Archive for May 16, 2014

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.

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