Archive for May 25, 2014

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!

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