue with Shannon, although once he reconstructs it, it’s in perfect full color.

So the plan goes ahead, and for the second week in a row it entails Grant having to guess a password and making stupid guesses like Luis’s own name (why would someone’s username also be their password????). Of course, it turns out to be “Anything Goes,” like on the movie poster right next to the computer. So Grant forwards the information to the LCD display on Nicholas-as-Luis’s sunglasses and the money is transferred back. Normally this would be the end, but this is a special case. Once the job is done, the whole team (except for Nicholas, who’s away at the bank) confronts Emilia directly and shows her the reconstructed proof that Casey was hunted down in her estate on the night of her murder. Jim angrily grabs Emilia and snarls that she’s going to jail for the rest of her life and it’s too good for her. She goes full Evita, defiantly insisting that her people love her and will rally to her defense, but when she asks Luis to back her up, the doddering ex-figurehead trades a knowing smile with Jim and turns on his movie again, letting Mitzi Gaynor drown out his wife’s rantings.

Fade to black, fade in a computer screen showing a mission status debrief file. The file for Casey Randall, age 28, has her status amended from Active to Deceased (the other options being Inactive and Retired), and a red DISAVOWED flashes on the screen. And that’s the last we see of Casey, and this time around I don’t particularly regret it. Rather, I wonder if it even makes sense for the agency to have a file notation that an agent has been disavowed. Shouldn’t they just wipe all records showing that she was ever part of the agency? And come to think of it, should we feel uncomfortable that the IMF is a US intelligence agency operating illegally on US soil, which is presumably the reason for their ultra-secrecy even on domestic missions?

Oh, well. Farewell, Casey Randall. We hardly knew ye. Hopefully Shannon will actually be given more to do. I’d assume so, but it’s hard to be sure, since Markwell wouldn’t be the first female lead of an ’80s Paramount show to leave due to the smallness of her role (if that was why she left). Just a season earlier, Denise Crosby had left Star Trek: The Next Generation for the same reason — and Ron Jones also scored her death scene, with another unforgettable piece of music (and a much more poignant one than this). The rest of Jones’s score here is moderately interesting, but not one of his best. It is, however, his last. This is his M:I swan song as well as Markwell’s, and it’s a departure I regret a lot more.

Thoughts on THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 (Spoilers)

I finally got around to seeing The Amazing Spider-Man 2 today. I only just happened to discover there’s a relatively new theater that’s a few miles closer to home than the ones I usually go to, although I wasn’t thrilled with the sound system there.

Anyway, I thought the movie was better than a lot of the reviews are saying, though it has some major flaws. The main problems are with the characterization of the villains. Max Dillon, before his transformation into Electro, is a very off-putting and cartoony caricature, reminding me of Gus Gorman from Superman III in a way. And the doctor (Marton Csokas) who examined him in Ravenscroft, named Ashley Kafka but bearing no resemblance to the sympathetic female character of that name in the comics, was an even more cartoony stereotype of a German mad scientist. Meanwhile, Norman Osborn, who was played up as a major threat in the first movie (and of course has been that and then some in the comics), had just one scene that tried to abruptly establish a whole history with his son Harry in retrospect before he dropped dead. It was an awkward infodump scene, and it felt too dependent on the viewers already knowing about Norman and Harry’s history from the comics, cartoons, or previous movies, rather than something that could really stand on its own. Harry himself was okay, but given a rather abrupt turn to the dark side.

But what worked marvelously well was Spider-Man. This is the most perfect live-action depiction of Spider-Man in action I’ve ever seen. They totally nailed it. Well, not totally — some of the action choreography was implausible, like the way Spidey just ignored the dozens of cars being smashed in the opening truck chase in order to save one pedestrian. I think the conceit the filmmakers were following was that anyone inside a car or bus was immune from being killed in a wreck, which would be really great if it were true, but since it isn’t, that didn’t work so well. Aside from that, though, Spidey was note-perfect — his methods, his attitude, his banter, his compassion for the little guy. And the costume looked great too. Not only that, but they actually let him keep the mask on for most of his scenes, really let him perform as Spider-Man, let him be Spider-Man, even in dramatic scenes. That embrace of his iconic design and silhouette, of Spider-Man as a character rather than just a disguise for Peter Parker, gave it an extra bit of authenticity. This is the real deal. It’s the best Spidey action ever, not because of the special effects, but because of Spidey himself.

The way Peter is portrayed out of costume is almost as good, although the thread about his search for answers about his parents doesn’t really feel that connected to the rest of the story. But his relationship with Gwen Stacy is really great, and Gwen is really great. Spidey here is basically like he is in the comics (at last), but Gwen is so much better a character in these movies than she ever was in the comics. I mean, sure, we all revere the memory of Gwen Stacy, but the most significant thing she really did in the comics was dying. Before that happened, she was just another superhero love interest, the Betty to Mary Jane Watson’s Veronica. Emma Stone’s Gwen is a hero in her own right, every bit as impressive as Spidey himself — probably more so, because she gets by on sheer brains and chutzpah. These films have their detractors, and not without reason, but I think their (and Stone’s) portrayal of Gwen Stacy will be remembered as one of the high points of superhero cinema.

But of course, what defines Gwen is the ending of her story, and even this more heroic Gwen couldn’t escape that, although I kind of wish she had. The film telegraphed it rather blatantly, first with Gwen’s graduation speech which was a valedictory in more ways than one, and then with Harry and Peter talking about Peter’s girlfriend with the Brooklyn Bridge looming ominously in the background. Of course, the bridge isn’t where her death scene happens in this version (though the fictional power station where the climax occurs is right next to it), but every comics fan in the audience probably knew at that moment that Gwen wouldn’t make it out of the movie alive. Still, I’ve been expecting all along that she’d die in the movie — as soon as I saw a shot in one of the commercials with a falling Gwen reflected in Spidey’s eyepiece, I knew. Mainly I’ve just been hoping that they’d get it right. Gwen’s death scene as scripted by Gerry Conway in Amazing Spider-Man #121 (the key pages of which are reproduced here) is very powerful and poignant to me, and what really hit me was the way Spidey initially believed he’d saved Gwen, boasting to himself of his prowess, and then was confused when she wouldn’t wake up because “I saved you, honey — don’t you see?” That was such beautiful writing, and it’s the key thing I always wanted to see preserved if the scene was ever adapted to the screen. (Which is something I wasn’t sure would ever happen, since every prior cartoon and movie that adapted it substituted MJ for Gwen and let her live — or in the case of the ’90s animated series, dropped her into an alternate dimension so Peter only thought she was dead.) Unfortunately, though, this movie left it out completely. More, the mechanism of her death is changed — rather than her neck snapping from the sudden deceleration, her head hits the ground just as the webbing snags her. I think that changes it, because it gives the impression that Spidey was just too late, rather than it being a case where he couldn’t have saved her because she was just falling too fast. (Oh, and the slow-motion shot of the webbing strands literally reaching for her like a hand was pretty silly.) So I feel they didn’t get it right, or at least they didn’t preserve the part that matters most to me.

Also, I’m not sure it was needed. Gwen Stacy is a classic example of a female character killed to motivate a male lead, but this Gwen was so strong and heroic in her own right that it feels wrong to force her back into the fridge, so to speak.

Let’s see, what else? The 3D wasn’t as impressive as it looked to me in the trailer. Not sure if that’s because of the different theater, or if it’s just that I’ve gotten more used to 3D movies since I saw that trailer. Still, there were some good moments, especially of Spidey’s webslinging and high-flying antics. As for the music, I was pleasantly surprised. I’ve found Hans Zimmer to be an occasionally excellent composer, doing interesting things in movies like the Sherlock Holmes duology, but his superhero work (with Batman and Superman) has been little more than atonal droning and blaring, so I wasn’t expecting to like the score here. But it was actually a really impressive score, very imaginative and rich, with an actual melodic theme for Spidey that was very heroic and satisfying. The most fascinating part, though, was the scoring for Max/Electro, the way his music included a relentless whispering voice part, almost subliminal at first, that represented the unstable Dillon’s internal monologue, or maybe the voices whispering in his head. I’m generally not a fan of anything in the vicinity of rap music, but this was subtle and intriguing and really helped make the character unsettling in a way the script failed to do. In the excellently done confrontation between Spidey and Electro in Times Square, the whispering gets louder as Dillon gets angrier, and you can finally make out the lyrics as it builds toward a rasping crescendo. It’s startlingly effective. I wouldn’t want to hear it done all the time, but I really admire the creativity of it.

So, in sum, it’s a more uneven movie than its predecessor, and where it fails, it fails badly (or at least isn’t what I wanted), but where it succeeds, it’s nearly perfect. The parts of this movie that work best are better than almost anything in the Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies. I just wish those parts were a larger percentage of the whole.

(And don’t worry, fans of my Godzilla reviews. I’ll be seeing that movie before much longer. I just prefer to avoid the crowds of opening weekend.)

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (1988) Reviews: “The Haunting”/”The Lions” (spoilers)

“The Haunting”: Written by Michael Fisher.

We open with Parker Stevenson burying a young woman’s body on a beach and flashing back to murdering her at an amusement park. That’s the whole teaser. Afterward, the episode opens oddly: Jim is already at that amusement park, supposedly in Honolulu, when he gets the disc briefing. Umm, did he get another disc telling him to go there? Or did he happen to be on vacation in the area and thus available when the IMF needed him? Anyway, the mission is to prove that Stevenson’s character, bearing the ridiculous name Champ Foster, committed the murder, the latest of several he’s suspected of — something the police can’t prove due to a lack of evidence, as well as the influence of his rich and domineering mother Victoria (Janis Paige). The victim was Princess Jehan, daughter of the leader of “an oil-rich emirate state” (ahh, good old Voice and his circumlocutions to avoid naming countries), and said emir is threatening to back out of important oil price talks if the murder isn’t solved in three days.

In light of the mission, the whole “If any of your IM Force are caught or killed” line is rather bizarre. Why would this mission be sensitive enough to require the government to disavow involvement? They’re just trying to solve a murder that took place on United States soil. Surely the emir would be grateful if he knew the American government had helped bring his daughter’s killer to justice. This just doesn’t seem like a job for the IMF.

The team joins Jim in (Australia pretending to be) Honolulu for the briefing scene as well. The plan is to take advantage of Victoria’s spiritualist leanings and stage a seance wherein they’ll catch the conscience of the Champ. Great — the third time in just nine episodes they’ve used a supernatural con. It’s already getting old.

So let’s see. Max insinuates himself into Champ’s life as a fellow sociopath who learned about him through a shared psychiatrist and intends to extort money from him in exchange for information he’s picked up about the police investigations into Champ. Tony Hamilton does a pretty good job as a menacing weirdo, but it’s hard to see how his role dovetails into the overall con, unless it’s to get Champ paranoid about the cops closing in. Nicholas plays Jehan’s sheikh brother, who insists that his sister had a prophetic gift, predicting her death and her return on her impending birthday. This gets Victoria on the hook, especially when Jim plays a mentalist at a party (after the team waylays the scheduled performers by stealing their truck, alas) and pretends to get a harrowing vision from Jehan. Grant then swipes the undeveloped party photos from the drop-off photo developing kiosk (remember when those were all over the place?) and uses a high-tech gizmo to superimpose an image of Casey-as-Jehan (no mask, just hair and wardrobe) onto the undeveloped film before returning it to the kiosk. Then they knock out Champ and let him wake up at the now-closed amusement park, where Casey-as-Jehan calls to him from a  rooftop and disappears before he gets there. I guess this was to help sell the idea of her return from beyond. Other than this, Casey’s only role in the episode is to tag along with Grant so he can give exposition to her about his gadgets. It used to be that the exposition would be given in the opening briefing and the gadget setup would happen mostly wordlessly. This episode is taking a number of liberties with the formula.

And I have to throw in a digression about the photo-booth scene. When Grant retrieves the bag containing the negatives and reads the label, it says “YACHT CLUB FIRST THING IN THE MORNING PLEASE”. Including the quotation marks. Why the hell would anyone put quotation marks on a note like that? I see this all the time in TV and it frustrates me — quotation marks around text that nobody would put in quotation marks, like newspaper headlines. I figure that what must happen is that the scriptwriter puts the text in quotation marks in order to say “This is what you should print on the sign” and somehow the art department doesn’t realize the quotes aren’t meant to be part of the actual sign. It’s bizarre that nobody catches these things.

Anyway, there’s a bit where Max pretends to kill Grant, who was a cop who was getting too close, but again I’m not sure of the point. The key to it all is the seance, where Grant’s trickery convinces Victoria that Jehan’s ghost is there, and a hologram projector generates a midair image of a button from the jacket Champ wore on the night of the murder, a button that Casey cut off earlier to make Champ think it fell off when he strangled Jehan. So he rushes to the place where he buried her to dig her up and find the button, and the cops are there to arrest him (so it wasn’t a secret government-deniable mission after all, since the team must’ve brought in the cops), and that’s about it.

I dunno, this one just doesn’t do much for me. I don’t see why this is an IMF mission and I don’t see what purpose most of the scam served. If anything, I’d think that making Champ worry the cops were onto him would make him less likely to dig up the body rather than more likely, since he knew that nobody else had any idea where it was. Also, the plot point about his domineering mother dictating his life, which was stressed in the disc and briefing scenes, had no real relevance to the story. It just doesn’t hold together well.

Not to mention that, for a story set in Hawaii, it was implausibly devoid of Asians and Pacific Islanders, except for a couple of extras and the Fosters’ houseboy who spoke in broken English. For the second time, the “modern” revival of the series features more blatant racial stereotypes than the ’60s original. (Although I must say that Thaao Penghlis, who’s of Greek ancestry, makes a much more convincing Arab sheikh than, say, Martin Landau or Leonard Nimoy would have.) Musically, John E. Davis’s score is nothing to write home about. Oh, and the seance is conveniently accompanied by a thunderstorm illustrated by what must be some really old stock shots of animated lightning. It feels like cheating to have nature itself conspire in setting the mood for an IMF scam, rather than having the team set it up. And they’re lucky all that ionization in the atmosphere didn’t disrupt Grant’s control signals to the hologram generator and other gadgets. Heck, I wish it had. This was a standard, formulaic M:I episode of the type where nothing ever goes wrong for the team. And there wasn’t enough else going on to generate interest in any other way. This is the poorest episode yet of the new series.

“The Lions”: Teleplay by David Phillips, story by James Crown.

In the stock-footage Himalayas, in the Tibet-like country of Bajan-Du, we see Ki (James Shigeta), brother of the late king, conspiring with his security chief Jaru (John O’Brien) to swap out a set of golden lion statues from the temple for fakes. The statues are a puzzle each new king must solve (reminiscent of the season 3 episode “The Heir Apparent”), and failure to solve it will trigger a death trap (which Ki and Jaru use to skewer a hapless monk who stumbles upon them). The fakes are weighted like loaded dice to make the puzzle insoluble. As we learn in Jim’s briefing (which he gets at the San Francisco Zoo, supposedly), Ki opposes his brother’s modernization and Western ties (favoring traditionalism and “Eastern alliances”) and intends to ensure that his brother’s half-English, Western-schooled son Mikos, or “Mike” (Jeremy Angerson), is killed by the test so he can claim the throne. The team’s mission is to stop Ki and ensure that Mikos gets a fair chance. Because of course Westernization is always good and traditional non-Western values are always bad, right? In the briefing, Casey even uses the word “primitive” to refer to the Bajan-Du people’s ancient tradition. Ouch.

The briefing scene is another one that doesn’t quite get the point of those scenes in the original series. It’s not about the team reviewing the plan they’ve already made and tantalizing the audience with glimpses of the specific devices and schemes they’ll use — it’s Jim, Nicholas, and Grant briefing Max and Casey for the first time on what they need to accomplish, with no discussion of the method beyond what the team’s covers will be. There’s even a bit where Grant receives some important bit of info (I guess via computer) during the briefing itself.

Jim goes in as the new tutor for Prince Mike, because of course his mumsy insists he get a proper, superior Western education. Despite the uncomfortable ethnocentrism, this is actually rather engaging, because it lets us see Jim bonding with the teenaged scion, trying to offer what guidance and encouragement he can, and having to debate with himself whether to give the boy the answer to the puzzle once he and Grant figure it out. We so rarely get to see the IMF team members developing genuine bonds with anyone on their missions, and it’s nice to see. Mike’s mother (Diane Craig) even figures out that Jim isn’t what he appears, but he assures her that he’s there for her son’s benefit.

Nicholas plays an agent of the company that insures the golden lions, demanding to be shown the specifics of the security system so he can later show Grant and Max how to break in. Casey plays a reporter who hints her interest in Ki is more personal than reportorial, but whom Nicholas insinuates is not what she appears. This is one of the few times Casey is called on to play the seductress, and while it’s perhaps a sign of progress that that’s not the female lead’s principal role anymore, I have to say that Terry Markwell is pretty bad at it. She looks nice, but that’s about the only thing she brings to the seduction game — no charm, no sultry voice, no alluring expressions. She flirts in the same tone she’d use to discuss the weather. (Well, sometimes discussing the weather is flirting — cf. “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” — but you know what I mean.) She’s kind of the opposite of Barbara Bain, who was only moderately attractive to look at but could be intensely alluring when she chose to be.

Grant goes in Topkapi-style, lowered from the ceiling on ropes, much like his father did in “Doomsday” and anticipating Tom Cruise by seven years. He plants some kind of devices on the fake lions — amusingly, between their hind legs. Meanwhile, Nicholas knocks out and impersonates Jaru in order to frame him for taking a payoff from Casey to swap the statues back. This provokes Ki to restore the real statues, thinking they’re the fakes (and of course he kills a confused Jaru for his alleged treachery). Prince Mikey now has a fair chance.

Jim figures out the solution to the puzzle straight away, and disappointingly, he tells the audience. I’d already figured it out myself at that point: The five statues represent the five virtues of manhood and must be placed in order of their importance, and the answer is that they’re all equally important and must be placed together. Which is also kind of the obvious solution to the matter of maintaining the physical balance of the temple platform. So it’s not really that much of a puzzle. Still, it would’ve worked better dramatically if Jim had left the solution unspoken and Mikos had been the first one to spell it out aloud. Of course, he does figure it out… and what happens next is kind of inexplicable. You’d think that Mike’s non-deadness would prove to Ki that the lions were the real ones and he’d been duped. Indeed, Mikos’s success prompts him to run to his safe and check the lions held there — the fakes which Jim has now melted by activating Grant’s statue-crotch attachments (that’s one hell of a chastity belt!). Which somehow convinces Ki that Mikos has destroyed the real lions, so he comes back to the temple accusing Mikos of blasphemy and treason, then declares the statues on the temple to be fakes, picking one up and getting skewered when the balance is broken. Umm, what? None of that made any sense. There’s no way Jim could’ve predicted he’d react that way to the melting of the fake lions, so why were they melted at all? Wouldn’t it have been better to, say, have him followed back to his safe and catch him in the act when he opened it and revealed the fakes?

So this is quite an unbalanced episode, you could say. The ethnocentrism is irritating and the ending makes no damn sense, but otherwise it’s a pretty nice story. The sets and visual effects representing Bajan-Du are nicely done, aside from the obvious video matte lines whenever anyone’s standing in front of the window to Jim’s quarters. Ron Jones contributes a nice, interesting score blending Asian influences with the Schifrin themes. And it’s nice to see Jim forming an honest connection with the prince and his mother, actually having a personal stake in the outcome but having to trust in the boy rather than micromanaging every step of the problem as he usually does. There’s a lot of good here but a lot of problems too, especially at the end.

Categories: Reviews Tags: ,

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (1988) Reviews: “The Cattle King”/”The Pawn” (Spoilers)

“The Cattle King”: This original episode, written by Ted Roberts, takes advantage of the show being filmed in Australia to do a story set in Australia. And boy, do they ever shove Australia in our faces. We open with a shot of an Aboriginal Australian using a spear to hunt kangaroos, then stumbling upon a sacred cave site which our villain, a cattle rancher named Matthews (David Bradshaw), is blithely desecrating to store a stockpile of stolen Stinger missiles that he’s selling to terrorists to pay off his enormous gambling debts (not unlike the villain in season 3’s “Doomsday,” though the episode has no other similarities to that one). Matthews blows up a tree that the aborigine had just run past, which I think was meant to convey that he killed the guy. Or maybe he was just afraid the tree had seen too much.

Jim’s mission, received on a boat in a marina, is to retrieve the missiles before he delivers them to his terrorist buyers (who are into shooting down passenger jets, apparently). The plan involves a familiar M:I gambit, taking advantage of the bad guy’s superstitions to manipulate him, with help from an Aboriginal shaman named Mulwarra (Warren Owens), whom Jim persuades to assist the team so they can retrieve the missiles before his band takes vengeance on Matthews for his crimes against their people. The portrayal of Aboriginal Australians as spear-carrying, chanting, bush-dwelling tribesmen in loincloths and body paint is pure stereotype and caricature, tantamount to the way ’60s American TV portrayed American Indians. It might seem surprising that a show actually made in Australia would depict its indigenes in such an unrealistic way, but apparently such stereotypes are quite pervasive in Australia itself, just as Native American stereotypes have long been in the US. The original M:I generally managed to avoid such gross stereotyping of other cultures, largely by avoiding their portrayal and focusing on Western countries, with rare exceptions like “Butterfly” (unlike, say, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., which seemed to go out of its way to find new cultures to stereotype and diminish). It’s sad to see its more modern revival actually backsliding from the original.

Grant contacts Matthews as a buyer for his remaining missiles to lure him to Sydney, then makes him wait in town for a couple of days, so that the compulsive gambler Matthews will go to the racetrack and meet Jim — playing a successful land speculator, courtesy of a planted magazine in Matthews’s suite — and Casey, playing an acquaintance of Jim’s who’s so impossibly lucky that she’s been barred from the track and the casino. She claims to be an anthropologist living among the aborigines and granted luck by a magic spell, which she demonstrates to Matthews by swapping out his personal “lucky” dice for loaded ones (at least while she’s throwing them). She takes him to see Mulwarra in hopes of getting his own luck spell, but Mulwarra (sincerely) tells him he’ll be cursed instead for his crimes.

Although it takes some help from technology which Grant and the others set up in Matthews’s suite, including speakers and a projector to play images and sounds of Mulwarra’s band chanting, a rigged balcony that catches fire and then gets completely repaired by the time Matthews brings the security guy up, and so on. There’s a neat bit later on where Matthews is stuck in the elevator and the doors open to reveal a vertiginous drop to the street and then Mulwarra’s haunting face — and only afterward do we see the team dismantling the projection equipment from in front of the elevator doors, an inversion of the usual M:I pattern where we see the setup before the execution. (Although it’s unconvincing that he could be standing just a foot or two away from the projection screen and perceive it as a 3-dimensional open space. But many M:I episodes have had muche the same problem.)

Anyway, all this is just to get Matthews in a superstitious state of mind. He plans to take advantage of Casey’s luck spell to win a fortune in Jim’s land speculations, but the team makes it look like Jim’s been arrested for fraud, and then Matthews finds Casey lying “dead” with a self-inflicted bullet wound. Now he’s not only desperate for money, but desperate to get the missiles off Aboriginal land so they’ll free him from his curse. So he accepts Grant’s terms to cancel the delivery to the terrorists and sell all the missiles to him straight away. Matthews brings the missiles in a truck and then swaps vehicles with Grant, but Grant’s rigged the car with more curse multimedia, so Matthews crashes in the middle of the outback, and the team leaves him to the mercies of Mulwarra’s band of stereotyped savages, to whom he sobbingly promises to return all of his land.

It’s unusual to see an episode where Casey has a lot to do and Nicholas and Max have relatively little. Terry Markwell shows she can deliver an adequate performance when actually given something to do. Nicholas gets to do a bit of roleplay to help set up the whole land-speculation thing, but Max serves little purpose beyond flying a helicopter, helping Grant and Nicholas set up gadgets, and doing a tiny bit of roleplay here and there. Ironic, since the episode confirms that Max is from Australia (despite his US passport in the main titles — but then, I guess I shouldn’t expect spies to have accurate passports). Nicholas’s Aussie accent goes unexplained, though.

Anyway, it’s not bad, but a little unfocused. I didn’t really figure out until writing this review that the point of all the superstition/curse stuff was to make Matthews want to get the missiles off sacred ground. It seemed more like padding than anything else. And the whole trope of using technology to fake supernatural phenomena was one that the original M:I came to resort to a bit too often, and my recollection is that the revival series used it quite a lot as well — indeed, this is the second time in only seven episodes. Still, one of my big problems with the trope in the original series was that they often used supernatural gambits to win over skeptics, when it would’ve made more sense to save them for marks who were already superstitious and primed to buy into the scam. That’s not a problem this one has.

This episode is the debut of composer John E. Davis, who will alternate with Ron Jones for six episodes and then take over as the sole composer for the remainder of the series (except for a single season 2 episode). Much of the score is a pretty typical ’80s-TV synth score, but it has moments that are rather impressive. It bugs me a bit, though, that it used a partial statement of “The Plot” to underscore Jim’s disc scene at the beginning. Really, “The Plot” is meant to represent the team’s machinations while the caper is in progress, so using it in the opening is premature.

As of this episode, the end titles begin using a montage of stills instead of the big “IMF” background — but they’re clips from the episode just ended rather than a generic montage of gadget close-ups like in the original.

“The Pawn”: Jim just rides a horse on the beach to get to the disc player on a random rock — maybe the horse was trained to know the route?? Anyway, the mission is unusually straightforward for this show: Help a Czech chess champion, Antonov (Bryan Marshall), defect from the Soviet bloc. This is the third M:I episode with a chess focus, after “A Game of Chess” (surprisingly enough) in season 2 and “Crackup” in season 7. And it’s the first one that doesn’t involve an implausibly portrayed chess computer. Billy Marshall Stoneking provides the script.

Antonov is being watched like a hawk by the hardnosed Major Zorbuskaya (Rowena Wallace), who knows he’s eager to defect after the killing of his protestor son — which she knows because she’s the one who killed him in the episode’s teaser, though that never really becomes relevant. Jim’s plan to smuggle Antonov out involves a magician named Joseph Rultka (Philip Hinton). Nicholas is surprised at this, which is odd, because his predecessors Rollin and Paris were both professional magicians. (And I found myself lamenting that they couldn’t have gotten Martin Landau or Leonard Nimoy in for a guest appearance.) But Max, as it turns out, studied magic in college, so he’ll be apprenticing with Rultka to play the magician in the caper. Once again, Max, who initially seemed to be the new Willy, has turned out to be better at filling Rollin and Paris’s shoes than their nominal successor Nicholas. Why do we need Nicholas again?

Okay, I exaggerate. For Major Zorbuskaya’s benefit, Nicholas establishes himself as part of the gaggle of reporters questioning Antonov about his upcoming “grudge match” with his bitter rival Bakunin (who, interestingly, is played by future Farscape writer/producer Justin Monjo). Jim plays a Texas talent scout looking to persuade Antonov to come play in Texas, making Major Z intensely suspicious of him, and convinced he isn’t as dumb as he’s playing. It’s not entirely clear what purpose Jim serves here, unless it’s to divert the major’s suspicion with his obvious pretense. Anyway, magician Max and his lovely assistant Casey (the most literal manifestation yet of the “hover helpfully in the background and look pretty” mode that’s been her primary role in most episodes so far) employ a gambit much like that used by Paris in season 4’s “The Falcon”: Get Antonov to volunteer for an illusion, make him disappear, and have a masked Nicholas take his place to divert Major Z’s attention while the real Antonov is smuggled to safety, along with his daughter, who’s coming in on the Prague Express. The plan is that Nicholas just has to keep up his impersonation for a couple of hours, though he has some difficulty convincing an old friend of Antonov’s who’s happened to show up. (By the way, we see Nicholas studying up on Antonov as he prepares for his impersonation, and this includes listening to an audio dossier narrated by Bob Johnson. I believe it’s the first time in the entire M:I franchise that we’ve heard Johnson’s voice during an actual mission rather than solely in the opening.)

But a bigger problem rears its head when the Prague Express is delayed 12 hours — the daughter won’t get in until tournament time! Nicholas will have to play chess at championship level! But Grant manages to rig an electric signal pulse in Antonov’s ring and deliver it to Nicholas, so he can use Morse code to communicate the moves Antonov picks as he watches the match on satellite TV from the train. But there are some hairy moments as the group on the train has to hide what they’re doing from the border guards, and Nicholas is forced to make a critical move on his own — and it’s brilliant! With a little more help from Antonov, fake Antonov wins the match and retires to his room — whereupon Jim tells the gaggle of reporters that there’s a press conference there, they burst into the room, and when Major Z herds them out, a now-unmasked Nicholas just walks out with the crowd (a gambit I’m sure I’ve seen before on M:I, though I can’t remember the episode). Oh, gaggle of reporters. You’re so predictable. Oh, and Jim tricks the Soviet guards into thinking that a bag full of defectin’ supplies belongs to Major Z, and they find the passport that Grant sewed into her coat lining earlier, and she takes a well-deserved trip to Siberia.

Well, at least until the Soviet Union falls about two years later. It’s kind of amusing to watch a defection story aired in 1989 and think that if they’d just waited around a couple more years, none of this would’ve been necessary. Except, well, Major Z made it pretty clear that she planned to send Antonov to a gulag in the immediate future in any case.

I think this is my favorite episode yet of the revival series. Although it does have a couple of plot oddities, a lot of it is very clever and fun. It’s the kind of episode I like, where the team faces real setbacks and has to improvise. It portrays chess more plausibly than the prior two chess episodes — except for an odd bit where Bakunin accused Antonov (the real one in the first match) of cheating, even though his protest seems to have more to do with Antonov just being distracting than with any recognized form of cheating in chess. Peter Graves gets to show off some of the comedic chops he developed in Airplane! and afterward. And Bryan Marshall is well-cast as Antonov — and, more importantly, as Nicholas playing Antonov. He resembles Thaao Penghlis enough in bone structure and speech rhythms that I can buy the conceit that Nicholas is behind the mask. And Ron Jones provides his best score yet for the series, the highlights of which are the action/chase motif under the teaser and an elegantly meticulous harp-like melody in waltz time accompanying the chess play. Beyond those, Jones goes for a more unusual and interesting sound than he has in previous episodes, and it’s nice to hear him stretching himself.

Categories: Reviews Tags: ,

Cincy Library Comic Con report

Here I am at the Cincinnati Library Comic Con 2014 this afternoon:

Me at Cinti Library Comic Con

(Thanks to library volunteer Lori for taking the photo for me.)

As you can see, I brought a variety of my books with me, but I still had most of them by the end of the event. Still, I sold a bit over a quarter of my stock and earned a decent chunk of change, with 20% donated to the library. Not shown in the photo: the one copy I had left of Spider-Man: Drowned in Thunder. Since this was mainly a comics event, my Spidey novel and Only Superhuman sold significantly better than the Trek titles, a change of pace from what I’m used to. It makes me think I should’ve tried harder to market OS at comics events back when it first came out.

The library had snacks available for the guests, including mini-quiches from Panera. I’m not usually a quiche eater, but I was hungry and I saw that they had a spinach-artichoke variety, so I decided to give it a try, and it was quite good, as one would expect from Panera.

Another thing that really impressed me was the material covering the table, that gold sheeting you see there. The texture had a good firm grip to it and it nicely held my books in that upright position. I usually have trouble keeping them from falling over when they’re like that, but they were all very well-behaved today, so I can only conclude it’s because of the tablecloth material. If I knew what it were called, I’d recommend it to all my conventions.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (1988) Reviews: “The Legacy”/”The Wall” (spoilers)

“The Legacy”: A remake of Season 1, episode 15. Credited to Michael Lynn and Allan Balter, the latter being a co-writer of the original episode. Balter’s collaborator William Read Woodfield had his name taken off the episode.

The remake adds a rather pointless action teaser of a battle scene at the end of WWII in Europe, with some Nazi officers escaping the Allies with a truck full of gold. After the titles, Jim gets the briefing disc in a car in the parking lot of an amusement park. The mission is basically the same — find the gold before the four Nazi heirs do — but now the heirs are the grandsons rather than the sons of Hitler’s officers, the gold is now worth 5 billion on today’s market, and the cabal’s plan is not specifically to build a Fourth Reich but simply to fund terrorism and foster a new Nazi movement in Europe. Lalo Schifrin gives us his familiar “self-destruct” harp glissando one more time.

To a large extent, this is the most verbatim adaptation yet, except that Max takes the lead “customs agent” role that Dan Briggs (Phelps’s predecessor) played before. Tony Hamilton stands out as the greatest improvement on his original series predecessor; he has the build to be a plausible strongman like Willy, but is a more capable actor and better able to carry the roleplay as well. The postcard clue is simplified — Cinnamon deciphered it in the original, but here, Casey is left with very little to do, continuing the trend. The four scions meet in a church now, lighting candles and placing their postcards on the table, which is a bit more plausible than the rather easily deciphered chalk-drawing code of the original. Nicholas is the undercover man, like his counterpart Rollin in the original — but I have to say, the Nordic-featured Max would’ve made a much more plausible Aryan. Maybe they hewed a bit too closely to the original on this point.

A small change is that two of the other men give Graff (Judson Scott) their portions of the bank account number before Nicholas finally refuses to give his. Also, Nicholas shows visible alarm at learning of the numbers (that he doesn’t have). Rollin controlled himself better and adapted more swiftly. A more subtantial change comes when the team speaks of planting misleading information about Graff’s partying and gambling in a local magazine to get the other Nazis to question Graff’s motives for seeking the gold. But then it’s back to the original plot, with Casey “becoming royalty” (a role she doesn’t take to nearly as well as Cinnamon did) and having a simpler version of the “Baroness”‘s first meeting with the bank manager, here called Kubler (Shane Briant). But before then there’s a new scene where Grant uses a dial-up modem to hack the bank computer and plant her forged financial records. Ooh, so high-tech!

In the original, a real psychologist named Lubell was brought in to drug and hypnotize the bank manager, but here, Lubell is just an alias used by Jim, who handles the hypnosis himself with help from some techie frippery to give Grant more to do. Passing the matchbook with the numbers to Nicholas is simpler, for Casey just impersonates a hotel maid. After the foursome leaves for the bank, the rest of the team breaks into their suite, plants the magazine article about Graff, and taps into the electronic microscope the Nazis plan to use to read the microdot. This means the IMF team wil get the information at the same time the Nazis do, which changes the purpose of Nicholas pretending to lose his watch. Rather than a ploy to get Rollin out of the room so he can pass along the map, it’s part of the campaign to make the others suspicious of Graff’s intentions. (They also hypnotized Kubler into mentioning a failed investment of Graff’s.) As before, it also serves to let the IMF team get to the cemetery ahead of the bad guys. (And the parts of the map are engraved microscopically on their watch crystals, correcting the original’s scale problems with the microdot vs. the stamp-sized map pieces hidden in their watches.)

And here’s where the episode departs most from the original. There, they found the crypt of “Braun” (which was a pretty obvious clue they hardly should’ve needed a map for), found no gold, got into an overlong shootout with the bad guys, let Graff get away after they caught him (!), and accidentally found that the whole crypt was made of gold. Oh, and Dan got shot in the right lung but reacted like it was just a flesh wound. It was a flawed ending to an otherwise superb episode. Here, Grant uses a computer map of the cemetery to identify the crypt of “A. Lois,” which Jim recognizes as a play on Alois, Hitler’s father’s first name. Once they find the crypt empty, Jim figures out that the incongruous period is the trigger to a secret panel that reveals the gold in a cavern beneath. Grant uses Mylar to reflect the cave wall and hide the gold, and they leave the crypt gaping open for Graff and the others to find “empty.” Nicholas turns the others’ suspicion against Graff, and Graff, shockingly, shoots Nicholas and one of the others, before discovering the real gold. Penghlis plays his “death” very effectively, with a disturbingly sharp twist of his head when he’s shot, but we soon learn he had a bulletproof vest — and the team has called in the Swiss police to arrest Graff, handily contained in the crypt, for the murder he just committed. (Lucky for Nicholas that Graff didn’t go for a head shot.)

“The Legacy” was one of the strongest episodes of the original series, giving the revival a tall hurdle to surmount. Most of this remake is either a direct copy of the original or a simplification, and the performances of Penghlis and Markwell disappoint compared to their forebears. (Indeed, the more I watch Markwell, the more I wonder why I liked her so much in 1988. She’s not a very versatile or engaging performer, and I can see why they’ve used her so little.) But the final act is an enormous improvement. The shootout ending of the original didn’t really fit the show, but the psychological warfare the ’88 team uses to turn the Neo-Nazis against each other is a classic M:I gambit. One reason I like this story is because it was such an unusual challenge for the team, since they started out with almost no advance information and had to improvise at every step, rather than the usual formula where they’re ten steps ahead of the villains the whole time. That’s still true here, but Jim’s plan to discredit Graff makes the team less reactive. It’s the first remade episode where there’s more cleverness on display than there was the first time around. I never expected the revival to live up to the quality of an episode like “The Legacy,” but while it falls short on some levels, it’s actually managed to improve on it where it counts.

I can’t say the same for the casting, though. Up to this point, the remakes have mostly improved on the originals in their guest casts, but in this case, the new Graff, Judson Scott, isn’t nearly as convincing a menace as the original, Donald Harron. I wish the Graff role had gone to the actor playing supporting Neo-Nazi Brucker, Steven Grives. He would later play the lead villain in BeastMaster: The Series, and was a really excellent scenery-chewing bad guy there. But unfortunately he’s relegated to a minor role here. (It’s interesting to realize that both iterations of M:I were produced contemporaneously with iterations of Star Trek and that both drew on many of the same actors as well as directors, composers, and the like. And the same has more or less been true of the recent movie versions of the two sister franchises, with ST:TNG writing duo Ron Moore & Brannon Braga writing the story to the second M:I movie, and with J.J. Abrams and his collaborators, including Simon Pegg, starting out on M:I and then moving to ST. I guess the two are just destined to go together.)

The music is also a disappointment this time out. The score, credited to Schifrin, is rather ordinary and partly tracked; the last act largely reuses cues from Ron Jones’s two prior scores, and some of the Schifrin cues may be reused as well, or else are just rather generic. The original was tracked too, but mostly with Walter Scharf’s superb score to “Old Man Out.” This score just doesn’t compare. Which is a pity, since it’s Schifrin’s final original contribution to this series and thus to Mission: Impossible as a whole.

“The Wall”: This one looks like it started as a remake of Season 2, episode 15, “The Bank”, but I’m guessing the writers’ strike ended early enough that it could be reworked into an almost completely different story by scriptwriter David Phillips. Little remains except the basic premise of a villain pretending to smuggle people out of East Berlin but leading them into a trap in order to steal their money. In this case, Dr. Wolfgang Gerstner (Alan Cassell) pretends to show people a safe route across the no man’s land between East and West Berlin, but tips off his partner Col. Batz (Peter Curtin) to arrest or shoot them before they get across. Since this was made in the age of glasnost, not long before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the story establishes that there are peace talks underway, and since Gerstner and Batz depend on the Wall for their profits, they’ve kidnapped Ilsa, the teenage daughter of a leading West German negotiator, to force him to sabotage the talks. This raises the stakes for the team, should they decide to accept the mission to rescue the girl and bring down the bad guys (and you know they will). Six episodes into the new M:I, and we finally get a political/espionage mission instead of a crimebusting mission. Well, I guess stopping a Neo-Nazi movement is political, but this is the first time in the new series that the fate of nations has potentially hung in the balance.

The team members make their way across the border into East Berlin (now called that openly — none of the original series’ coy references to the “East Zone”), but Grant — who is totally rocking the trenchcoat-and-fedora look — uses an obviously fake passport to get himself arrested and brought before Batz, whereupon he reveals that he’s a Cuban officer working for the KGB. The team intercepts Batz’s phone when he calls his superior, and Nicholas imitates the man’s voice — another case of a different actor’s voice being dubbed over Penghlis, so there’s still no evidence that he can do accents. It’s an odd oversight in the casting, hiring a “master of disguise” who can’t disguise his voice without audio trickery. Anyway, Grant claims to be investigating a black-market smuggling ring, in order to spook Batz and get him to warn Gerstner to call off his operations. This is after Jim plays much the same role Rollin did in “The Bank,” a desperate man who comes to Gerstner begging for his services to get himself and his “daughter” Casey (who’s still mostly just hanging around Jim rather than doing anything of her own) out of the East. After getting Batz’s call, Gerstner is about to shoot Jim and Casey, but “Stasi officers” Max and Nicholas come in and arrest him (and Tony Hamilton actually can fake a German accent).

The team takes Gerstner to a fake prison set they’ve built in a warehouse and, given the time limit on negotiations, put him through a lightning-round interrogation, using drugs, lighting, and fake stubble on his cheeks to make him think days have passed. (Casey applies the stubble makeup. Hooray, she’s useful! Lucky break that he just looked at his “stubbly” chin in the mirror rather than feeling it). They let him see Stasi Max interrogating Jim and KGB Grant interrogating “Batz” (Nicholas in a mask), and “Batz” gives up Gerstner, prompting Gerstner to incriminate him in turn, with the team taping it. Then Jim stages a fight wherein he shoots the guards, and he and Casey start to run off with Gerstner — but he wants to collect his hostage Ilsa first, and mentions the address just before the drug they injected him with knocks him out. (Geez, guys, cutting it awfully close there.) Meanwhile, Grant shows Batz the first part of the doctor’s taped confession so he’ll send it to his superior, then swaps it out for a tape of the second part where Batz is named, getting the colonel to damn himself. Then at the warehouse, the team rescues the girl and gets away, but not before prompting Gerstner to flee into his own escape tunnel and — in the return of an old M:I tradition — get shot off-camera. And then the negotiator and his daughter are reunited on the other side.

There’s not much point in comparing this to “The Bank,” since they’re such different episodes. It’s an okay story, a pretty standard M:I caper but with a bit more relevance to then-current events than the original series ever got to have. Some parts of the plot seem overly convoluted or gratuitous, serving little purpose but to generate act-break cliffhangers; for instance, the hostage girl is in a medically induced coma, and when the team arrives in the warehouse, they set off a failsafe that cuts the power to her life support, threatening to kill her until Max restores the circuit at the top of the next act. I’m not sure why cutting the power would stop her heart if she’s just in a drug-induced coma and can recover quickly once the drugs are stopped. Cast-wise, there are no notable guests, and Terry Markwell and Thaao Penghlis still come off as the weak links in the main cast. But Phil Morris gets his best chance yet to show his stuff, and he and Hamilton are both reasonably impressive at their role-playing. Musically, we get a fully electronic score by Ron Jones, which, well, sounds a lot like you’d expect a fully electronic score by Ron Jones to sound. For me, while I think Jones did more interesting and distinctive things with electronics than a lot of his contemporaries did, I’ve never enjoyed it as much as his orchestral work. I’d call this a routine Jones score, nothing exemplary.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (1988) Reviews: “Holograms”/”The Condemned” (spoilers)

First off, a couple more observations about the new main title sequence:

The main title sequence is longer, with a truncated, ten-bar reprise of the main melody added before the final sting, over the cast credits. The montage includes shots of the team members’ passports. The camera is zooming out as the image changes from one passport to the next, so varying amounts of text are visible, but here’s what I can discern:

All five team members’ passports claim they’re US citizens, and Nicholas was allegedly born in Massachusetts, despite Max and Nicholas having distinct Australian accents and Casey a subtler one. Casey’s date of birth is March 8 (year unseen), Grant’s is October 3 (year unseen), Nicholas’s is July 24, 1950. Jim was born in California on October 10, 1929. That makes Jim two and a half years younger than Peter Graves and Nicholas five years younger that Thaao Penghlis. Jim’s passport was issued January 27, 1987.

And now to our story.

“Holograms”: Sorry, folks, this is not a Jem crossover. It is, however, our first chance to see what the new M:I writing staff can do when not remaking an original episode. Robert Brennan is our writer this evening.

We open with an assassination brazenly committed while the victim is being interviewed. The TV reporter recklessly declares the victim dead seconds after the shooting. After the titles, we get stock footage of San Francisco, confirming that Jim still lives there (although the Australia-based filming means we don’t get actual footage of Jim in SF locations like we did in season 7). He trades code phrases with a street violinist on what’s probably meant to be Fisherman’s Wharf. Despite being a new episode, its setup closely parallels the original’s “Fakeout”: drug lord Col. Usher (Gerard Kennedy) is self-declared president-for-life of a nameless country, indicted in absentia by the US but kept immune from overthrow by his enforcer Duvall (William Zappa), who assassinated his only legitimate rival for the presidency. The mission is to neutralize Duvall and lure Usher onto US-controlled soil so he can be arrested. (The country is probably meant to be in the Caribbean somewhere, but it’s hard to tell since it’s so oddly Anglophone.) The show has reprised the original’s device of freeze-framing and showing the series title over a music sting (originally done at the end of the dossier sequence, now at the end of the disc sequence), though that serves little purpose now because the producer, writer, and director credits do not accompany it. The music sting here is basically the original one, with Schifrin himself providing this episode’s score.

The apartment briefing is handled differently than in the original show. There, usually, the team had already been briefed on the basics before we arrived, and we’d just see them going over the details one last time; it was clear they knew things we didn’t, and part of the suspense came from wondering what purpose the various devices and stratagems were meant to serve. Here, though, most of the team seemed to be learning the plan from Jim for the first time. The exception is Grant, who’s been working on a holographic system projecting a ghostly image of the new series’ first guest team member: Kieron Taylor (Gavin Harrison), the 15-year-old son of an IMF member, who’s going to play the role of the long-lost son that Usher believes he has (from an abused wife who left him and whom he believes was pregnant at the time) and has been obsessively searching for. This is one more indication that the IMF now has people working for it beyond the individuals Jim recruits. The new series is fleshing out the agency a bit more than the original did, a step toward the huge IMF bureaucracy of the Tom Cruise movies. Anyway, the plan is to lure Usher to a beach house on a US-controlled island by building a duplicate beach house on a neutral island where Usher is safe and then doing a switcheroo. I don’t much care for having the plan revealed up front like this; I prefer the old method where we just got hints.

Nicholas and Grant get in by impersonating a recently-arrested drug dealer and his bodyguard, there to sell Usher the ether he needs to boost his cocaine manufacturing. Grant rigs Usher’s bedroom with hologram projectors that, when it’s dark, create a midair image of Kieron doing a Princess Leia-style “Father, we need you” routine. (As usual in fiction, there’s no explanation for what the “hologram” is supposedly reflecting off of in midair.) This is a rehash of the gambit the team used in season 4’s “Phantoms” and season 5’s “A Ghost Story,” although the techniques used there were more intricate. Anyway, Usher (who already suffers from a congenital neurological condition giving him severe headaches) worries that he’s hallucinating, and Nicholas happens to mention that there’s an American neurologist named Dr. Quinn in the vicinity. Now, here’s where the script makes a mistake: They’ve perfectly set up Usher to invite Quinn and believe it was his own idea, but instead Nicholas takes the liberty of inviting Quinn — who of course is Jim — on his own. Sorry, wrong. The key to a con game (or so I understand it from fiction) is to make the marks think it was their own idea to do what you want them to. Make them think they’re being led and it’ll just make them suspicious.

Anyway, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Agent lets slip that he’s been treating a boy with an almost identical congenital condition (and the same rare blood type as Usher) on a nearby island, ferried there by a seaplane pilot played by Max. Duvall brings Max in and he tells Usher where to find the island, and it’s the neutral island where the team has built the fake house. There, Usher meets Kieron, who drops enough hints to convince Usher that he’s the long-lost son. (Casey briefly impersonates his ex-wife from a distance, but otherwise her only role in the story is to be Kieron’s chaperone, as well as his scuba partner for a trick earlier on where Kieron appeared before Usher in the flesh and then ran to the beach and swam off underwater so that Duvall couldn’t find him.)

Meanwhile, Nicholas is rigging the (oddly unoccupied) cocaine processing facility with explosives when he’s caught by Duvall, who’s been tipped off by the guy Nick’s impersonating. Duvall calls Usher back from the island. Grant sees that Nick’s been arrested and helps him knock out Duvall. Now, I always like it when the plan goes awry and the team has to improvise, but it feels like a cheat here, because apparently taking out Duvall and having Nicholas impersonate him was the next step in the plan anyway. (And having Usher called away at that point was apparently part of the plan too, since it lets Kieron relocate and the team’s helpers dismantle the duplicate house.) As Duvall, Nicholas tells Usher that he had the impostor killed, and that the US fleet is on maneuvers so he can’t take the boat back to the island. The only option is Max’s seaplane — and again the script makes the mistake of having Dr. Jim blatantly suggest the idea to Usher rather than just letting him think of it himself. You’d think Usher would be suspecting a trap by this point, since by now he knows that the man who brought in Dr. Jim was an impostor. But Usher is conveniently clueless and lets himself be led by the nose to the wrong island, where US authorities are there to arrest him.

This is a mediocre and flawed beginning for the revival’s original stories. It’s largely a rehash of tropes from older episodes, which is perhaps forgivable considering that they were all going to be remakes at first; perhaps this script grew out of a preliminary remake plan. But the greater problem is that the execution is awkward and lacking the subtlety which a proper con game should have. It shows a lack of understanding of the show and its approach. There’s also some really clunky expository dialogue, and a rather silly part where Usher soliloquizes to Dr. Jim about his deepest concerns and anxieties immediately after first meeting him and before he has any reason to trust him.

Still, the production succeeds where the writing fails. Kennedy is excellent as Usher, with a gravel-voiced performance reminding me of Kevin Conway’s Kahless from Star Trek: TNG, and showing a more sympathetic, almost touching side as he tentatively reaches out to the boy he believes is his son. The location filming made possible by the Australia-based production leaves the original show’s soundstages and backlots in the dust. And Lalo Schifrin provides an excellent score that reminds me at times of some of his work from the original’s season 3, while occasionally venturing into more modern territory (though I still suspect Ron Jones of arranging some of the synth ostinati in the second half). Schifrin also provides an original action cue which is basically an inversion of the main theme, and in the climax he does something only rarely done in the original, combining the main M:I ostinato with “The Plot” before shifting into a full statement of the main theme for the moment of triumph and the finale.

But the new main cast is still a little underwhelming. Nicholas is supposed to be playing an American here, but if he’s even attempting to do an American accent, then he’s doing it really badly. They really should’ve tried harder to cast actors who were good with accents. To be sure, the narrow repertoire of fake accents that Martin Landau and Leonard Nimoy were able to bring to bear wasn’t very convincing, but Penghlis doesn’t seem capable of faking an accent at all, short of having another actor’s voice dubbed over his own.

“The Condemned”: Remaking Season 2, episode 19. Teleplay by Ted Roberts and Michael Fisher, with the story credited to John Truman, a pseudonym for the original episode’s writer Laurence Heath.

This time there’s a lot of rewriting, although the basic plot is the same. The teaser shows former M:I regular Barney Collier (Greg Morris) at a cafe in Istanbul, where he’s arrested by the corrupt Captain Hamidou (Adrian Wright), a composite of the honest Mexican police captain and the criminal Constantine from the original episode. Apparently it takes Barney three months to get a message out about his arrest to the IMF — yes, this time it’s an official mission, while in the original it was a personal mission for Jim. He gets the assignment in a trailer on the beach, allowing for a couple of gratuitous bikini babes to walk by (in addition to the belly dancer in the cafe earlier). For some reason, the Voice is cagey and doesn’t tell Jim until the end that the wrongly condemned man he has to rescue is Barney. In the briefing, Jim suggests that Grant sit this one out since it’s too personal, but the young Collier insists on coming along. We learn that his mother passed away two years ago.

Jim convinces an honest underling of Hamidou (and one ambitious to be given back the prison governorship that Hamidou kicked him out of) to let him and Grant visit Barney — corresponding to the opening scene of the original, and giving Jim a chance to photograph the walls of the cell, which is an utterly awful, squalid place compared to the stark but clean cell in the original. Grant uses the photos to print out latex sheets duplicating the wall texture in three dimensions, which Nicholas and Max smuggle in wrapped around their legs during their priest impersonation (where they engage in some fun and well-played banter not present in the original). But they can’t very well have Greg Morris languish behind a fake wall for the whole episode like Kevin Hagen did in the original, so as soon as the “priests” return with the hooded executioner, and once the guard discovers the “empty” cell and runs off to sound the alarm, Max and Nicholas knock out the hangman, take down the fake wall, dress Barney in the hangman’s robe and hood, and escort him to freedom.

But they still have to clear Barney and bring down Hamidou. They need Barney to confront the woman who helped frame him, here named Lydia (Anna Maria Monticelli), but Barney’s in no condition after three months in that horrid cell, so Nicholas has to turn Grant into his father. This allows for a father-son exchange where Barney laments missing birthdays and important events in Grant’s life due to all his secret agenting, but Grant absolves him as, now disguised as his father, he tells him, “I wanted to grow up to be just like you.” Aww.

Casey tags along with Jim to investigate the home of the murder victim, here named George Stanton; since Cinnamon wasn’t in the original episode, Casey has no role of her own to fill. For the second week in a row, she’s pretty much a fifth wheel. She and Jim discover that Stanton and Hamidou stole a priceless royal necklace (rather than the original crown), then  get arrested by Hamidou (in place of being captured by Constantine). Jim plays private investigator again, and convinces Hamidou to go into a partnership to find the necklace and split its insured value. Meanwhile, Barney confronts Lydia and forces her to go to Stanton, who kills her like in the original. This time, instead of accidentally falling to his death, Stanton confronts and almost shoots Jim, then gets into a fight with Nicholas before falling to his death. To save time, Lydia lingers long enough to fill Jim in on the plot details the team had to figure out on their own the first time. In this version, Stanton faked his death in order to double-cross his partner Hamidou and get away with the necklace.

The endgame is much simpler than the elaborate remote-control car chase in the original. There, they had to make it look like a dead man was still alive in order to prove to the honest police captain that he’d faked his death earlier. Here, they have to expose the corrupt captain’s culpability in the crime. So they just lure Hamidou to Lydia’s cafe, where Barney confronts him (using the old mirror-in-the-door trick to avoid Hamidou’s bullets — three times in a row, since Hamidou has an amazingly flat learning curve) and gets him to confess to his acts of thievery and murder while the team tapes the whole thing. Seriously, the guy can’t resist incriminating himself repeatedly and in detail, which comes off as laughably contrived. All the team has to do is invite the honest cop and show him the videotape — after Barney “accidentally” tips Hamidou off that the necklace is in his cell, driving the corrupt captain back to the prison so he can be handily locked away.

The caper portions of this episode are a step down from the original. That was the first off-book mission we’d ever seen Jim on, a rare departure from formula in which the team had to improvise its tricks and solve a mystery on the fly (although, as I said in my review, their improvised tricks were implausibly elaborate and indistinguishable from their usual schtick). Not to mention the added challenge of proving that a man thought already dead was still alive even after he’d died for real. This was more of a conventional mission aside from the personal angle, and an easier problem to crack since there was still a living villain to extract a confession from after Stanton died. So on that level, it falls short. But it benefits from the personal angle, using the plot of Jim saving a friend as an opportunity to bring back Greg Morris (for his first of several guest appearances) and explore Barney’s relationship with his son. It’s Barney’s scenes with Jim and Grant that make the episode work.

Production-wise, we’re still getting good location work, although there are a couple of less-than-convincing digital matte paintings of the hilltop prison fortress and the Istanbul skyline. Ron Jones scores again, reusing the ostinato he added to “The Plot” in episode 2, but his score here doesn’t impress me as much as his previous one  — perhaps because I watched this just after watching the original, which was tracked with some of the old series’ best cues. We also get a shorter version of the main titles this time, leaving out most of the montage portion.

Categories: Reviews Tags: ,

New interview on TrekCore recently interviewed me for their blog, and the article is now up. It covers Rise of the Federation: Tower of Babel and a bit about my future plans for the series, as well as the upcoming DTI: The Collectors eBook and my work in general.

You can read the interview here.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (1988) Reviews: “The Killer”/”The System” (spoilers)

Huzzah! Netflix has finally gotten the first season of the 1988 Mission: Impossible revival series in stock, so I’m finally able to resume my review series after a gap of nearly two and a half years. Unfortunately they only have the first season at the moment, but that constitutes 19 of the revival’s 35 episodes.

The M:I revival series came about as a consequence of the 1988 Writers’ Guild of America strike, which fell during the time when the networks needed to develop scripts for the 1988-9 season. Desperate for material to film, the networks began looking around for pre-existing scripts they could reshoot. Paramount decided to revive Mission: Impossible, this time selling it to ABC rather than CBS, and filming it in Australia to save money. The initial plan was to remake episodes of the original series with new actors playing the original characters. But once Peter Graves was brought back to revive the role of Jim Phelps, it was decided that the remainder of the cast would play new characters instead. (Not that it really made much difference, since the characters were always pretty interchangeable.) The strike was resolved early enough that the recycled scripts could be revised, modernized, and adapted for the new series. For the remade episodes, I’ll be rewatching the originals for comparison and discussing what was changed in the remakes.

The new cast was as follows:

  • Peter Graves as Jim Phelps: The veteran Impossible Missions Force team leader, 15 years older than when we last saw him but otherwise unchanged.
  • Thaao Penghlis as Nicholas Black: The master of disguise, filling the shoes of Rollin Hand and the Great Paris.
  • Phil Morris as Grant Collier: The real-life son of Greg Morris playing the son of Barney Collier and filling the same tech-genius role.
  • Terry Markwell as Casey Randall: The femme fatale, replacing Cinnamon Carter, Dana Lambert, and the original Casey (no relation).
  • Tony Hamilton as Max Harte: The strongman, replacing Willy Armitage, but also a frequent roleplayer.
  • Bob Johnson as the Voice on Tape — now updated to the Voice on Disc. The only returning regular besides Graves.

Okay, we’ve been waiting years for this, so without further ado:

“The Killer”: A remake of Season 5, episode 1. Credited to the original author, Arthur Weiss, though given an uncredited rewrite.

The opening is completely new. This “Killer,” under the alias Drake (John DeLancie, just a year after his debut as Q on Star Trek: The Next Generation), assassinates a middle-aged man at a party, using a hallucinogenic dart that causes him to imagine he’s on fire and thus throw himself off a balcony. Seems a rather overcomplicated and unreliable murder weapon. But then at the funeral, we see Jim Phelps watching from afar, looking resolute. Lalo Schifrin is back to score the new pilot, and he introduces Jim with a soulful variant of the main title theme, modulating into a bit of “The Plot” (the motif used in every episode to accompany the execution of the team’s plans), then returning to a more resolute main theme statement as the teaser ends. (Notably, the teaser takes place in San Francisco, which was evidently where Jim lived in the final season of the original.)

The main titles feature a very ’80s-ish synth/guitar rearrangement of the main theme, and instead of giving us a montage of scenes from the current episode, they just provide a generic montage of clips of the cast and various spy gear and techie stuff (some taken from episodes, others staged for the titles). Notably, the match that lights the animated “fuse” is now held by Peter Graves himself rather than an anonymous hand (actually creator Bruce Geller’s) as in the original. And the “fuse” now runs across the lower portion of the screen rather than the middle. (The end titles are over a static “IMF” in a red computerish font, rather than the original montage of gadgetry.)

In the message-drop scene, Jim exchanges code phrases with a fisherman as in the original, but this time the fisherman offers some slightly stilted exposition about how the victim, Tom Copperfield, was a former team leader for the IMF and Jim’s personal protege, presumably sometime after the original series ended in 1973. (Might’ve been nice if it was a character we knew, so the death would have resonance, but that would’ve precluded that actor returning for a guest spot later on, so maybe they didn’t want to go there.) This hardly seems necessary, since the Voice delivers that same information moments later on the briefing disc. Yes, the old mini-reel-to-reel tape player has been replaced by a thumbprint-encoded black box that opens to reveal a keypad requiring a 3-digit code sequence, whereupon it releases a miniature optical disc (a fake technology at the time, but close in size to the Sony MiniDisc introduced 4 years later) that Jim places in a slot to activate it. There’s also a video screen (replacing the envelope of photos that used to accompany the tape) with a row of green LEDs over the screen that show the progress of the playback, plus a set of three status lights on the side: A green “Run” light while the message plays, a yellow light with a rectangular symbol for the self-destruct warning, and a red “Destruct” light over the 5-second countdown. And one more change: “Good morning, Mr. Phelps” has evolved to “Good morning, Jim.” Which could make it hard for new viewers to figure out what Jim’s full name is.

The mission is basically the same as before: Stop the assassin’s next killing and discover the identity of his employer, Scorpio. But we’re given less information. The focus is more on Jim’s vendetta and less on the dilemma of how to stop a murder when you don’t know the who, when, where, or how.

We move to the revival series’ sole use of the classic dossier sequence (not seen since season 4), albeit in updated form, and scored by a variant of Schifrin’s original dossier-scene music. Jim’s (new IMF-provided?) apartment comes with a keyboard hidden in the coffee table and a big screen that unfolds from a decorative pillar. These replace the binder of dossiers from the original, and the video dossiers come with narration by Bob Johnson, offering us brief backstories for the new team members — more than we ever got for the originals. Nicholas Black is a drama teacher at “an eastern university.” Casey Randall is “a top designer on three continents” who helped the IMF catch the terrorists who murdered her husband and has continued to freelance for them. (Same problem as Cinnamon Carter: How does someone so famous function as an undercover operative?) Max Harte is an athlete who organized his own private Rambo-style mission to liberate his older brother from a Vietnam POW camp. And Grant Collier is Barney’s son — ’nuff said.

The rest proceeds largely as in the original episode, even with a fair amount of verbatim dialogue, but with a few changes. The action now takes place in London rather than Los Angeles. Drake arrives late and has a deadline to call his contact, explaining his hurry better than the original did. The team also fakes the street signs outside the hotel, correcting an oversight in the original: If he picked the hotel out of the phone book, wouldn’t he know the address? The cadre of assistants needed to fake up the hotel (a classier facility in this version) is smaller, with the team relying more on high-tech printers and gizmos, losing some of the charm of the original. Max slows Nicholas’s cab down by playing traffic cop and pulling him over, whereas Willy just screwed with the traffic lights. On first facing Drake as the hotel clerk, Jim (who’s been away from the game too long) almost has a lapse of control and wants to lash out at his protege’s murderer. When Drake calls his contact (played by Farscape‘s Virginia Hey), he uses a phone booth outside and is picked up by Max’s shotgun mike, rather than using the bugged lobby phone. And the scenario is reversed from the original: Drake arranges to meet her at a park, and when Nicholas calls her back impersonating Drake, he changes it to the hotel. This leads to a nice moment where Drake and the woman pass each other on the stairs unknowingly. Casey doesn’t seduce Drake to slow him down — a bit of an oversight, since it leaves less time for Jim and Grant to get the target to safety. She does, however, drop a hint about him becoming “famous” for his murders, a compliment he’s uneasy with.

The assassination sequence is simplified considerably. The real target is taken to safety off-camera. The dummy intended to stand in for Grant is introduced much more casually — and is far, far less convincing than the one from 18 years earlier. Drake doesn’t reserve a room over the phone, but just breaks in. The murder weapon is the same — a plastique bomb disguised as golf balls — but he plants it on the floor from the room below rather than lowering it through the air vent from the room above, and it goes off after one minute rather than fifteen. Rather than meeting Casey in an alley and seeing her assassinated by Scorpio’s men, he returns to the hotel to find her there to assassinate him herself and become his replacement. Drake takes the gun from her and “kills” her (as planned) before leaving to hunt down Scorpio — who turns out to be the guy back in San Francisco who threw the party where Copperfield was killed. Drake breaks his cardinal rule of never repeating a murder method, reusing the hallucinogenic dart to kill Scorpio — but why? That killing was only special to Jim, not to Drake or Scorpio, so there’s no reason for the symbolism. Plus it’s implausible that it has the same result, a balcony dive (off-camera). Scorpio — who has the same real name as in the original — only wounds Drake, so the hitman is able to see the closing beat where the team members assemble to let him know he’s been had. Followed by a tag scene at Copperfield’s grave, where Jim tells the other four that he should stick around since it would be a shame to break up such a nice team.

So how does it stack up to the original? Well, I’d say it’s mixed. “The Killer” was a fairly good choice to remake; it was the debut of the superior season 5, wherein the show broke away from its longstanding formula in which the missions played out effortlessly for the team and instead began injecting more challenges and difficulties. That made for a more suspenseful story, and that’s effective here. The added stakes for Jim don’t really resonate beyond a couple of brief added scenes, though. It would’ve been better to pick an episode in which Jim had a more direct interaction with the killer. But as I’ve mentioned, while some of the changes were slight improvements (particularly the more up-t0-date, less gendered role for Casey), there were a couple of misfires with the whole hallucination-dart thing. Still, the teaser here is a vast improvement on the rather dull one in the original.

The new cast isn’t too impressive yet. Peter Graves is the same as he always was, which is cool. Phil Morris is younger, less experienced, and less potent a performer than he would become later on, and thus is not quite on the same level as his father on the original. Penghlis and Hamilton are okay, but both speak in Australian accents even though they’re supposed to be American. Markwell is rather lovely — though less so than I seem to remember finding her back in ’88 — but isn’t impressing me yet as an actress (and fakes an American accent imperfectly, though better than the other two Aussies). The only guest star of note is DeLancie, and he’s certainly a more charismatic and classier villain than Robert Conrad was.

As for Schifrin’s music, it’s a solid M:I score — fortunately orchestral rather than electronic like the new main title — but not a standout, and not as distinctive as his funk-influenced score for the original episode. (There are a few parts of it that sound to me as if they might have been arranged by Ron Jones, the acclaimed TNG/DuckTales composer who would score several other episodes in the season ahead. That’s just an impression, but it’s possible. It’s not unheard of for TV or film composers to help each other out with orchestrations when there’s a time crunch; for instance, Alexander Courage and Fred Steiner both worked with Jerry Goldsmith to arrange cues for Star Trek: The Motion Picture.) But it solidly re-establishes the main motifs of the original series. Both the main title theme and “The Plot” will continue to play central roles in every episode of the revival, as they did for the original.

“The System”: Remaking Season 3, episode 15. Credited to the original author, Robert Hamner.

Again we get a new teaser — the original had none. We see Frank Marley (James Sloyan, replacing James Patterson’s Costa) and his boss Connors actually killing the federal witness against the latter, a murder we only heard about in the original. Jim gets the disc message at a football stadium after trading code phrases with the popcorn vendor, and it’s the same mission as in the original: Convince Marley to testify against Connors, something he’s never likely to do since he’s Connors’s trusted heir apparent.

Marley’s casino is in the Bahamas rather than stateside. It’s odd that the first two episodes, even though they’re set around the world, are adapted from US-bound mob stories from the original. And it makes the inclusion of the “Secretary will disavow any knowledge” line rather incongruous. The original series dropped that line for stateside organized-crime cases, since they weren’t espionage-related. In these episodes, they’re still going after criminals rather than spies, so the cloak-and-dagger stuff is as incongruous as it was in the crime-focused seasons 6 and 7 of the original. (And moving the crimebusting stories overseas makes me wonder about the legality of the team’s operations on foreign soil).

The original “The System” was a weak, bland episode only livened up by its innovative and striking cinematography, which helped compensate for its rather dinky casino set. Here, we get a much more lavish location shoot at a real hotel-casino, making the episode look more expensive even though the cinematography is more conventional.

Max plays the hitman role that Jim filled in the original, tipping Marley off that Connors plans to hit him, while Jim takes over Rollin Hand’s role of the auditor supposedly sent by the mob boss. Max offers a better motive for the tipoff: rather than just being uneasy with a high-profile hit, he wants to hitch his wagon to Marley’s star since he’s the likely new boss. (We also begin to see here that Tony Hamilton is a much better actor than Peter Lupus was.) Casey fills Cinnamon Carter’s role of the sexy gambler with the system, drawing Marley’s interest to trick him out of large sums of money and frame him in his employees’ eyes, and Grant fills his father’s role of breaking into the vault. The vault sequence is less imaginative than the original. The pressure-sensitive floor alarm is replaced with a rather silly wall unit firing out random lasers, which Grant blocks with a mirror so he can climb into the room — which leads to a new act-break cliffhanger when the mirror falls out of place and he needs to call in the others (using the miniature walkie-talkies that are evidently standard IMF equipment now) to cut the generator long enough for him to replace it. That’s a nice introduction of danger into a story that was too by-the-numbers originally, and makes up for the sillier security system. Grant also blocks a security camera using a handheld video camera (using one of the mockup IMF mini-discs) to record a shot of the room and feed it into the security cable.  The larger size of the foreign bills and the staging of the later counting sequence also address my problem with the original sequence, giving a reason why Jim couldn’t have just brought the extra money in with him and planted it rather than having Grant break in beforehand.

The biggest plot change is made to introduce the use of full-face-mask impersonations. Now the masks seem to be created by a mix of hand-sculpting by Nicholas and computer-aided design by Grant. Nicholas impersonates Marley in order to do what Rollin and Cinnamon did with a forged note on a piece of paper: Telling the blackjack dealer to let Casey win a lot of money. The real Marley is distracted with another cash counting scene, not in the original. The faked attempt on Marley’s life is moved to a scene with Max rather than the later scene with Casey (Cinnamon) where she reveals she’s working for the mob boss. The oddest change is when, rather than having Nicholas or Grant (whom Marley hasn’t seen) play the real hitman, it turns out that Max was the hitman all along, just pulling a fakeout as part of the frame, or something. That part doesn’t work so well. Anyway, it ends like the original, with Marley locking himself in the vault and calling the cops to make a deal to testify.

Despite the less impressive cinematography and gadgetry, this is much more effective than the original. The story is pretty much the same, and it’s a standard M:I tale with no insights into the regular characters; but some of its flaws are improved on, and the location shooting makes it much more impressive. For the second week in a row, they’ve cast a far stronger villain than the original did, even though Sloyan doesn’t have much to work with here. The strongest part is Ron Jones’s debut score for the series. It’s very much an M:I score, but also very much a Ron Jones score; those two things mesh quite well. In the vault sequence, Jones’s use of the first three notes of the main theme as a recurring motif over one of his trademark electronic ostinati reminds me very much of some of his TNG work. But at other times, he goes for a more contemporary sound (much as Schifrin did in the original “The Killer”), distinguishing his score from both TNG and the original M:I. Notably, in Grant’s break-in, Jones arranges “The Plot” over a distinctive bass guitar riff, one I actually remember even though I haven’t seen this series in a quarter-century. This riff will be reused in later Jones scores for the series.

So how can we cope with these remakes in the context of series continuity? Maybe we could pretend that Jim is reusing plans that worked in similar situations, if it weren’t for the fact that so much of the dialogue was verbatim, character names like Scorpio/Chambers were the same, and the villains reacted the same way to the team’s scripted lines and maneuvers. There’s really no way to reconcile them. And a larger issue for the show in general is that Phil Morris was already 7 years old when M:I began, but Barney was always portrayed as an eligible bachelor. It’s hard to make it fit.

But then, TV shows in the ’60s and ’70s rarely had much continuity, and M:I was a prime example. Team members would reveal their faces on national or global television one week and then be totally anonymous again the next, or be badly injured, brainwashed, or tortured in one episode and be perfectly healthy a week later. Regulars vanished without explanation and their replacements were treated like they’d always been there. Only in season 7 was there even the slightest attempt to acknowledge continuity. In those days, before commonplace syndication or home video, episodes had to stand alone since past episodes might never be seen again, and missed episodes might never be seen at all. So even shows with continuing characters tended to work like anthologies. There are many such shows — even as late as Law & Order — that function more like a set of parallel realities featuring identical characters rather than a series of consecutive adventures in a single reality. Indeed, sometimes a show would remake its own earlier episodes in later seasons (one example being Mannix, the third Desilu drama developed by Herb Solow alongside M:I and Star Trek, which remade a first-season episode with Charles Drake into a sixth-season episode with William Shatner). There’s really no way to reconcile such things.

But that’s okay — next comes the revival’s first original episode!

Categories: Reviews Tags: ,
%d bloggers like this: