Home > Reviews > MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (’89) Reviews: “The Assassin”/”The Gunslinger” (Spoilers)

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (’89) Reviews: “The Assassin”/”The Gunslinger” (Spoilers)

“The Assassin”: Written by Cliff Green, this episode is a loose remake of season 6’s “Mindbend.” In Geneva, a prominent politician is gunned down by a man who’s triggered to do so by a musical alarm on his wristwatch — basically the same as the watch-alarm trigger in the original. But instead of shooting himself in the head afterward, he aims his gun at the police and commits suicide by gendarme. Where the original episode cut away discreetly at the first gunshot, here we see both violent killings on camera. Yay, progress, I guess. Afterward, there’s a closeup of a bad video effect of a red glow under the skin of the victim’s neck, presumably a computer chip self-immolating.

Jim goes to a carnival and exchanges code phrases with a blonde shooting-gallery attendant who’s so sexy (though not much of an actress) that Jim’s “I’m aiming for a prize of a different kind” plays more like he’s trying to solicit a prostitute than get directed to a secret videodisc. But anyway, the mission differs from the original in that the assassins are people close to the targets (to circumvent security) and the Voice doesn’t provide any information about who the suspected mastermind is. That’s left to Grant’s research, as we find when the team convenes on a ship in Boston Harbor (or a Down-Under facsimile thereof). He’s linked all the assassins to the stress relief clinic run by Philip Westerly (Peter Curtin), who’s also been caught on video as a face in the crowd at several of the murder scenes because he couldn’t resist traveling around the world to watch them all personally. Umm, isn’t that enough evidence that the police could investigate and find some link? Is this really so insoluble that the IMF is needed? At least the mastermind in “Mindbend” kept his distance from the brainwashing doctor and his subjects, and the subjects were criminals with no public record of ever having encountered the doctor. The IMF in that episode apparently picked up underworld rumors and needed to prove them. But here, Westerly is so reckless in attending the murder scenes that it’s hard to believe the case requires extraordinary measures to crack.

At the Westerly Clinic, the eponymous doctor is holding a video auction for six bidders whom only he can see on his wall screens, but they’re evidently leaders of Communist countries or military regimes and the like. The guy in the top left looks a bit like Vladimir Putin, but it’s a coincidence; Putin was years away from becoming a world figure when this was made, and the guy turns out to be implicitly South African anyway. Grant taps the phone lines just at the tail end of the auction, so they know a hit is imminent but they don’t know the target or the assassin. So they arrange to go in two ways: First, Shannon and Max play a rich married couple with stress issues, meeting Westerly at what I think is the same race track used in “The Cattle King” last season; and second, Nicholas just shows up at the clinic as a drunken journalist in despair about being reassigned from the international news beat to celebrity reporting in Boston. Westerly falls readily for Nick’s cover story, and betrays all principles of doctor-patient privilege in describing him to Shannon and Max just as a script cheat so they’ll know he’s successfully inside. Westerly instantly starts neuro-chipping and brainwashing Nicholas, using video footage of a lion stalking a gazelle with “jungle drums” playing. It’s unclear why he picks Nicholas for this. In “Mindbend,” the team already knew the intended assassin and substituted Barney, with pharmaceutical defenses against conditioning (though those failed him). Here, it’s like they have no plan beyond “go in and look around,” and Nicholas just randomly got chosen as the brainwashee.

So the next day, Shannon and Max are at the pool when Nicholas shows up, and they’re puzzled by his aloof behavior, and by the new murder-trigger watch that Westerly gave him. When he resists their enquiries and gets angry, they…


They break cover. In public. Right where Westerly can watch from his window. They loudly call him “Nicholas,” right there at the public pool, and try to get through to him, with Max in particular browbeating him until the lion-hunting footage replaying in Nicholas’s mind (believe me, we’re going to see an awful lot of that footage) drives him to snap and knock Max into the pool. The fracas gets Max and Shannon booted out of the clinic before they can learn anything. This was a rank amateur move that I can’t believe these experienced agents would’ve made.

So they’re stuck with following Nicholas when Westerly drives him to the racetrack and seemingly aims him at an important Arab sheikh. The team knocks out Nick and takes him back to the boat, but Westerly slips away, and Jim isn’t convinced the sheikh was the real target. Indeed, back at the boat, Nicholas awakes and goes all Terminator, knocking Shannon’s stunt double (who I’m pretty sure is a guy) over a desk. (At first I thought the stuntman was wearing a lot of shoulder padding to give him protection and a feminine shape, but then I realized that was just ’80s fashion.) Nicholas almost strangles Shannon — since of course we can’t go an episode without having the woman placed in danger — and ultimately knocks her down a flight of steps, leaving her unconscious. Then he takes a gun and the mask-making unit to the zoo and snaps photos of a zookeeper which he feeds into the unit. (It’s our best look ever at how the mask-maker operates.) Fortunately, Grant has gotten past Westerly’s nonexistent security and stolen the brainwashing tape (since Westerly doesn’t have the good sense to destroy the evidence like his “Mindbend” counterpart), letting him discover subliminal frames revealing that the target is the anti-apartheid ruler of the “Republic of West Africa.” They rush to the zoo and intercept Nicholas just in time, though not before we’ve been forced to endure the lion-hunt footage several more times. Then Jim’s entire master stratagem for bringing Westerly to justice is “Grant! Get Westerly!” Which leads to Westerly tripping over a coil of poetic justice and falling into the lion enclosure, and we have to suffer through the stock footage one more time before the biochip melts and Nicholas is back to normal.

Wow, this was just bad. Everyone here was far dumber than they should be in an M:I episode. The bad guy should not have been that hard to catch, and the team was basically just flailing around, with no sign of the usual chess game planned out a dozen moves in advance. This isn’t even really an M:I story, more just a standard action plot. Which is weird given that it’s directly inspired by an episode of the original. True, “Mindbend” had the team in the dark about the assassination target and forced to contend with a team member’s brainwashing, but still they had a plan playing out, a plan that succeeded in entrapping the villains despite the setbacks. There was nothing like that here. The team was mostly reactive throughout, aside from the initial impersonations that didn’t seem to have much of a goal behind them.

Even worse, the story contradicts itself. Its big change from the original premise, spelled out in the disc scene, is supposedly that the assassins are people close to their victims, enabling them to get past security because they’re trusted and allowed access. But then Westerly goes and turns this drunken journalist he’s just met into an assassin for a complete stranger. Why even establish that change if it wasn’t going to factor into the story, if indeed it directly contradicted the intended storyline? Like so much else here, it makes no sense. Nothing here is as awful as the atrocious racism of “Cargo Cult,” but the plot is even more incoherent and nonsensical. And it’s the second episode in a row that hasn’t revolved around an intricate plan at all. Sadly, it will not be the last.

“The Gunslinger”: Or just “Gunslinger,” per the DVD set. Teleplay by Ted Roberts, story by Dan Roberts.

We open in what seems like an Old West saloon, but a man in modern clothes is playing poker with Ian McClintock (Michael Greene), who confronts him about being an FBI agent spying on McClintock’s operation. McClintock has his right-hand thug Slade (Patrick Ward) take the agent out to be shot. Slade tosses him a six-shooter to give him a fightin’ chance Old West-style, but the panicky FBI agent seems to have skipped the firearms training at Quantico, and is Boot Hill bound within seconds.

At a skateboard park with a noisy metal ramp, Jim learns that McClintock is a former senator who founded Pontiac, Nevada, an Old West resort, and who still wields much political influence from there. He’s suspected of dealing with terrorists, but investigating him is politically sensitive — so at last we get a mission that makes sense for the IMF. The assignment is to find out whether he’s guilty and bring him to justice if he is. The apartment briefing establishes only that McClintock is obsessed with the Old West (or rather a TV/movie fantasy image thereof, though the episode doesn’t distinguish) and that he cheats at cards — but, says Jim, “two can play at that game.”

Shannon has no trouble embedding herself as a sexy barmaid, while the three younger men convince Slade to take them on as ranch hands. Jim faces McClintock as a fellow gambler and engages him in debate to size him up; he’s a pretty one-dimensional tough guy who has no patience for the bleeding hearts of today and yearns for the rugged macho ideal he imagines to have existed in the past. Jim hardly seems to be roleplaying at all as he questions McClintock’s values, although he allows himself to lose at cards. But the guys are having a harder time getting anywhere with Slade, who’s calling Grant “boy” a lot — so he’s a racist as well as a murdering thug — and Grant has to prove himself by riding a bucking bronco. And… he rides the bronco. Just toughs it out. Where’s the tranquilizing-needle ring, Grant? Where’s the electro-whammy hoozitsinator to calm down the horse? Even the losers from Galactica 1980 were shrewd enough to pull that off. This team’s advance preparation has been terrible lately. (Also, Slade was suspicious of the boys because one of them lacked calluses on his hands. Why didn’t Jim think of that? Also, is it plausible that even drama teacher Nicholas would lack calluses after all the fighting and climbing and gadget-deploying and other hands-on stuff he’s had to do over the past two years?)

Anyway, Shannon overhears a bar patron mention something creeping him out in the mines, which puzzles the team, since they thought the mines were just for show. Turns out there’s a secret chamber and McClintock and Slade are forcing people to dig for something. Nicholas and Grant take a sample of the ore and find nothing but shale and salt. At this point I already figured out what it was they were digging for. Can you, Gentle Reader?

Grant and Nicholas go down into the mines to search for answers, and find Slade threatening to kill a worker. They follow, deciding they need to rescue the guy, but only find the blank wall where the hidden door must be, then hear a shot from the other side. Grant swipes some survey maps to try to figure out where the fake wall leads and what the mine might be for, but all he can determine is that they’re tunneling in the direction of government land whose contents are classified above even IMF clearance.

Max’s role in the game consists mainly of sexually harrassing Shannon, so that she can turn for help to Slade’s henchman Carter (Andrew Clarke), the weak link in the operation. (No wonder. He’s a henchman to a henchman. He’s a henchsquared.) She drugs his drink and gets him to take her home with him, but the next morning he wakes up in a haystack with her and she tells him they had a memorable night in which he told him all his secrets. He insists that if she breathes a word about the burial vault or the rods, he’ll kill her. This, combined with the rest, lets Grant deduce that they’re digging for spent nuclear fuel rods stored in the Nevada salt beds.

Now, up to now, this has been like the previous two (awful) episodes in that it’s just been about the team going in undercover and trying to discover something, which doesn’t really follow the M:I formula of carrying out intricate, multistage plans. But now that Jim knows what’s what, the game is properly on. Literally a game, a no-limit poker game between Jim and McClintock, using one of the niftiest IMF gadgets this show has produced: a deck of blank cards coated with LCD laminate that Grant can control with his computer to display the face of any card he wants. But the other bit of tech Jim has Grant prepare is a set of trank-dart bullets; it looks like he’s expecting to get into a gunfight with McClintock, and he’s practicing his quick draw. And the director does a neat thing here. At first, the angle cuts away from Jim’s face to a close-up on the quick draw, leading us to assume there’s a double faking it — but then we see another quick draw and the camera tilts up to show that, yes, Peter Graves really did it himself. He does it a couple more times in the scene just to drive it home. It’s a reminder that Peter Graves was the younger brother of Matt Dillon himself, Gunsmoke‘s James Arness, and was a regular on a couple of Westerns (Fury and Whiplash) years before he did M:I. (Their birth names were James and Peter Aurness, with a U.)

So Nicholas and Max sneak into the mine, where the workers are bringing out the excavated nuclear fuel rods in containment units, and they use fluorescent dye to fake a radiation leak (because the workers are gullible enough to think that radioactive material glows in the dark — or maybe the writers are) so the workers will evacuate, and then they rig the mine to blow. Meanwhile Jim is cleaning McClintock out, and when they play the final hand, he lets McC discover he’s been cheating, so that the Western-happy ex-Senator will call him out for a gunfight. Just then, the mine blows, and Jim drops character and tells him his plan has been foiled. But McClintock’s ego won’t let him back down even now, although he has Slade do his gunfighting for him. Shannon has drugged Slade’s drink so he won’t be much of a threat, and Jim “kills” him with a trank dart, to McC’s shock — and Jim maneuvers him into confessing that he’s killed people too, in front of witnesses. McClintock tries to draw on Jim, and he hasn’t been drugged — it’s purely a contest of skill. And Jim shoots first. Shannon says she’s called in the FBI to arrest the unconscious villains, and the team rides off on horseback (though not into the sunset, alas).

Well, this threatened to be another episode that didn’t feel like M:I, but it rallied toward the end. It was kind of a self-indulgent exercise, a contrived scenario to let Graves dust off his old Western skills, but on the other hand the ex-senator’s influence and the sensitivity of the mission made it more justifiable as an IMF case than many. The villains were too broadly, exaggeratedly awful, but it was kind of nice to see Jim confronting the villain almost openly rather than from a distance. So while there are a number of things about the episode that are imperfect, the good parts outweigh them. Or maybe I’m just being generous because the last two were so horrible. Either way, this was a satisfying one.

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  1. Mikey
    November 22, 2016 at 10:17 am

    Good review of MI:1988 episodes. In the Assassin episode, not sure why they didn’t lock Nicholas in a room or somewhere more isolated. They also didn’t seem to think twice to leave Shannon all by herself with a brainwashed, programmed assassin. We all know that Nicholas was not himself at that time and was capable to wreak havoc. Worse, Shannon was NOT even prepared to handle Nicholas in the event he woke up and caused problem. I noted that when Nicholas woke-up, Shannon was reading a magazine (for heaven’s sake). She didn’t hold the “sleepy” gun (used by Max earlier) and she was still wearing her dress. Bad episode writing and made the team looked weak.

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