Archive for May 9, 2014

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.

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