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.