The newest Mission: Impossible film, Rogue Nation, was written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie (writer of The Usual Suspects and Edge of Tomorrow, director of Jack Reacher) from a story by McQuarrie and Drew Pearce. It’s the second M:I film produced by Bad Robot, and thus the third with involvement from J.J. Abrams (who directed M:i:III but apparently did not produce it, I was surprised to learn recently). It continues the trend of continuity between films and the ensemble flavor of Ghost Protocol, with Simon Pegg’s Benji Dunn and Jeremy Renner’s William Brandt returning from that film, alongside Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt and Ving Rhames’s Luther Stickell, who has a sizeable role this time after having just a cameo in GP. Having both Benji and Luther prominently in the same film could be a problem, since they fill the same role on the team, but this is resolved by having them spend a lot of the film apart, with Benji supporting Ethan and Luther supporting Brandt. Paula Patton’s Jane Carter is neither seen nor mentioned, with the female lead instead being Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), a disavowed British agent whose loyalties are unclear for much of the film.
The film rather wisely starts out by immediately disposing of the big vertiginous Tom Cruise stunt sequence that was inevitably going to be plastered all over the trailers and promotions and thus wouldn’t be a surprise anyway — namely, the scene where he clings to the side of a cargo plane as it takes off. Fittingly, Ethan’s first appearance in the film has him doing a Patented Tom Cruise Run to leap onto the plane, and his plane cling isn’t exactly Ethan Hunt Climbs Things but is pretty close. (Previously, Cruise has had short hair in every odd-numbered picture and long hair in every even-numbered one; here he’s sort of in between.) The sequence is fun and deftly directed, and Joe Kraemer’s score immediately makes an impression equal in strength to Michael Giacchino’s work on the previous two films. Like Ghost Protocol, the teaser leads into a main title sequence that homages the titles of the original series, complete with flashforward clips of the action to come, but in a more conventional way than GP’s titles — rather evocative of the original 1996 film’s title sequence, in fact. The main title arrangement is big and brassy in a way that evokes both the 1996 Danny Elfman version and the Ghost Protocol Giacchino version.
The evocation of the ’96 film is perhaps appropriate, since this is the first sequel to directly acknowledge any events from that film. CIA Director Hunley (Alec Baldwin) mentions Ethan’s iconic Langley break-in from said film, along with the destruction of the Kremlin and other events of Ghost Protocol, as part of his case that the IMF is a renegade organization that should be shut down. He actually makes an objectively good case that its secretive methods are ill-suited to the modern age of transparency and accountability, but of course we’re supposed to be rooting against him and for Brandt, who argues that the IMF has been doing good work for 40 years — which is short by about nine years, I’d say. Has the original series suddenly been retconned out of existence? Is this proof that the movies are in a separate reality from the show? Or did Brandt just misspeak? In any case, the nebulously defined committee that they’re testifying to agrees to shut down the IMF.
But Ethan doesn’t know this, as he’s going to a message drop in London to get his next assignment. I had to squee at this sequence, because the drop is in a record store and the message is encoded on a vinyl phonograph album — a callback to the 1966 pilot episode!!!!! But with a couple of twists — first, that it uses a modern laser thingy to project graphics onto the turntable lid… and second, that it turns out to be a trap laid by the Syndicate, an evil organization that Ethan’s been hunting down since the closing moments of Ghost Protocol (said to be a year before, even though that was four years ago). It’s fun to hear the formula of the message subverted by the bad guys. Ethan sees a mysterious bespectacled man gun down the pretty store clerk who was his contact, before he’s gassed unconscious as the “self-destruct” part of the message.
Ethan awakes in the clutches of the Syndicate, which apparently plans to use torture to break him and turn him to their side. He’s helped to escape by Ilsa Faust, a mole within the Syndicate, but he finds from Brandt that he’s out in the cold and that Hunley doesn’t believe in the Syndicate’s existence. But he’s determined to find the bespectacled man and get justice, so he goes rogue. Cut to six months later, with Brandt working under Hunley and Benji as a CIA analyst who has to trick weekly polygraph tests to insist he has no loyalty to Ethan. But Ethan arranges to get Benji’s help at an opera in Vienna, whereupon he encounters Ilsa apparently trying to assassinate the Austrian chancellor, though there are two other assassins on hand to take her out if she fails. Ethan foils the assassination — the same way Ilsa had planned to — and they escape together, but the Syndicate has a backup plan and foils their foiling.
Ilsa breaks away to preserve her cover and report to Syndicate head Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), who keeps letting her live despite her “failures” because it’s convenient to the plot — err, because he sees “potential” in her. Meanwhile, Ethan explains to Benji that the Syndicate is an “anti-IMF,” consisting of former spies believed dead or missing and employing IMF-style tactics to fake deadly accidents in order to tear down the world order.
Lane gives Ilsa one more chance, sending her to Casablanca to break into an ultra-high security data vault, a job that Ethan and Benji end up helping her with when they learn it’s to access Lane’s ledger listing all the Syndicate’s agents. This is the sequence with Ethan diving into an underwater facility and trying to hold his breath for several minutes, and it’s another tour-de-force action set piece, with the underwater sound design being particularly impressive. Ilsa saves Ethan’s life when he drowns — the second time in the series that the female lead has gotten to bring Ethan back from the brink of death — but then she breaks away with the retrieved data, and Ethan and Benji literally run into Brandt and Luther as they chase after her. A car chase reminiscent of The Italian Job gives way to a motorcycle chase reminiscent of M:I-2, but Ilsa gets away.
She takes the data to Attlee, the head of British intelligence, and demands that she be brought in, but he turns out to be a ruthless bastard who insists she go back in and assassinate Ethan to prove her allegiance to Lane. He also deletes the stolen data on her thumb drive, though of course Benji made a backup, so Ethan’s team now has the only copy. And it’s not a ledger, but a “red box” file that only the Prime Minister of the UK can open. Clearly Lane intends to kidnap the PM. But when the team tracks down Ilsa to confront her, Lane kidnaps Benji in order to force Ethan to kidnap the PM. This was the plan all along. (Why? Seems needlessly convoluted.)
It looks like Ethan’s going to go through with it, and Brandt argues against doing something so insane. We cut to Brandt calling Hunley to tell him what Ethan’s planning. It’s pretty easy to guess that in between scenes, Ethan spelled out a con game that Brandt is playing along with, only pretending to betray him. Brandt lures Hunley to London, where they end up in a room with the PM and Attlee, the latter of whom maneuvers the PM into revealing to Hunley that the Syndicate was a proposal of Attlee’s to found a rogue agency that could act with impunity — a proposal that the PM rejected but that Attlee carried forward anyway. I guessed pretty early in the scene that Attlee was actually Ethan in a mask, since the actor they cast, Simon McBurney, seemed similar to Cruise in size and facial structure. And of course it was, though it’s unclear how Ethan deduced some of the things he reveals as Attlee. They’ve also lured the real Attlee to take the fall, while arranging for Hunley to take the credit for catching him. With Hunley now on their side, they use the PM’s biometrics to open the file, which is Attlee’s financial records intended to fund the Syndicate. (The most awkward moment in the film is here — just before the truth is revealed to Hunley, when he still thinks Ethan is coming to kill the PM, he issues an overwrought warning about how Ethan is this unstoppable force, “the living manifestation of destiny” or some such thing, which just comes out of nowhere and is way too aggrandizing to Ethan. We don’t even get a comedy beat of embarrassment when Hunley realizes that Ethan was standing right there listening to his overeffusive words.)
Lane sets up a trap to force Ethan to turn over the account numbers lest Benji and Ilsa be blown up, but Ethan outmaneuvers him — he memorized the data and erased the disk, so now Lane needs him alive. He gets Benji released and then protects Ilsa from being shot by Syndicate men, and this leads into a final chase through the streets wherein Ethan and Ilsa eventually get separated so that they can each have their own individual action climax. Lane shows up to confront Ethan directly, conveniently forgetting that whole “need him alive” thing, and Ethan leads him into a nice little trap set up by Luther and Benji — a trap that, refreshingly, ends with the villain apparently still alive and unconscious. And the way it’s done, which calls back the record-store incident that was Ethan and Lane’s first meeting, is more satisfying than Lane’s death would’ve been. Anyway, Ethan and Ilsa say their farewells — platonically, I’m glad to say, though that’s as close as the film comes to acknowledging that Ethan still has a wife out there somewhere.
The movie ends with an odd little scene where Hunley convinces the Nebulous Committee to reinstate the IMF, whereupon Brandt tells him, “Welcome to the IMF, Mister Secretary.” Now, that’s very odd. It implies that the Secretary is the head of the IMF. In the past, it always seemed that he was the secretary of defense or state, a cabinet-level post that oversaw the intelligence community. Having him be exclusively attached to the IMF and appointed by some kind of committee is hard to make sense of. It’s also a disappointing ending in another sense, because when Ilsa went off to her ill-defined future, I imagined the closing scene I wanted to see: Ilsa some time later showing up to a message drop and then hearing Ethan’s voice say, “Good morning, Ms. Faust. Your mission, should you choose to accept it…” I think that would’ve been a perfect ending. Concluding the film without formally bringing Ilsa on board feels incomplete, particularly since it leaves the IMF as an all-male outfit throughout the film.
Rogue Nation was a pretty solid action movie, very well-made. It doesn’t seem to have the plausibility problems of the first two films, and it has a level of humor close to that of Ghost Protocol. I’m getting tired of Ethan always being on the run from his own government, but at least it was set up as a continuation of the events of previous films. Indeed, I enjoy the way this film felt like a continuation of the previous one, even more so than GP did; it’s a refreshing change from the first decade of the franchise, where each film felt like an unrelated standalone. RN didn’t have as strong a character story at its core as the previous two, but what filled that void was the interplay and friendship among the core cast. This is the first M:I film where every member of Ethan’s team is a returning character, and that history gives weight to the character interactions, which is good, because the characters are given little development otherwise. There’s also Ilsa’s story as a reluctant double agent trying to balance her allegiances and stay alive — perhaps not very deep or emotional, but well-handled by Ferguson, who’s a very strong presence and an effective counterpart to Cruise. There’s a degree of male gaze directed toward her by the camera on occasion, but she never really feels objectified, since she’s so poised and in control.
I have particular praise for Joe Kraemer’s score. It integrates the Schifrin themes as strongly as Giacchino’s did, if not more so, and builds new motifs on similar chord structures so that it all feels of a piece, not only with the Schifrin themes but with the Giacchino scores, which did much the same thing. Kraemer actually uses “The Plot” more extensively than Giacchino did, accompanying a lot of the team’s machinations; although, like Danny Elfman in the first film, he never quotes the entire melody, sticking mainly to the first few bars. The most extensive use of “The Plot” is in the Casablanca sequence, where it gets reworked to have an “Arabian” sound to it.
The movie is not without flaws, though. For one thing, it fails the Bechdel test. Ilsa is the only significant female character; of the two others, one (the doomed record-shop clerk) is just there to be killed to motivate Ethan, and the other (an aide to Hunley played by Chinese actress Zhang Jingchu, who’s prominently credited for less than a minute of screen time) is apparently just there to satisfy the Chinese funding partners. Neither of them interacts with Ilsa at all. I’d say it passes the Mako Mori test, in that Ilsa has a clearly drawn arc of her own that isn’t about supporting a male character’s arc, but the overwhelming maleness of most of the cast is distracting. (The Nebulous Committee, for instance, consists entirely of old white men plus one token old black man.) Looking back over the series, though, it seems that none of the films pass the test fully, except maybe the first, which has three named women on the initial team, participating in the group conversation about the mission.
It also doesn’t feel as much like Mission: Impossible as GP did. It’s more in the vein of the second and third films in being driven more by big action than by devious con games. The sequence with the Prime Minister and Attlee comes the closest to an IMF-style con game, and the infiltration of the Casablanca vault has a touch of it (since it’s basically a variation on the classic IMF tactic of inserting fake credentials for a team member into the target’s records). But mostly it’s action over calculating schemes and deceptions, and Ethan and the team spend too much time improvising rather than playing out intricate chess games plotted in advance. The Nebulous Committee even argues that Ethan’s methods are “indistinguishable from luck,” which is pretty much anathema to the IMF of the TV series, wherein every move was calculated from the start and very little was ever left to chance. I regret that the film series has become so defined by its big action, because I’d love to see an M:I movie that was all about a big sting operation. Oh, and the Syndicate is said to be an “anti-IMF,” but its methods seem to consist mainly of snipers and bombs and the like. Dougray Scott in M:I-2 was more convincing in his use of IMF-style tactics for evil, and loyal readers, I’m as astonished as you to hear myself saying something positive about M:I-2. Granted, though, lack of IMFery isn’t a dealbreaker for an M:I movie; the third film had little of it, but it’s still one of the two strongest films in the series. It’s just that GP was the first film in the series that actually felt like Mission: Impossible rather than The Adventures of Ethan Hunt, and I was hoping RN would continue the trend. It did not.
And the lack of character development compared to the previous two films does disappoint me in retrospect. The dramatic tension among the team members played well, but there was little sense of backstory or personal lives like there was in the previous two films. It was all about the job and the plot business they were dealing with. The past two films gave Ethan a personal life that humanized him, but that was totally absent here, with Ethan defined totally by his quest to bring down the Syndicate. So it’s shallower overall, though not as shallow as the first two films.
If anything, RN reminds me of M:I-2 in a lot of ways. It’s a heavily action-driven film featuring a lengthy motorcycle chase; it features a villain using IMF-style tactics for evil; and it centers on Ethan’s competition with the villain for the allegiance of the sole significant female character in the film. But it’s much better in most respects: the action is less cartoony; the female lead is a protagonist in her own right and not merely a lust interest; and the rest of the IMF team functions as a full ensemble rather than just being tacked on.
So out of the five films so far, I would rank Rogue Nation as a close third behind the previous two films, and well ahead of the first two. I still think of the first two as failed pilots for a series that didn’t really get underway until J.J. Abrams took the helm. That series proper is now up to three films that have maintained a pretty consistent level of quality throughout. This is the weakest of the three, but by a narrow margin.
I debated with myself whether to edit my original “Full series overview” post to add the revival, but I think it would be easier just to link to it and add a second post, mainly covering the 1988-90 revival series and the feature film series, but also updating some of the bits from the first post. So here’s the link:
The revival TV series added 35 episodes to the tally from the original, for a total of 206 episodes and 197 distinct adventures — or maybe 193, since four of the revival episodes were fairly close remakes. Highlights:
Regulars: Reactivated government agent Jim Phelps (Peter Graves), electronics engineer Grant Collier (Phil Morris), theater professor Nicholas Black (Thaao Penghlis), all-around tough guy Max Harte (Tony Hamilton), fashion designer Casey Randall (Terry Markwell). Randall dies midseason, replaced with journalist/singer/Secret Service agent Shannon Reed (Jane Badler).
Initially remakes of original-series episodes, soon giving way to new episodes and loose reuses of original premises in different ways. A surprisingly direct continuation from what had come before, with a mix of international intrigue and crime-busting cases; after an initial emphasis on capers that go off-plan and create jeopardy for the team, the season settled into routine, clockwork capers with very little character exploration, much like the original. A high percentage of episodes featured supernatural-themed capers exploiting villains’ superstitions, usually through holography.
Production in Australia allowed more striking and exotic location work and more international flavor, unfortunately leading to worse ethnic stereotyping than the original generally had. In departure from original, most episodes were set in real countries.
Beginning of the fleshing out of the IMF as an organization, establishing other agents, a research lab, and the like. First steps toward a more action-oriented focus.
Cold opens used in every episode. Tape-scene briefings replaced with video minidiscs in special players, and ending in freeze-frame title card/music sting like that in the original’s dossier sequences. No off-book missions, so disc scenes used in every episode. Video dossier scene used only in pilot. Team briefings occasionally took place on site rather than in Jim’s apartment, and were often more preliminary and straightforwardly expository than in the original, with little of the gadget/trick demonstration common in the original.
Main title theme modernized, electronic/guitar arrangement. Preview clips in titles replaced with generic title sequence. End titles initially over “IMF” logo, later over stills from episode.
- Best episodes: “The Pawn” and “The Fortune,” followed by “The Legacy.” Best remake: “The Legacy,” whose final act improved upon the original’s weak ending.
- Worst episodes: “The Devils” is worse than anything from the original series. “The Haunting” is also quite bad, and “Submarine” isn’t much better. Worst remake: “Submarine,” a hugely inferior reworking of the original’s finest episode, though it’s only a loose remake.
Regulars: Jim Phelps, Grant Collier, Nicholas Black, Max Harte, Shannon Reed. Only season besides S6 where the same regular cast appears in every episode. Only season in franchise where the team has no supplemental members.
Entirely new episodes, though a couple were loosely inspired by original-series premises. First season since S4 to include a 2-parter. The first half-season broke formula much as S5 did, having more capers go wrong and delving more into the characters. The characters spent more time as themselves (rather than playing assumed roles) than in any previous season. The second half largely dropped the caper formula in favor of more conventional action storytelling where the characters were searching and improvising more often than enacting preplanned strategies.
Unique in having no purely crime-focused episodes; every criminal case had an international/geopolitical aspect. Resumes original series’ practice of using largely fictitious countries, though with several real locations (or caricatures thereof) used. Increased emphasis on action, solving problems with force or gunplay rather than deception and stratagems. The opening 2-parter was essentially an over-the-top action movie, almost a trial run for the feature films. Increasing shift toward fanciful or exaggerated scenarios, and continued emphasis on supernatural cons.
No change in initial formula: Cold open, disc briefing, team briefing usually in Jim’s apartment but occasionally at on-site command post.
- Best episodes: “Countdown,” “The Fuehrer’s Children,” “For Art’s Sake,” and “The Princess.”
- Worst episodes: “Cargo Cult” is the worst episode in the entire franchise. “Banshee” and “The Assassin” are both dreadful.
So how would I rank these seasons relative to the whole? Remember, my rankings for the original series were:
- Season 5
- Season 1
- Season 3
- Season 4
- Season 7
- Season 6
- Season 2
The 1988 season — call it season 8 — was generally routine and mediocre in storytelling, about on the same level as S2, but weakened by less interesting music and by the disappointing presence of Terry Markwell in the first 2/3 of the season. I’d pretty much have to rate it below S2, then. The ’89 season — call it season 9 — is trickier to rate, since it started out so strong but sank so low. In that respect, it’s close to season 6, which had a number of strong episodes offset by a number of poor ones. But the worst episodes of S9 are below the quality of anything in the original series, so I’d have to put it below S6, though it has enough interesting ones to put it above the generally bland S2. So the new ranking would be:
- Season 5
- Season 1
- Season 3
- Season 4
- Season 7
- Season 6
- Season 9
- Season 2
- Season 8
Regulars: Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is the only true regular. Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) appears in all four films but is only a team member in three. Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) is effectively a regular starting with the third film. No one else appears in more than one film.
A remarkably inconsistent film series, with each film reflecting its own director’s style and sensibilities. The first two films and the subsquent J.J. Abrams-produced series can be seen as three separate, highly distinct attempts to adapt M:I to film, sharing only a leadactor and a few recurring tropes. Unlike the TV franchise’s team focus, the films are focused on Ethan Hunt as a lone hero and romantic lead, with only Ghost Protocol having an ensemble approach (and eschewing a romantic subplot, for the most part); but Hunt does not emerge as a well-drawn character until the third film. Only the third and fourth films have any shared continuity besides the return of Hunt and Stickell. What the films have in common is a shift toward a greater emphasis on action and on tales of intrigue and treachery. All of the first three films involve traitors in the IMF, and all but the second involve Ethan Hunt being accused of treason and going on the run. The intricate capers that characterized the original series are generally reduced to set pieces within the films’ plots.
The IMF is fleshed out into a division of the CIA, based in Langley, VA. Every film features either senior IMF officials or “the Secretary” himself, though with different officials in each film. The first three films have the briefing videos narrated by the agent’s superior in the IMF, and the fourth has the Secretary deliver “your mission, should you choose to accept it” in person (along with other mission briefings by an anonymous, possibly computerized voice). The method of the briefing delivery is different in every movie. Dossier videos are incorporated into the briefings in films 1, 3, and 4, and as part of a visual montage in film 2. Teams are usually selected by the superior rather than the team leader. Team members are now career IMF agents rather than civilians, although the premise that they are deniable, non-official agents without the protection of their government in the event of discovery is retained — and utilized far more heavily than in the series.
All films take place in real locations and are generally filmed in them. All plots focus on large-scale espionage or on the terrorist acquisition of WMDs.
Every film has a cold open, though the subject matter varies. Every film uses the Schifrin main title theme, but only the first and fourth have full-length title sequences based on the format of the original series. Only the third and fourth films use “The Plot” in full, though the first uses snippets; the second film is unique in the franchise in eschewing the melody altogether.
- Best films: M:i:III, M:I — Ghost Protocol.
- Worst films: M:I-2 is clearly the worst, but the first M:I isn’t much better.
Ranking the movies is pretty easy:
1) Ghost Protocol: Very well-directed and fun, with the greatest focus on classic M:I-style capers and schemes and the only really ensemble-driven story in the film franchise. Very close in quality to its predecessor, but the greater fidelity to M:I and the superior music put it over the top.
2) M:i:III: Just as well-done in its own way, but more serious. Terrific, rich character work and effective action, and by far the best use of a female lead in the franchise. The first film to give Ethan Hunt an actual personality. The only drawbacks are an insufficient focus on the ensemble (though they do get a few nice moments here and there) and relatively little use of classic capers, with the Vatican sequence being essentially the only one.
3) M:I: A fairly tepid conspiracy thriller with mediocre acting and a key plot point that makes no sense whatsoever (the Bible “clue” that proves nothing at all), not to mention a climax that defies physics more ridiculously than most action movies do. Further marred by the character assassination of “Jim Phelps.” Still, it’s redeemed somewhat by the effective and iconic set piece of the Langley heist, and by making more use of series-style capers and tropes than any other film in the series save GP.
4) M:I-2: A cartoony, over-the-top, Hong Kong-style action movie, which is something that might be fun as a separate entity, but that doesn’t work as something calling itself Mission: Impossible. An aggressively mindless exercise in style over substance, dominated by insanely overdone action and a deeply superficial excuse for a romance between Hunt and the film’s one and only female character, a travesty next to the moving relationship he has with Julia in the subsequent films. Barely even feels like M:I, barely uses a team, and the villains use more IMF-style tactics than the heroes. The best that can be said about it is that it succeeds in its goal of being a dumb, shallow action cartoon, unlike its predecessor, which fails in its goal of being a smart conspiracy thriller.
Musically, the revival series was less interesting than its predecessor, featuring only three composers in the first dozen episodes and only one for the remainder of the series. The three scores each contributed by Lalo Schifrin and Ron Jones were of mixed quality, though each had one really interesting one, one reasonably good one, and one mediocre one. The remaining 23 scores by John E. Davis (assisted by Neil Argo in season 2?) were generally uninteresting. However, the changes in US union rules requiring new scores in every episode mean that Davis is second only to Schifrin in the total number of M:I episodes scored.
The films have used three different composers, Danny Elfman, Hans Zimmer, and Michael Giacchino, with only Giacchino being used twice. Elfman’s score was reasonably good and Giacchino’s were both excellent, with the Ghost Protocol score being particularly impressive. Zimmer’s score for the second film was mediocre, and the only one geared more toward rock sounds than orchestral scoring.
The updated list:
- Lalo Schifrin: 26 credited scores, seasons 1-8, plus themes used in 4 films
- John E. Davis: 23 credited scores, seasons 8-9
- Richard Markowitz: 9 scores, S3-4
- Robert Drasnin: c. 7 scores (8 credited), S2-3, 5-6
- Gerald Fried: 6 scores, S1-4
- Jerry Fielding: 6 scores, S2-4
- Ron Jones: 6 scores, S8
- Walter Scharf: 5 scores, S1-2
- Benny Golson: 4 scores, S5-6
- Richard Hazard: 3 scores, S4-5 (+1 credited, S6)
- Robert Prince: 2 scores, S5-6
- Michael Giacchino: 2 scores, films 3-4
- Jacques Urbont: 1 score, S1
- Don Ellis: 1 score, S1
- Harry Geller: 1 score, S5
- Hugo Montenegro: 1 score, S5
- George Romanis: 1 score, S6
- Duane Tatro: 1 score, S7
- Danny Elfman: 1 score, film 1
- Hans Zimmer: 1 score, film 2
The list of composers who have worked on M:I and Star Trek has grown, now including Fried, Fielding, Romanis, Jones, and Giacchino.
Here’s the updated list of regular and recurring IMF team members by number of appearances, incorporating the entire franchise. This includes everyone who was a team member more than once, so it leaves out most of the movie characters. This time I am incorporating Barney and Lisa Casey’s return appearances in the revival despite their not being formal team members, since they did actually participate in the teams’ endeavors, something I didn’t recall when I made the original list.
- Jim Phelps: 178 (not counting presumed impostor in first movie)
- Barney Collier: 169 (plus at least 1 offscreen assist)
- Willy Armitage: 147
- Rollin Hand: 76
- Cinnamon Carter: 71
- The Great Paris: 49
- (Lisa) Casey: 35 (plus 6 offscreen assists)
- Grant Collier: 35
- Nicholas Black: 35
- Max Harte: 35
- Dan Briggs: 27 (only on mission in 20)
- Shannon Reed: 24
- Dana Lambert: 23
- Doug Robert: 13
- Casey Randall: 12 (mostly minor contributions)
- Mimi Davis: 7
- Tracey: 6 (4 distinct missions)
- Ethan Hunt: 4
- Luther Stickell: 3
- Dr. Green (Allen Joseph): 2 (plus 1 offscreen assist)
- Dave (Walker Edmiston): 2
- Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg): 2 (only 1 as formal team member)
Note that Jim has now surpassed Barney as the most frequently appearing character in the franchise.
Bob Johnson (Voice on Tape/Disc) is heard in 192 episodes (all but 14), with 9 being recaps in multiparters, coming out to 183 distinct briefings. Johnson is in none of the movies, having died three years before the first film’s release.
Best Team Leader: Previous winner: Jim Phelps. New candidates: Evil Impostor Jim Phelps, Ethan Hunt.
Is there even a contest? Well, we can rule out Jon Voight’s Evil Jim right off the bat; assassinating your own team is kind of a disqualifier. And Ethan is too much of a lone wolf and grandstander, plus he has a hard time holding onto a team. No change here — the original Jim Phelps, accept no substitutes, still wins by a mile.
Best Second-in-Command: Previous winner: Barney Collier. New candidates: Grant Collier, Ethan Hunt.
I’m counting Ethan because he was Evil Jim’s second-in-command in the first film, and Grant because he generally seemed to be the first one Jim briefed before the others. Ethan didn’t give a very good showing in the role, allowing virtually his entire team to be killed by their team leader, so he’s out of the running (no pun intended) again. And Grant was never really given the chance to take the lead in Jim’s absence, so while I have the feeling he would’ve done a great job, he never got to prove it. No change here: Barney still wins.
Best Master of Disguise: Previous winner: Rollin Hand. New candidates: Nicholas Black, Ethan Hunt.
Man, that Hunt guy sure gets around. But his full-mask impersonations are too dependent on high technology, including synthetic voice chips, which seems like cheating. His less extreme makeup jobs using his own face and voice aren’t bad, but they don’t display as much range as Rollin’s did. And Nicholas had even less versatility; though theoretically he could do a perfect job mimicking anyone so long as the actor’s voice was dubbed over his, in practice the actor was unconvincing in the role. So again, no change: Rollin still wins.
Best Tech Guy: Previous winner: Barney Collier by default. New candidates: Grant Collier, Jack Harmon (Emilio Estevez), Luther Stickell, Benji Dunn.
Let’s start with the movie guys. Jack Harmon’s main accomplishments, as seen in the first film, are watching stuff on a monitor, being out-hacked by his own boss, and getting killed by a truly ridiculous deathtrap. Not impressive. Luther’s good with the hacking and with monitoring the team operations, but he’s not as hands-on as his predecessors. And Benji, while enthusiastic as anything, is a bit of a bumbler. The only real contender for Barney is his own son. And I’m tempted to give Grant the win. All things considered, he’s a more versatile IMF agent than his father, skilled not only in the tech stuff but in roleplay and physical combat as well. True, Barney expanded into those fields when necessary, particularly in seasons 6 & 7, but Grant did them better. However, this category is specifically for best tech guy, not best all-around agent. And tech-wise, while Grant had more advanced gadgets than his father, it seemed that his activities involved a higher ratio of typing on keyboards to doing hands-on gadget/mechanical stuff. That doesn’t necessarily mean that he accomplished less, but it does feel like his tech work was less versatile, more in the direction of Luther’s one-note hacking and monitoring. Still, he did a fair amount of field work and gadgeteering as well. It’s a very close contest, and I’m tempted to call it a tie. But here’s the thing: Grant owed his skills to what he learned or inherited from Barney. So if anything, Grant’s achievements only add to Barney’s legacy. So again, the original verdict stands.
Best Regular/Recurring Female Agent: Previous winner: Cinnamon Carter. New candidates: Casey Randall, Shannon Reed.
For once we have no candidates from the movies, since no female agents have made repeat appearances. That leaves the two women from the revival series. Casey Randall was by far the weakest regular agent of either sex, rarely given anything significant to do and limited in range when she was. She was certainly the weakest seductress of them all, despite being relatively beautiful. But Shannon Reed was very impressive — strong, smart, charming, sexy, reasonably versatile as a roleplayer, and a pretty good singer too. Her main drawback was a tendency to be made a damsel in distress, but despite this, she never felt weak or helpless, and indeed it sometimes gave her the chance to be even more heroic. It’s another close contest — indeed, the contest between the original series’ three main female leads was also quite close — but I think we have our first upset, with Shannon now getting my vote for the best female agent, by a narrow margin.
Best One-Shot Female Agent: Previous winner: Crystal Walker (Mary Ann Mobley) from “Odd Man Out.” New candidates: Every female agent in the movies.
Again, I won’t list all the candidates by name, but my favorite of the movies’ female agents was Zhen Lei (Maggie Q). Jane Carter (Paula Patton) got more to do, but she felt uncomfortable and out of place in the IMF’s roleplaying gambits, being more a blunt instrument who struggled to fulfill her responsibilities. Still, I don’t think Zhen quite upsets Crystal, although it’s very close.
Best Strongman: I’m changing this category from Best “Other Guy” because now we have more than one candidate in the strongman category. Previous winner: Willy Armitage. New candidate: Max Harte.
For once, we have a clear upset. Willy was pleasant enough and good with the physical stuff, but limited as a roleplayer. Max was less a strongman per se and more an all-around tough guy and fighter, but he was also a much more capable roleplayer, pilot, stunt rider, and the like. He was a great asset to the team and wins my vote easily.
Best One-Shot Male Agent: Previous winner: Joseph Baresh (Albert Paulsen) from “Memory.” New candidates: Jack Harmon, Franz Krieger, Billy Baird, Declan Gormey, William Brandt.
Okay, Brandt is the only one on the list who made much of an impression at all, aside from Krieger, who was a villain. But since he’s allegedly attached to the upcoming fifth movie, I’m not sure he qualifies for the one-shot category. Let’s leave this undecided.
So there we are — nine seasons and four movies. Please don’t ask me to redo this whole thing again when M:I-5 comes out, or this reviewer may self-destruct. Until then — “Mission… accomplished!”
Now adding a more detailed overview of the most recent Mission: Impossible film, which I offered initial thoughts on back in 2012. M:I — Ghost Protocol was the live-action directorial debut of Brad Bird (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille), with a script by Alias writer-producers André Nemec and Josh Appelbaum. J.J. Abrams produced the film, providing some continuity with its predecessor, a first in the M:I feature film “series.”
Bird establishes his strong visual sense right away with sweeping, dynamic overhead shots of Budapest, closing in on Josh Holloway as he flees from pursuers, casually leaping off a roof — after tossing down a cartridge that inflates into an airbag to catch him. He thinks he’s home free, but a dainty-featured blonde beauty (Lea Seydoux) assassinates him before he has a chance to react, hugging him close and kissing his cheek as she shoots him a few more times, then stealing the package he’s carrying.
Cut to a Moscow prison, where a small IMF team consisting of returning character Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and newcomer Jane Carter (Paula Patton), no known relation to Cinnamon Carter. Benji is controlling the prison doors to let out a certain person they’re trying to spring, who turns out to be Ethan Hunt, again with longer hair (this is becoming a pattern, short-long-short-long). Benji plays Dean Martin’s “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head” over the prison PA so Ethan can time his escape (during a prison riot, hence the song selection), a trick evocative of the use of carnival music to time a prison break in season 1’s “Old Man Out.” But Ethan won’t go without rescuing another prisoner, Bogdan (Miraj Grbić), who gave him intel and would be killed for it if he were left behind. Once they get out through a hole Carter blows in the cellar floor, she introduces herself to Ethan and he tells her to “light the fuse,” very cleverly incorporating the opening of the main titles into the action, and leading into a title sequence like a Pixarized version of the original series (or first movie) titles, with the CGI fuse burning through not just clips from the movie to come, but shots showing moments from the film from entirely different angles. It’s a bravura sequence, and Michael Giacchino scores it with an even bolder, brassier rendering of the Schifrin theme than he used last time. It ends with the fuse detonating a charge that I now realize must’ve been intended to bring down the tunnel and prevent pursuit, though that was only implied, since…
We cut right to Ethan, Benji, Carter, and Bogdan fleeing in a van — until they deftly transfer Bogdan to another IMF van. Benji explains he passed the field agent’s test, and Carter explains that Josh Holloway was her partner (and lover) and was killed trying to prevent Russian nuclear launch codes from falling into the wrong hands, which they now have — those hands belonging to the girlish assassin from before, Sabine Moreau, who intends to deliver them to a terrorist called Cobalt. The van stops by an old public phone which opens to reveal an IMF computer thingy that gives Ethan his mission — the first time in the film franchise that the briefing voice is anonymous rather than Ethan’s (or Phelps’s) boss. The gig is to infiltrate the Kremlin and get the files identifying Cobalt before he can destroy them. The “self-destruct in five seconds” bit is comically subverted when Ethan has to go back and smack it to set it off. Meanwhile, Benji mentions to Carter that Ethan’s marriage with Julia didn’t work out — disappointing, since she was so important to him in the third film.
Giacchino gives us a taste of “The Plot” when the briefing voice informs Ethan that he’s been assigned Benji and Carter as his team to save time. The agents hardly ever get to pick their own teams in the movies! He then gives us a bit more of “The Plot” as Bird’s camera swoops over the Kremlin — and then modulates into a similar-sounding melody in a bombastic Russian-marching-song idiom, one of my favorite pieces of music from the score. Carter uses a remote-controlled toy balloon to drop a hacking transmitter down a chimney so that when Ethan and Benji enter disguised as a Russian general and his aide, their clearance shows up on the computer. Then Ethan and Benji set up an elaborate projection-screen system in the hallway that tracks the eyes of the desk guard (ubiquitous Vancouver actor Mike Dopud) and shows him an image of the hall behind it. As I remarked in my initial review, this is a fancier version of a gambit seen in “The Falcon, Part 3,” but it’s exercised with a lot more comic flair. But things get serious when Ethan finds the records already expunged and then hears a voice cutting in on their frequency, announcing to the “team leader” that the detonator has been set. The Kremlin guards also pick this up and are alerted to the infiltration. Ethan aborts the mission and gets out, but then the building he was in blows up, and even the Patented Tom Cruise Run isn’t fast enough to get him away unscathed. He awakens in the hospital, under arrest and blamed for the bombing, as he learns from Russian intelligence man Sidorov (Vladimir Mashkov), who’s determined to punish him for his alleged crime. Ethan makes a break onto the window ledge but has second thoughts about jumping shirtless and barefoot into a dumpster full of medical waste, and there’s a humorous bit of interplay with Sidorov, who’s watching him amusedly from the window. But then Ethan manages to slide down a wire onto a passing van’s roof and get away, swiping some poor guy’s cell phone to call for retrieval.
He’s picked up by no less than The Secretary (Tom Wilkinson), who happened to be in Moscow but has been recalled in disgrace. He tells Ethan the entire IMF has been disavowed and shut down, but lets him know he intends for Ethan to escape and mount a rogue operation using an “overlooked” equipment cache. He also introduces Ethan to William Brandt (The Avengers‘ Jeremy Renner), an IMF analyst. Ethan realizes he passed Cobalt in the Kremlin and sketches the face on his hand to show to Brandt, who recognizes him as Kurt Hendricks, a nuclear strategist with an apocalypse obsession and a belief that global cataclysm is a necessary step in evolution. He stole a missile-controlling briefcase from the Kremlin and blew it up so they wouldn’t find out, as well as to put the blame on the US and heighten tensions.
The Secretary personally delivers “your mission, should you choose to accept it” on a flash drive, but just as he’s telling Ethan what a friend he is, the car is attacked and the Secretary and driver killed, and as the limo overturns, Bird cleverly shoots the entire sequence from inside the back seat, until it crashes into the river. Ethan concocts a diversion to get himself and Brandt away from the firing guards, and afterward Brandt is confused about how Ethan knew it would work. Ethan explains it was more a matter of instinct, both his and the wildly firing guards’, than rational thought.
The equipment cache is in a train car that happens to be moving when they find it, leading to some slapstick as they try to gain access. Inside they find Jane and Benji, and Ethan briefs them on the mission to intercept Hendricks’s henchman Wistrom (Samuli Edelmann) when he buys the launch codes from Moreau, then follow him back to Hendricks. He insists that both Moreau and Wistrom are assets that need to be kept alive until they find Hendricks, which angers Carter, who wants revenge on Moreau for killing Sawyer from Lost. But Ethan’s adamant: revenge must wait.
The movie series’s skyscraper fetish now reaches its greatest height, literally, for the meeting is at the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. Another of Bird’s swooping chopper shots introduces it magnificently, and Giacchino gives the tower its own lush Arabian motif, my other favorite theme from the film. The gambit is one used on the original series, to intercept both parties in a meeting and make each one think they’re meeting the other, with Jane meeting Wistrom as Moreau and Ethan meeting Moreau as Wistrom. But they have to hack the building’s security servers to control the elevators, and of course the only way to get to them is via our climactic installment of “Ethan Hunt Climbs Things.” I doubt I need to summarize the most famous sequence from the movie, but Ethan’s free climb of the glass exterior of the Burj showcases a lot more of Bird’s flair, wit, and comic timing, as well as Cruise’s impressive commitment to his work and insistence on doing his own stunts.
Ethan barely survives the climb and return, but then more things start to go wrong. The mask machine breaks down, so Ethan and Carter have to pull off the impersonations without masks and pray that Moreau and Wistrom have never met. Then Wistrom shows up with a Russian code expert he’s kidnapped to verify the codes, so the plan to replace them with fakes and track the paper to Hendricks needs revision — the copies (scanned by a special contact lens and printed inside a special briefcase) have to have authentic codes. (But the paper still has to be fake since it’s impregnated with a tracer they can track.) Brandt balks at handing over the real codes, but Ethan convinces him there’s no other way. The team manages to pull off the deception long enough for Wistrom to leave with the traceable codes, but then Moreau gets wise to Brandt’s contact lens and attacks him. Carter captures her and takes her back to the team’s room, handing Benji the gun since she knows she’ll kill Moreau if she has a gun on her. Moreau gets the drop on Benji, and Carter ends up having to kick Moreau out the still-open window a hundred-odd stories up. It’s unclear whether she even had a choice, but she’s screwed up.
After encountering Sidorov again and eluding him, Ethan breaks out the Patented Tom Cruise Run and chases Wistrom through a sandstorm, and I like how Bird uses the blinding conditions as a contrast to the wide-open action of the Burj Khalifa climb, mixing it up and keeping it interesting. But here’s where things didn’t quite work for me, since the idea was to trail Wistrom back to Hendricks, but Ethan ends up chasing him openly and then trying to catch him, even crashing a car into his to stop him, but he gets away and removes a mask revealing that he was Hendricks all along. Huh? Why? That doesn’t seem to make sense. Was it just something they inserted because there had to be at least one impossibly convincing mask impersonation in the film?
Later, the team is torn up with mutual recriminations, and Ethan confronts Brandt about the mad fighting skills he showed in the Burj Khalifa, asking why such a capable field agent would be just an analyst. On getting no answer, Ethan seems to abandon the team and goes off alone. Carter confronts Brandt, and he tells her and Benji what he wouldn’t tell Ethan: That he was responsible for protecting Ethan and Julia without their knowledge, but he failed and Julia got killed — much to the shock of Benji, who thought she’d simply left Ethan. Hunt was in the Russian jail for killing the Serbian assassins.
Ethan goes to meet with a Russian arms dealer, a relative of his old friend Bogdan. I think the sewed-up ski mask used to blindfold Ethan is the same ugly-muppet one from the first film. He tells the dealer about the nuclear threat and asks where Hendricks could get a satellite able to relay the control signal to a missile, learning there’s one that was sold to a Mumbai media mogul. But he won’t be able to hack it alone. So he has to mend fences with the team, and they fly off to plan the mission. There’s some fun banter between Brandt and Benji as the former is skeptical of the latter’s plan to get him past the deadly cooling fan into the massive server for controlling the satellite.
At the party held by the mogul, Nath (Anij Kapoor), Carter’s job is to be the seductress, getting Nath alone and getting the satellite control codes from him however she can. She’s in a sexy turquoise dress that tries to be as impressive as Maggie Q’s little red number from the last film, and comes reasonably close (though Paula Patton’s own physique helps enormously). But Jane is totally clumsy at playing the seductress, and only gets away with it because Nath doesn’t mind the dominatrix type. Once Brandt hesitantly takes the leap, gets into the server control, and gives Benji access, Benji finds that Hendricks has already taken control of the satellite. Carter gets the codes by force, but it’s too late. The only option is to get to the transmission site before missile launch, but even Ethan and Jane’s fancy sportscar can’t get through the Mumbai crowds in time. Now their last chance is to abort the launched missile in the few minutes before impact. Ethan spots Hendricks leaving and gives chase while Jane, Brandt, and Benji deal with Wistrom, who’s trying to damage the transmission equipment, which they have to repair while also contending with Wistrom and his gun (and Jane has to keep going despite being shot). Benji ultimately saves Brandt from Wistrom.
Meanwhile, Ethan chases Hendricks to an automated car-park tower (a full-size, working one constructed specifically for the film), and they battle for the case among the moving platforms, the logic of the sequence playing out not unlike that Popeye cartoon about chasing a baby through a construction site. It’s very clever and funny. Although it takes a serious turn when Hendricks, a true fanatic believing the apocalypse will save humanity, jumps to the ground and kills himself to keep Ethan from getting to the case in time. Ethan drives a car off its platform and relies on its seatbelt and airbag to save him (they do), then crows “Mission accomplished!” as he hits the abort button on the missile control — which doesn’t work until Brandt, freshly saved from Wistrom, turns the transmitter back on, neutralizing the missile. Sidorov, whom Ethan had the arms dealer contact, shows up just after the nick of time and realizes that Ethan wasn’t the bad guy.
Later, in San Francisco, Ethan is hanging out with Luther Stickell in a cameo scene when he meets with the others, tells them they made a good team, and offers them new missions. Benji and Jane accept, but Brandt resists, confessing that he let Julia die. But Ethan’s timed the meeting to show him that Julia is still alive, that Ethan faked her death and got her into witness protection to spare her. Michelle Monaghan gets only a wordless cameo, but it’s nice that she’s still potentially in play for the future. All’s well, and Ethan gets an assignment to go after a terrorist group called “the Syndicate,” an in-joke reference to the name always used for the mob in the original series. He vanishes into the mist, leading into an end-credit sequence scored, for once, not by a pop tune but by a suite of Giacchino’s (and Schifrin’s) themes for the film.
As my original review made clear, this is my favorite M:I film and the one that I think comes closest to the original series. But I have to revise what I said before, that the first three directors made movies very much in their own characteristic styles while Bird made more of a faithful M:I movie. Actually, Bird makes this movie his own just as much as the others did. It uses a lot of the tropes and trappings of M:I, but subverts them comically (along with many action-movie tropes as well), and it’s the intricately plotted visual and character humor that make it a Brad Bird film. The movie is much more fun and snarky than its predecessors and more so than the original series. It’s got the same kind of character focus that Abrams’s M:i:III had, but with a different tone and pace. It’s also unique among the M:I films in being an ensemble piece: All three supporting team members have their own arcs and stories, rather than just being there to back up Ethan. (Which may be because there was a tentative plan to phase out Cruise in favor of Renner as the franchise lead, although that plan was abandoned.)
Giacchino’s score here is my favorite of the series as well, even richer and more gorgeous than his score for the previous film, and one of my favorite Giacchino scores overall, the other being The Incredibles. I do wish he’d used “The Plot” for more than just the Kremlin sequence, though. It would’ve been interesting to hear an Indian-styled rendering of it in the Mumbai sequence, although we do hear a bit of the main title in that idiom.
Mission: Impossible 5 is currently in pre-production, with Christopher McQuarrie (writer of The Usual Suspects, Valkyrie, and Edge of Tomorrow) as director and a script by Iron Man 3‘s Drew Pearce. Abrams is still producing, but this franchise just can’t hold onto a director for more than one film. We’ll have to see what fresh flavor McQuarrie brings. For now, though, this is the end of my review series — although I do have one more franchise-overview post to come.
With this film, the M:I series returned after a 6-year gap, with Paramount bringing aboard Alias creator J.J. Abrams to relaunch the series — which he did so successfully that Paramount entrusted him not only with the ongoing M:I franchise, but with its sister franchise Star Trek as well. But that’s later. For now, M:i:III, as it was styled on posters, was directed by Abrams and written by Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and Abrams.
The cold open this time is a flashforward in which Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt awakens in captivity and is told by Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman) that he has a bomb in his brain. Davian grills him about the location of something called the Rabbit’s Foot, which Hunt believes he’s already given Davian. Davian threatens the life of a woman who’s clearly dear to Ethan, counting down relentlessly from ten, and Ethan runs the gamut from pleading to bargaining to threatening to reasoning to begging. Ethan Hunt shows far more characterization, and Tom Cruise shows far more acting range, in the first four minutes of this film than in the previous four hours of the franchise. It’s a brilliant, stunning opening and deeply refreshing after the tepid films that preceded it.
Once the countdown ends, we hear an ominous shot, and cut to a brief title sequence, with Abrams’s regular composer Michael Giacchino giving us a big, brassy orchestral variation on Schifrin’s theme. Cut to the woman we just saw threatened, and it’s Michelle Monaghan as Julia Meade, who’s throwing an engagement party with her fiancee, Ethan Hunt, whom she believes to be an employee of the Virginia Department of Transportation. It’s another marvelous scene rich with everyday texture, and it humanizes Ethan and grounds the film in a way that M:I has never been grounded before. This is the first time ever that we’ve been given a reason to identify with Ethan Hunt on an emotional, human level — and it only took ten years for it to happen. At last, our wooden action hero has become a real live boy.
But Ethan gets a call that Giacchino accompanies with Schifrinesque bongos, hinting at intrigue ahead. The call draws him to a 7-Eleven where he’s met by IMF Operations Director John Musgrave (Billy Crudup), offering him a shot at rescuing a trainee of his, Lindsey (Keri Russell, star of Abrams’s Felicity), who’s been taken captive. Ethan resists, since he’s given up field work to become an instructor training new recruits; but Musgrave suggests he buy a disposable camera, which contains the mission briefing, delivered by Musgrave himself (the first time the narrator’s face has ever appeared in a briefing recording). Lindsey was taken in Berlin while searching for arms dealer Davian, and Musgrave has already assigned a team — the second time in the film franchise that we’ve seen the team selected by the director rather than the team leader. The team consists of recurring character Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and newcomers Zhen Lei (Maggie Q) and Declan Gormley (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, future title character of the 2014 Dracula TV series). For some reason, Zhen’s name is pronounced “Zen.” A nickname?
When we see the team’s faces in the briefing video, Giacchino introduces a leitmotif he’ll be using throughout the film, reminiscent of Schifrin’s “The Plot” but more Giacchino-esque. But then Ethan tells Julia that he’s going out of town for a transportation conference, and once he rendezvouses with the rest of the team, I’m delighted to say that Giacchino gives us the first full statement of “The Plot” in the film series to date, and indeed its first full use since the revival episode “For Art’s Sake” 17 years earlier. It’s glorious. The motif is used again in the mission that follows, but it’s a very, very un-IMF-style mission, going in with guns and bombs to break out Lindsey and retrieve Davian’s laptops (which are damaged in an explosion). The team members even have military-style code names for the op: Ethan is “Raider One,” Luther is “Observer,” Zhen is “Groundhog” (since she breaks in from underneath), and Declan is “Phoenix” because he’s the chopper pilot. How come movie-era IMF teams always have chopper pilots? Anyway, Lindsey tries to tell Ethan something for his ears only but doesn’t get the chance due to all the bangs and booms. They get to da choppa but are chased by another choppa through a wind-vane farm, and Lindsey suffers severe pain, and Ethan finds out she has a bomb in her head and tries to fry it by zapping her with a defibrillator, which will stop her heart, but then he plans to zap her again to restart it. Which isn’t actually how defibrillators work (they stop fibrillating hearts but don’t restart stopped ones, despite 99.99999% of their portrayals in fiction), but he doesn’t get the chance to do it anyway, because the action of the chopper chase delays him until she dies (the charge being small enough to be entirely internal but still fatal).
So he’s all bummed out about that, and even worse, he can’t confide in his beloved Julia about his grief. Not to mention that he and Musgrave are raked over the coals by Director Brassel (Laurence Fishburne), who’s something of a blowhard fond of labored and colorful turns of phrase, but he still comes off as a strong authority figure by virtue of being Laurence Fishburne. Anyway, at Lindsey’s funeral, and after some flashbacks to her IMF training (which is all firearms and fighting, not a trace of the deceptions and gadgets and roleplay that are supposed to be the IMF’s bread and butter), he gets a call from a package service that Lindsey sent something to a mailbox she kept for him. It’s a postcard with a microdot, but Luther can’t read the dot without special equipment.
Meanwhile, Simon Pegg makes his debut as Benji Dunn, a colorful IMF technician who’s deciphered enough from Davian’s hard drives to know that he’s planning to steal and sell a valuable weapon called the Rabbit’s Foot, though Benji has no idea what that is, aside from a rambling speculation about high-tech end-of-the-world superweapons. He’ll be in the Vatican soon to meet a buyer, so now the team knows where he’ll be and when. He goes to tell Julia he’ll be away again, and she senses he’s hiding something and asks when he’ll let her in. He responds by convincing her to get married right there and then, which is at once very romantic and very evasive.
We finally get something resembling an apartment scene as Ethan briefs the team on the operation to kidnap Davian. The Vatican sequence is the closest thing in the film to a classic M:I gambit. Ethan and Declan stage a delivery-truck breakdown by the Vatican wall to give Ethan a chance to infiltrate via our next installment of “Ethan Hunt Climbs Things,” this time combined with the Patented Tom Cruise Run as he PTCRs up the wall on a retracting cable. Now, I’m not even going to try to keep track of all the PTCRs in this film; there’s barely a major action sequence here without one. Not since Lee Majors has an action star gotten so much mileage (so to speak) out of his run. Anyway, Ethan spoofs a security camera, then changes to a priest disguise to get in, while Declan gets in as the delivery guy and then changes to a guard’s uniform so he can let in Zhen as a party guest in a fancy sportscar. While Ethan helps Luther break in by vandalizing a wall with artwork painted on it, Zhen enters the party wearing the most amazing red dress I’ve ever seen, and uses a compact to take reference photos of Davian for Luther’s mask-making machine. Yes, the movie’s following the precedent of the revival series in using computer-aided, photo-based technology to manufacture masks, though the specific mechanism is more elaborate. Meanwhile, Luther lectures Ethan about how long-term relationships can’t last in their line of work, until Ethan breaks down and tells him he’s already married Julia. Luther also benefits from the film’s innovative use of actual characterization for its characters, giving Ving Rhames more to work with than he had in the previous film, and making Luther’s friendship with Ethan feel more substantial than it did in the first two.
Zhen then spills a drink on Davian’s shirt so he’ll have to retreat to the bathroom, where Ethan in Davian disguise tackles him and forces him at gunpoint to read from a card so they’ll get enough phonemes for the voice-altering throat gizmo (returning from the previous film) to mimic his voice accurately. I think this is a really clever new touch, a nice bit of comedy that actually makes technical sense. They smuggle Davian out through the ducts while Ethan-Davian lets Zhen pick him up and drive off in her car, which they exit via a sewer cover underneath just before blowing up the car to fake Davian’s death.
On a plane back, Ethan quizzes Davian about the Rabbit’s Foot, but Davian only threatens to find his loved ones and make them suffer and die. He boasts about killing Lindsey for fun in order to provoke Ethan to threaten his life, so that Luther calling his name to stop him will reveal his name to Davian, getting him one step closer to revenge. Although he only gets the first name, so his ability to find out the rest so quickly is a subtle clue that he has help inside the IMF. As is the fact that he’s promptly freed by an attack on the IMF convoy crossing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, which is a nice sequence because we see Ethan and his team trying to protect and help the civilians endangered by the attack. That’s very refreshing after the last film, where Ethan was insanely reckless about civilian safety in his car and motorcycle chases, even the “playful” one with Thandie Newton in the first act. But no sooner is Davian out that he calls Ethan and threatens to kill Julia unless Ethan steals the Rabbit’s Foot for him, so Ethan has to flee the scene in the first car he can steal (which happens to be a high-end Mercedes — what are the odds?) and race to the hospital where she works. But Davian’s man gets her first, and Ethan is confronted by an IMF team sent to arrest him. Even the PTCR can’t save him from a tasering. At HQ, he’s all trussed up and gagged as Brassel bloviates over him, revealing that he’s suspected of being the mole who helped spring Davian because he fled the scene. It’s the second time in three movies that Ethan’s been accused of treason. But Musgrave helps him escape after clandestinely letting him know that the Rabbit’s Foot is in China. (I like how this is done. In the party scene earlier, we saw a bit of Ethan using his lip-reading skills to answer a question Julia was asking in the next room, to set up this later scene where Musgrave mouths his secret message for Ethan to lip-read. Yet it was established very subtly and organically, well-disguised as just a bit of character interplay.)
So Ethan goes to downtown Shanghai — how come superweapon labs are never in boring, non-photogenic locations? — and finds his team has been sent by Musgrave to help him. He devises a plan to get to the skyscraper housing the lab by rappelling across from another building, just what we’d expect from Ethan — but then he starts writing math equations on the window to plot his trajectory, which is not what we would’ve expected from the hotheaded daredevil of the first two films, and is another touch that nicely grounds the film in a less cartoony reality than its predecessor and fleshes out Ethan as an individual. Anyway, we then see him swinging across and breaking in, but we only see the reactions of the other team members waiting outside and having a character moment or two, before the action kicks in again and Ethan makes an abortive and near-lethal BASE jump to get out and then has to contend with Shanghai traffic and weak cell signals before telling Davian he has the RF, just in time to spare Julia’s life. Then he sends the rest of the team home and gets picked up by Davian, and we end up in the scene we saw in the cold open, with Ethan getting the bomb injected into his head. After it appears that Julia’s been killed, Musgrave shows up! He says “It’s complicated,” then tears off “Julia”‘s mask to reveal the face of the translator/security chief (Bahar Soomekh) who failed to protect Davian at the Vatican. Musgrave explains that he’s cultivated Davian as a resource in defiance of Brassel’s orders because he thinks it can do more good to control his arms sales so the IMF/CIA can track down bigger fish through him and take them out. Which sounds like the kind of strategy the intelligence community might actually use, tolerating the little fish as informants to get the big ones, so it’s not that clear why he has to do this in secret. But now it’s personal for Ethan. He gets Musgrave to call the people who have Julia so he can hear her voice, then takes out Musgrave while still shackled to a chair, breaks out, and calls Benji on Musgrave’s phone, getting him to trace the location of the last call.
And this leads to the apotheosis of the Patented Tom Cruise Run as he dashes through the streets of old Shanghai, including a single unbroken shot that must be 30 seconds long. Eventually he finds Julia held captive in a small clinic, but Davian shows up, activates the bomb in Ethan’s head, and fights with him, eventually losing. Ethan frees Julia and gets through her fear and confusion to persuade her to shock him temporarily dead to short out the bomb — after giving her a lightning-quick lesson in firearms. And then, while he’s out of action — I love this part. This part is amazing. Julia gets into a firefight with Musgrave’s men, then takes out Musgrave by chance when he shows up with the Rabbit’s Foot. Then she CPRs and cardiac-thumps Ethan until he revives — so fortunately we never did see a defibrillator being unrealistically used to start a stopped heart. (I wondered why she didn’t find a shot of adrenaline for his heart in the clinic, but maybe she couldn’t read the Chinese labels.) So after being in the conventional role of the love interest and the damsel in distress for most of the film, Julia ends up being the one who single-handedly beats the main villain, retrieves the McGuffin, and saves the hero’s life. It’s an awesome subversion of action-movie gender roles, and particularly refreshing after the last film did so poorly with gender balance. And it suggests that Tom Cruise’s ego is perhaps not as inflated as people tend to think — because he was willing to have himself rendered ineffectual in the climax of the film so that someone else could save the day.
Afterward, Ethan tells Julia the truth about his job, and then, once Brassel clears and thanks him, we see that he’s brought in Julia to meet his team, letting her fully into his life. The story ends back in the everyday, character-oriented place where it began, and reinforces that Julia is Ethan’s equal and his partner, not just his lust object.
I love this film. Okay, granted, it’s no more faithful to the M:I formula than its predecessors, much more a big spy-action movie than a caper movie. It’s also like the previous two films in its reuse of tropes like a traitor in the IMF, Ethan being on the run from the IMF, Ethan being lowered into places on ropes, etc. It’s a blend of the conspiracy-thriller elements of the DePalma film and the over-the-top action elements of the Woo film. And it’s still “The Adventures of Ethan Hunt and His Backup” rather than a full ensemble piece, at least until the climax where Julia becomes the heroine. The Vatican sequence feels like a faster-paced version of a classic M:I operation, but it’s a small portion of the film. I realize now that the first film actually had more classic M:I-style material (the Kiev opening, the Prague operation, the Langley heist) than this one did. So this film is nearly tied with the Woo film for being the least Mission: Impossible-like installment in the franchise. But Abrams, Kurtzman, and Orci took what had been a tepid, shallow action series to this point and brought humanity, thoughtfulness, and wit to it even while maintaining a similarly exaggerated level of action. This is what Abrams did effectively in Alias at its best, balancing larger-than-life spy-fantasy action with everyday, human relationships and emotions, and that human touch makes it easier to enjoy the crazy action because there’s a reason for emotional investment in what’s going on. The film also makes much better use of Tom Cruise as an actor, and makes Ethan Hunt a person at last rather than just an action figure.
As I’ve said before, M:i:III is more like Alias: The Movie than Mission: Impossible. But it’s the first Ethan Hunt movie that’s actually good.
I already gave my thoughts on the fourth film, Ghost Protocol, when it came out. But I’m going to do what I suggested I would and post a fuller analysis to complete my review series. Maybe seeing it in the wake of all three predecessors will offer new insights.
The second Ethan Hunt film, styled in posters and promotions as M:I-2, was directed by John Woo. The script was by Robert Towne from a story (and first draft, I gather) by the Star Trek: The Next Generation writing team of Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga. This is the only non-Trek production the two writers worked on as a team, and I can only surmise that they got the job due to their work on the earlier Paramount features Star Trek Generations and Star Trek: First Contact. That makes this the first M:I feature film to have a connection to Star Trek, which was the sister show of the original M:I series.
The film follows the precedent of the last five television seasons (counting both series) by commencing with a cold open establishing the crisis. A scientist named Nekhorvich has arranged with the IMF to deliver a secret called Chimera, and is shepherded on a jet by the only man he trusts, Ethan Hunt — and Tom Cruise’s hair is considerably longer than it was the last time. But then Ethan, the pilot, and several others contrive to knock out the crew and passengers of the jet and steal the package the scientist was delivering. Has Ethan gone evil? No, he rips off his Ethan mask to reveal Dougray Scott, and peels off a new innovation, a throat patch that alters his voice — and once it’s gone his accent is suddenly Scottish. He and his men point the jet at a mountain and bail out before it crashes. Smash cut to Moab, Utah, where we get the series’s first installment of “Ethan Hunt Climbs Things,” in this case an insanely dangerous free climb of a really high, thin mesa, which Cruise did without a net (but with a harness). Once he’s at the top, a helicopter flies in and fires a projectile which Hunt opens to find a pair of sunglasses that play the mission briefing for him in the dulcet tones of Anthony Hopkins — a vast improvement over the previous film’s Henry Czerny. Hopkins’s spiel goes directly from “Good morning, Mr. Hunt” to “Your mission, should you choose to accept it” without any initial exposition, and the mission described is simply to retrieve the stolen Chimera, no more explanation. Already we’re getting a sense of the relative emphasis on exposition vs. action in this film. Ethan’s told he can pick two team members of his choosing, but must also recruit Nyah Nordoff-Hall (Thandie Newton), a master thief. Hopkins’s voice adds that Hunt should meet him in Seville in 48 hours, and appends a note that the next time Hunt goes on vacation, he should let the IMF know where he’s going. Ethan tosses the glasses aside as they self-destruct in a fiery explosion right in front of the camera, leading into a totally incoherent barrage of images under the titles. Oh, is this a John Woo film? Hans Zimmer provides a rock score that at this point only approximates the main title theme, using the ostinato and the chord structure but not the main melody.
In Seville, Hunt has a “Some Enchanted Evening” moment with Nyah (i.e. “see a stranger across a crowded room”) as they gaze at each other in slow motion across a stage where flamenco dancers are performing. The dancers, by the way, are essentially the only women in the film other than Nyah; this film fails the Bechdel Test on every possible level. Ethan interrupts Nyah as she breaks into a safe by a bathtub, and she pulls this man she’s just met into the bathtub into a sexually suggestive position as they hide from someone, and they continue to flirt blatantly as he lets her open the safe, but then he trips the alarm and gets her out of the jam by selling the pretense that she’s his assistant in a security test of the alarm system, making her return the necklace to its owners first. He tries to recruit her for IMFery, but she’s not buying. So the movie gets even more self-indulgent as he calls her on her car phone the next morning while chasing after her in another sportscar, and they engage in a stupidly dangerous car chase that risks the lives of innocent passersby as well as each other, and there’s this totally dumb moment where he crashes his car into hers to keep her from going off a cliff and they spin out together in slow motion while exchanging a romantic look, and once she almost goes over another cliff and he pulls her to safety, that’s somehow all the courtship they need to end up in bed together. I’m not sure that’s what the phrase “whirlwind courtship” is supposed to mean.
(Oh, by the way, “Nyah” rhymes with “Maya” or “Gaia.” It’s not like “nyah, nyah, nyahhh.”)
So then Ethan meets with Hopkins, who went uncredited in the film but whose name in the script was “Mission Commander Swanbeck.” Swanbeck explains that, since Nekhorvich would only meet with Hunt and Hunt wasn’t available, the IMF sent in Sean Ambrose (Scott), who’s served as Hunt’s double on a couple of missions. But Ambrose went rogue to steal the Chimera, whatever it is. Ethan is shocked to learn that Nyah was recruited because she’s Ambrose’s old flame whom he desperately wants back — so her job is to rekindle their romance. Ethan’s dismay at this might be more convincing if there were more to their relationship than one meet-cute, several counts of reckless driving, and a one-night stand. Swanbeck also gets in a sexist line about how just being a woman qualifies her to sleep with a man and lie to him. Ethan doesn’t want to make her do it, but apparently that whole “should you decide to accept it” thing doesn’t mean much anymore. He insists it would be difficult, but Swanbeck says “This isn’t Mission: Difficult, it’s Mission: Impossible.” Ouch — too meta. Would’ve worked better if he’d said, “This isn’t the Difficult Missions Force, it’s the Impossible Missions Force.” Because that’s what they actually call it in-universe, guys! (But then, Moore and Braga are the same duo who had Zefram Cochrane say “You’re astronauts on some kind of star trek.”)
Anyway, Nyah is reluctant, but Hunt convinces her to go in, promising to have her back. She says it’ll only be convincing if she’s in trouble that only Ambrose can get her out of, so they arrange for her publicized arrest so he’ll come and bail her out. He takes her to his compound located in Sydney Harbour, the second time a movie-length M:I installment has used that location. Finally, more than half an hour into the film, we hear a rock version of the Schifrin main theme over a brief montage introducing the two supporting team members: Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), the master hacker returning from the first film, and Billy Baird (John Polson), who’s basically just the pilot and the comic relief. He’s sort of an Australian prototype for Simon Pegg’s Benji from the following films, but with less personality or screentime. Their command post is a small house in the outback, for some reason. Luther has the only computer that can track or detect the chip implanted in Nyah, so they can follow her via satellite. Yup, not only is she the only woman in the film, but they’ve got her Lojacked. And Ambrose is rather forceful about getting her in bed once they’re reunited. Ambrose is also quite upset at his sidekick Hugh (Richard Roxburgh) for making the entirely reasonable suggestion that Nyah might be a plant.
Later at the horse-racing track (I didn’t notice if it was the same racetrack used in a couple of the revival’s episodes, but I wouldn’t be surprised), Ethan and Billy make contact with Nyah while Ambrose meets with McCloy (Brendan Gleeson), the head of Biocyte Pharmaceuticals, and shows him data on a digital camera’s memory card. Ethan has Nyah pickpocket the card and deliver it to him so Luther can view and copy it. The data reveals that Chimera is a deadly virus, sort of a superflu created to test a universal flu antidote called Bellerophon. Ambrose has the cure, and is taking bids from terrorists and rogue states, but he lacks the disease, which he wants. Ethan tells Nyah he’ll get her out, then sends her to return the disc to Ambrose’s jacket — but she gets agitated and puts it in the wrong pocket, which he notices.
Later, she’s met by Ethan, who tells her she has to stay inside and do everything Ambrose says. At the same time, we cut to McCloy being abducted and met by what appears to be the late Nekhorvich, who makes him think he’s been infected with Chimera and goads him into a rather stilted confession that he deliberately created the supervirus as an incentive to market his supercure, as well as deliberately exposing and killing one of his scientists to test it. “Nekhorvich” knocks him out again and takes off his mask, revealing Ethan. But then we’re back to the continuation of the scene with Ethan and Nyah at Ambrose’s compound. Was what we just saw a flashback? Nope. Once Nyah leaves, we find that Ambrose was impersonating Ethan again, and now knows Nyah’s a spy. He also knows Ethan plans to raid Biocyte to destroy the virus, and knows him well enough to anticipate his plan. The movie rather blatantly imitates its predecessor by requiring Ethan to drop on a cable down a very high shaft in order to get to the virus lab without anyone knowing. Then he breaks in and sets to destroying Chimera during a window when some kind of generator is active so comms are down, and I guess alarms are off or something. I wasn’t clear on that part. But Ambrose breaks in another way — with Nyah, allowing Luther to track them — but Luther can’t warn Ethan, plus he almost gets blown up by the baddies. For some reason, the Chimera is in several handy injector guns, and just before Ethan can destroy the last one, the bad guys arrive and there’s a reallllly long firefight before the injector falls on the floor and Ambrose gives a hold fire order so it doesn’t break open. He sends Nyah to retrieve it as a hostage for Ethan’s cooperation, and Ethan has finally figured out that Nekhorvich injected Chimera into his own blood and Ambrose’s love of killing kept him from retrieving a sample the first time. This serves little narrative purpose except to inspire Nyah to inject herself with the virus so Ambrose won’t kill her. (Umm, why would that work? He doesn’t need her alive to retrieve a sample of her blood.) Ethan has to leave her behind when he blows out the wall and escapes via parachute (did I mention the lab was on the 42nd floor?) — I guess his chute couldn’t handle the extra weight. He’s got 20 hours to save her before it’s incurable.
Ambrose meets with McCloy for his payoff for the Bellerophon, but demands not only money but stock options. He’s released Nyah into downtown Sydney as a Typhoid Mary, planning to start an epidemic that will create great demand for the Bellerophon cure and make Biocyte stock invaluable. It’s actually a rather clever plan, except for their total and crashingly stupid failure to place Nyah under any kind of supervision — more on that in a bit. We get “Ethan Hunt Climbing Things” Part 2 as he climbs up to their island meeting place, then he breaks in and deals with the guards in the corridors of the compound, and there’s a moment where he does a Patented Tom Cruise Run in slow motion through a flock of doves that are there because John Woo. He blows the door of the meeting room and gets Hugh’s attention, and Hugh comes after him and he releases a grenade and there’s a kaboom, and then Hugh drags a mute Ethan (allegedly with a broken jaw) before Ambrose, who shoots him dead, but then he realizes he killed Hugh in an Ethan mask with his mouth duct-taped underneath, and Ethan in a Hugh mask has absconded with the Bellerophon and Chimera vials, and also there are doves in the hallway. Which leads to an absurdly long chase with cars and motorcycles that endangers a lot more innocent motorists before gradually getting pared down to Ethan and Ambrose dueling on motorcycles and then charging at each other and leaping off their bikes which spontaneously explode at exactly the same time for no clear reason, and then having a huge martial-arts fight, and at this point I finally realized this was supposed to be an over-the-top, cartoony Hong Kong action flick and just kinda tried going with it. Still pretty stupid, but Cruise does his own stunts pretty impressively, although I could’ve appreciated the stunt work better without all the slow motion. Meanwhile, Nyah has wandered off to a cliff that she plans to throw herself off of rather than infect the city. Gee, I guess it didn’t occur to Ambrose that she might have functional legs and a will of her own and should be guarded. I mean, having her stay in downtown Sydney was only the linchpin of his entire plan, after all. But Luther and Billy intercept her just before she cliff-dives and bring her to Ethan, but they have to pause for the final shootout between Ethan and Ambrose because he stupidly got into another slugfest with Ambrose after getting a decisive edge over him, because Ambrose insulted Nyah. But it doesn’t do much more than prolong the already extremely prolonged action, since Nyah gets the shot in time, and then Ethan lies to Anthony Hopkins about the “accidental” destruction of the last Chimera sample he was supposed to retrieve intact, and then he and Nyah walk off in a park by Sydney Harbour, and we get an end-title song by “Limp Bizkit,” whatever that is, that incorporates the Schifrin theme into it.
This movie didn’t have that much plot, I guess, since so much of it was long action set pieces and slow motion. I guess if you like style over substance, and like that particular style, that might be okay, but I found it mostly a rather ludicrous exercise, especially the cartoony excuse for a courtship between Ethan and Nyah and the insanely over-the-top bike stunts in the climactic chase. (Really — those bikes endure an impossible amount of strenuous riding and being shot at, but then spontaneously explode when the combatants leap off them?) And it doesn’t feel much like Mission: Impossible at all. It’s more of a solo mission for Ethan Hunt, with Luther and Billy being secondary supporting players. There’s hardly any role-playing or elaborate gambits, except at the racetrack and when they capture McCloy. It’s also the only M:I installment ever that makes no use of Schifrin’s “The Plot” at all, not even in brief snippets. Hans Zimmer’s score is in a driving hard-rock sort of idiom that doesn’t do much for me. Zimmer’s a composer I have a mixed response to. He’s very chameleonic, good at doing what a director wants from him, so whether I like his scores is often contingent on what director he’s working for. Anything he does for a film directed or produced by Christopher Nolan is just a bunch of blaring, droning, nigh-atonal chords that I find generally annoying and tedious, while conversely I’ve found his work on Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films and Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 to be just the opposite, extremely rich and creative and melodic and fascinating. This score wasn’t as ponderous and unpleasant as his Nolan scores, but it didn’t do anything for me.
I’ll give the film this, though: It’s the only one of the four movies to date that doesn’t involve Ethan being suspected of treason and on the run from his own agency. He’s got full IMF support and a sanctioned team throughout. So it’s odd that we see so little of that team. If anything, it’s the villain Ambrose who seems to make more use of familiar IMF tactics than Hunt does, devising elaborate deceptions and strategies to pursue his goals and working with his own team.
Cast-wise, Cruise gives a better, more relaxed and confident performance this time around, even though he has less to work with. Ethan Hunt still doesn’t have much of a personality; he gets to be a full-fledged romantic lead for the first time (rather than just kind of borderline-cheating with another man’s wife who turns out to be evil), but the romance is so superficial and absurdly developed that it establishes more about Hunt’s driving skills than his emotional life. Thandie Newton is effective as Nyah; her basic role is to be lovely and desirable, and she pulls that off splendidly, but she also manages to give Nyah a fair amount of attitude and strength that are better than the material she has to work with. Anthony Hopkins is, well, Anthony Hopkins, though he pretty much phones it in. The other cast members are okay but nothing exceptional. This wasn’t really a movie about character drama, it was a movie about car crashes and explosions and fights and a sexy token female and the odd flock of doves. And climbing. Lots of climbing.
On reflection, I’m unsure whether we should take this as an actual IMF mission or as a fantasy story Ethan Hunt wrote in his diary in spy school. It’s just so very silly and shallow and self-indulgent. And it’s an enormous departure from its namesake franchise. I guess it’s more successful at being what it wants to be than the first movie was, but what it wants to be is not what a Mission: Impossible fan is likely to be looking for. Fortunately this film would not define the future direction for the film series. Indeed, the gap between this film and its sequel would be the longest in the franchise’s history to date — paving the way for yet another, much more effective reinvention.
And now I begin the home stretch of my M:I review series with the debut of the Tom Cruise movie series. Mission: Impossible (1996) was directed by Brian DePalma, from a story by David Koepp and Steven Zaillian and a screenplay by Koepp and Robert Towne.
We open in the middle of a caper in progress in Kiev, with Jack Harmon (Emilio Estevez, uncredited for some reason) watching a screen on which an older moustachioed man is grilling another man in Russian. The man thinks he’s killed the woman lying on the bed, and the older man is demanding the name of his contact in exchange for helping him out of the mess. The scene is scored by Danny Elfman with a few hints of the melody of “The Plot” peeking out here and there. Harmon is concerned that the woman has been under too long. The Russian finally gives a name, whereupon a maid gives him a drink with knockout drops. The older man rips off his mask (via a digital effect) to reveal an astonishingly young Tom Cruise, who orders that the man be disposed of while his team begins striking the set of the hotel room. He injects the woman (Emmannuelle Beart) and there’s clearly a thing between them as he strokes her face once she revives. “We got him,” he confirms…
And we cut to a match head being struck, and a title sequence that’s a flashier version of the original, with very brief, split-second clips from the movie ahead, and occasional shots of an actual fuse burning rather than the animated one from the TV titles. Like the ’88 revival’s titles, it includes a few shots of gadgetry, passport photos, and the like as well as action clips. Elfman gives us a really rich, gorgeous arrangement of Schifrin’s theme. Only Cruise gets his name given over the title sequence. The rest of the credits are shown over the next scene in a jet, where a flight attendant offers a movie on tape to Jon Voight, whom she addresses as Mr. Phelps. For the moment, let’s stipulate that this individual is Jim Phelps, though we’ll explore this idea more later on. The tape scene that follows is in the familiar pattern, except it isn’t Bob Johnson giving the narration. The mission is to intercept Golitsyn, a traitor who’s stolen half of a list of US agents’ non-official covers (the NOC list) and stop him from stealing the other half which reveals their true identities. (Apparently, in real life, NOC agents are spies that have no official government status and are disavowed by their employing government if caught — which means that all IMF agents are NOC agents.) A dossier sequence is incorporated into the spiel, with the narrator saying he’s taken the liberty of selecting agents from Phelps’s usual team, and redundantly telling Phelps what his own usual team members’ jobs are, a really awkward bit of “As You Know, Bob” exposition. The significant ones are Cruise’s Ethan Hunt, the point man “as usual,” and Beart’s Claire Phelps, Jim’s wife (and Jim apparently needs to be reminded of this by the tape as well), who’s in charge of “transport.” There’s also Jack as the hacker, Sarah Davies (Kristin Scott Thomas) already embedded in an undercover role, and a minor female team member named Hannah on surveillance. Phelps lights a cigarette to cover the smoke from the self-destructing tape. So far, aside from a few stylistic touches and the cast changes, this feels like the M:I we know. So far.
In Prague, the team meets in a safe house to plan the mission — reminiscent of the revival series’ frequent use of on-site “command post” briefings. Voight’s Phelps is a sterner boss than Graves’s version, giving curt, fast-paced orders with plenty of CIA-style operational jargon; if anything, he reminds me more of Dan Briggs. But then Ethan asks an impertinent question and the tone softens, with the group joking around like old friends, though Phelps still seems at a remove from the rest. The banter makes a point of referencing a Chicago hotel where Jim stayed during his absence on the Kiev mission. In another echo of Briggs, Phelps doesn’t participate directly in the mission but monitors from the safe house. Since it’s 1996, every team member now has a hidden camera and earwig radio, so Phelps can see everything that’s going on. He’s also able to override Jack’s hacking of the elevator when Jack is too slow, something that I’m sure won’t be at all significant later. Ethan goes to the US embassy in Prague disguised as a US senator who’s basically Cruise in age makeup doing an impression of George Bush, Sr., and Sarah helps him get into the secure area so that he can plant his video glasses to get a shot of Golitsyn when he arrives shortly thereafter to steal the NOC list from the computer.
The plan is to follow Golitsyn to his contact, but something goes wrong — Jack loses control of the elevator that he’s sitting on the roof of, and it sends him up to the top of the shaft, which for some reason is equipped with deadly spikes that drop down and impale him. Phelps says he’s lost control of the system and comes to rendezvous with the team, but then reports he’s being tailed. Ethan goes to him while sending Sarah to tail Golitsyn. Then Ethan hears shots and arrives in time to see a bloodied Phelps falling off a bridge into the river. The car that Claire and Hannah are apparently in blows up, and Ethan finds Sarah and Golitsyn stabbed, the list gone. The cops come after him and he rabbits. Getting to a phone and inserting a security gadget, he contacts IMF director Kittredge (Henry Czerny) for help, and Kittredge, who’s surprisingly in Prague already, arranges to meet him at an aquarium-themed restaurant. Czerny is apparently the voice we heard giving Phelps’s briefing at the beginning. The idea of the briefing coming from the IMF director himself never occurred to me; I always figured the Voice on Tape/Disc was some support staffer relaying instructions from on high. But it makes sense — if the IMF was originally this small, deniable, garage-band operation as I like to think, it wouldn’t have had much of a permanent staff. So maybe Bob Johnson was playing the actual head of the IMF all those years, or at least someone very senior.
Anyway, Czerny gives a twitchy, smarmy, unsubtle performance as Kittredge grills Ethan, and Cruise’s performance isn’t much better, his reaction to the death of all his friends consisting mostly of shouting. I need to make something clear here: Although Tom Cruise gets a lot of guff for his personal eccentricities, I think that should be kept separate from his work as an actor, and I’ve long been very impressed by his total commitment and professionalism in his film work. So don’t expect any habit of Cruise-bashing in the reviews to follow. However, he’s really not that good in this one — which is interesting given that he would be nominated for an Oscar for his work in the same year’s Jerry Maguire, after previously getting an Oscar nomination for Born on the Fourth of July and a Golden Globe nomination for A Few Good Men. Since Czerny does a pretty bad job too, maybe the fault lay with Brian DePalma.
Ethan recognizes that the restaurant patrons around him were at the party and on the streets in various roles before — they’re a second IMF team! Kittredge reveals that the Golitsyn mission was bait to catch a mole inside the IMF with a fake NOC list — and since Ethan’s the only survivor from his team, that suggests it’s him. Realizing he’s in trouble, Ethan palms a chewing-gum explosive from his pocket, a final legacy from Jack, and tosses it against an aquarium wall, producing one of the more famous action scenes from the film as the glass breaks and all the water pours out, even from the aquaria overhead. (One guy is blown clear through the front windows even though the charge isn’t much more than firecracker-sized. Huh?) Ethan breaks into a Patented Tom Cruise Run to get away.
For some reason, he then decides that the best place to hide from his own agency is the very safe house his own team leader set up. Not to worry, though — he shatters glass from a light bulb across the hallway so he’ll hear if anyone comes. He remembers Kittredge’s exposition about the buyer for the NOC list being an arms dealer named Max, who referred to the deal as “Job 314.” Hunt attempts a rather implausible Usenet search in which terms like “Max” and “Job” produce, not a useless overabundance of hits as you’d expect, but no hits whatsoever. Then he happens to notice a Bible on the bookshelf and thinks of Job 3:14. He finds Usenet forums about that chapter and verse and sends e-mails to Max, warning that the stolen list is a fake. Later, weary, he has a rather ridiculous dream of a bloody Phelps accusing him of failure, only to wake up and find it’s actually Claire, whom he holds at gunpoint since he can’t believe she’s alive. The whole scene is kind of incoherent, and kind of uncomfortably rapey as he forces her onto the bed at gunpoint while she insists it’s really her. But just reminding him over and over again of their plan to return to the safe house at 4 AM, 0400, four o’clock, when the big hand’s on the four, eight bells, etc., is enough to convince him.
Later, Ethan gets a hit from Max and arranges a meeting, which involves blindfolding him with a stocking cap that makes him look like the world’s most badly assembled Muppet. Max turns out to be Vanessa Redgrave (you were expecting maybe Tony Hamilton?), who flirts with him shamelessly. He warns her the list is a fake and has a homing device (somehow), but the only way to prove it is to let her activate it and then flee just before Kittredge’s team arrives. In order to get the true identity of the mole called Job, Ethan arranges with Max to steal the actual NOC list. So… basically his plan to clear his name of a crime is to commit the actual crime he’s accused of. Oh, that makes perfect sense. Claire agrees to go along to avenge her husband, and they need to recruit help from the “Disavowed List.”
Okay, now, I commented back in my review of “The Fortune” that it doesn’t make much sense for the IMF to keep a computer record of agents it’s disavowed and denied any knowledge of. Isn’t that rather counterproductive? Also, wouldn’t most disavowed agents be either dead or imprisoned in foreign countries for their crimes? But the movie, despite using the familiar phrase in the briefing scene — and despite building the whole story around the real-life NOC phenomenon that’s the closest equivalent to M:I-style disavowal — suddenly decides to reinterpret disavowed agents as ones who’ve simply gone rogue. It’s never really explained, though, since we cut right to Ethan and Claire’s first meeting with the “disavowed” duo. Ethan’s pick was Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), a master hacker, while Claire has brought in Franz Krieger (Jean Reno), an “exfiltration” man, i.e. getaway chopper pilot. They break into CIA headquarters in Langley, VA to steal the list, and I’m not sure I need to recap the most famous sequence in the franchise. It’s really very clever, a set piece worthy of the best of M:I (and drawing on the Topkapi heist scene that was part of the inspiration for the entire franchise). They have to break into a vaultlike security room with pressure sensors in the floor, heat sensors, and audio sensors, and it’s very clever the way they circumvent them as Krieger lowers Ethan down on a cable from a grille in the ceiling, with Luther hacking in from outside and Claire slipping an emetic to the vault’s lone staffer so he’ll be out of the room for a while. (Although their crawling around through metal air conditioning ducts without making a huge amount of noise is quite implausible.) I love DePalma’s use of silence, something that so few action movies appreciate how to use. It really adds a layer of suspense (no pun intended) to the scene. Anyway, Ethan almost has the data when Krieger is startled by a rat and lets the rope slip, leading to the famous and well-executed moment where Ethan is stuck just a couple of inches above the floor and forced to flail around in two dimensions, which must’ve been very difficult for Cruise. It highlights the physical skills that Cruise will use to impressive effect in this film series. They’re almost out scot-free when Krieger drops his knife into the room, tipping the clerk off on his return. The team makes its escape, but Kittredge knows what they’ve taken.
The team goes to London, where Ethan and Krieger have a falling out and Krieger leaves. Hunt notices that the Bible he’s been drawing verses from for his communications with Max comes from the same hotel where Phelps mentioned staying earlier. After learning that Kittredge has arrested his parents on trumped-up drug charges, Ethan calls Kittredge from a public place to confront him, making sure to hang up before he can be traced. He’s shocked to find Jim Phelps standing next to him. Phelps tells him that Kittredge is the mole, and Ethan plays along, but we see his thoughts as he reconstructs what really happened: Phelps himself faked his death and killed the team. Though Ethan backs away from the suspicion that Claire helped him kill the others. He also realizes that Krieger’s knife was the one that killed Sarah and Golinsky. He asks why Kittredge (read: Phelps) would do what he did, and Phelps spins some vague excuse about the Cold War being over and not having a purpose and the President running the country without his permission or something. At this point it’s very clear that this is not the Jim Phelps we knew. (This is probably the point where Greg Morris stormed out of the theater when he saw the film.)
Hunt arranges to meet Max on the bullet train to Paris, and makes sure Kittredge gets tickets. He gets the list to Max, but has Luther nearby jamming her laptop signal so she can’t transmit it. We don’t see him at this point, only hear his voice as he stage-manages things, and seeing what looks like Jim Phelps assembling a gun. Once Max reveals the location of the money, Claire goes back to the baggage compartment and confronts Phelps, letting on that she’s in cahoots with him and telling him they can get away with the money. “Phelps” pulls off his face digitally to reveal a disappointed Ethan. But then the, err, real Phelps (for the sake of argument) comes out and holds him at gunpoint. He asks how Ethan figured out that he was the mole, and Ethan tells him about the Bible from the hotel room.
Except… that makes absolutely no sense. Okay, so the Bible was from a hotel he knew Phelps had stayed at — but he found the Bible in the safe house that Phelps himself had set up!!! The only thing it proves is a connection between Phelps and Phelps’s own safe house. Ethan only used that Bible to figure out the Job clue and contact Max because it happened to be the copy of the Bible that was on the shelf where he already was when he had the idea, so he had no reason in the world to associate that particular copy of the Bible with Max herself. The chain of reasoning absolutely does not work. It’s an enormous, enormous plot hole that’s bugged me about this film for years, and no matter how many times I see the film I just can’t see any way to make sense of it.
If anything, the person Ethan should have suspected was Claire. She’s the one who brought Krieger aboard, so once Ethan recognized Krieger’s knife as the murder weapon, he should’ve concluded that Claire was the mole, and recruited Phelps to help him expose her. He had a legitimate chain of evidence leading to her involvement, something he absolutely did not have for Phelps. Although, granted, he did suspect Claire in his “here’s what really happened” flashbacks earlier, but backed away from that suspicion because he was in love with her. So he could’ve been blinded to Claire’s involvement here too. But that still doesn’t give him any actual reason to suspect Phelps.
But Phelps, existing within the movie, goes along with the totally invalid premise that the Bible somehow proves his guilt, yet reminds Ethan that nobody else has seen he’s alive. Until Ethan puts on his video-glasses and sends the signal to the video-watch he left for Kittredge, thereby video-proving that Phelps was the mole. It’s not at all clear what Hunt planned to do next, because he just dodges and Phelps randomly shoots Claire by mistake, and then Phelps escapes through the roof hatch and Ethan follows and fights the ferocious winds, and Krieger shows up in a chopper to pick up Phelps, but Hunt grabs the cable and hooks the chopper to the train, so Krieger has to fly it into the Chunnel behind the train. Is that even possible? Somebody call the Mythbusters, I want to know if it’s possible for a helicopter to fly inside a train tunnel. Is there enough air in there to hold it up? Anyway, Phelps jumps onto one runner, then Ethan jumps onto the other, and he somehow still happens to have a stick of Jack’s plastique gum on him, and he uses it to blow up the chopper, and the force of the blast blows him back onto the train and somehow doesn’t liquefy his organs in the process, and the chopper blades are right up against his throat when the train abruptly… stops?
Wait a minute…
It stops. Abruptly.
This vehicle massing thousands of tons was traveling at 300 mph one moment… and is suddenly at a complete stop seconds later? How the hell did that happen? More to the point, why? Even if we stipulate to the fantasy premise that a bullet train could brake as quickly as an automobile, why would they choose to stop the train when a fiery crashing helicopter was coming right at them from behind?!!! I’m sorry, this makes as little sense as the Bible non-clue.
So anyway, Kittredge annoyingly turns out not to be the bad guy, and he arrests Max, who flirts with him too, proving she has no standards. And Ethan and Luther are pardoned, but Ethan doesn’t see much point to the work anymore and plans to leave. But he gets an offer of a mission from a flight attendant just like Phelps did at the start, and that’s when the movie ends, with the end titles giving us a modernized version of the Schifrin theme courtesy of a couple of members of U2.
This is a very, very flawed movie. There are parts of it that work. The teaser, main titles, and briefing scene feel authentic, and while the Prague caper is a little off and the initial team rather nondescript (and lacking in racial diversity), it’s fairly well-handled. And the Langley set piece is really nifty, the highlight of the film. And Elfman’s music is pretty good, a lively action-movie score that quotes or paraphrases snippets of “The Plot” at key moments (though never uses the whole melody, continuing the trend established by John E. Davis in the revival) and occasionally breaks into big statements of the main title theme. But a lot of the rest doesn’t work well, or just plain doesn’t make a damn bit of sense. There are enormous plot holes and implausibilities, as I’ve described. The characters lack depth and clear motivation and don’t give us much reason to care about them. Some directorial touches are interesting but not successful; for instance, there are a couple of sequences that are shot from Ethan’s POV without showing his face, as if to create suspense about what face he’s wearing, but in the first case it’s a face we’ve already been shown (in video footage of the senator as Ethan practiced mimicking him) and in the second it’s just his own face. And the actors are directed too broadly. Like Cruise, Ving Rhames seems lesser here than he’s been elsewhere, including later in this franchise. Emmanuelle Beart is stunningly lovely and waifish, but just okay as an actress. Jon Voight is actually a pretty good choice as a replacement for Peter Graves, bearing a certain resemblance in his features and his manner, at least until he’s revealed as the baddie.
But that’s the elephant in the room, isn’t it? Jim Phelps a traitor? How do we cope with that?
Now, the obvious answer is to say the movies are a reboot, out of continuity with the series. After all, there are no characters in common beyond Phelps, and this Phelps is unlike the one we know — more like Dan Briggs, as I said, and that’s before he goes all smarmy and evil. So maybe we just treat this as a separate reality. After all, it’s not like the previous series had any real continuity to speak of, particularly since the revival series even remade episodes of the original. I’ve even said before that the original series may not all take place in a single reality.
But just as a thought exercise, let’s examine the question of whether this can be reconciled with the shows. Could Jim Phelps have gone rogue? Consider the final season of the revival, which I recently completed reviewing. For whatever reason, in the latter part of that season and to a lesser extent earlier on, the standard caper/heist formula of M:I gave way to a more conventional spy formula; instead of orchestrating master stratagems worked out a dozen moves in advance, Jim was just sending in his team undercover with no clear mission but to find out some information so they could then improvise a way of dealing with it. Could it be that Jim was losing his edge, growing sloppy? Maybe he got some of his team members killed (statistically speaking, Shannon Reed is the most likely candidate, given how routinely she was placed in danger), and it turned him bitter, filled him with doubts about whether he could go on. Maybe that’s why he stepped back to supervising missions remotely rather than participating directly. And maybe he grew disillusioned with the spy game and decided to get out while he could and get rich doing it.
But no… no, I really don’t think that works. Voight-Phelps’s meandering explanation about losing purpose when the Cold War ended didn’t really fit, because Jim’s IMF team took on many missions that weren’t Cold War-related, tackling organized crime and international terrorists and the like. Graves’s Jim Phelps would’ve still seen a purpose to his work with or without the Cold War. So I just can’t see it happening that way.
But of course the M:I universe gives us another alternative, because it’s full of impersonators. Voight-Phelps could be a foreign agent who took the real Phelps’s place — perhaps using a plastic-surgery dodge like Nicholas Black used in “Deadly Harvest.” Maybe this happened once Kittredge took over as IMF director from the former head (the Voice?); he didn’t know Jim well and is pretty much a lousy director anyway, so he could’ve been fooled. This creates the unpleasant possibility that the real Jim was murdered. But maybe he escaped and laid low, or maybe the enemy was holding him captive to get information from him. It’s pleasant to imagine that the mission Ethan Hunt was offered at the end of the film was the rescue of the real Jim Phelps.
(UPDATE: I’ve just come across a really interesting essay that takes the opposing view, that Voight-Phelps was the real Jim Phelps, and examines the reasons for his fall into cynicism and treachery: “The Phelps Dossier” by John A. Small. I’m not entirely convinced by it, since it glosses over the law-enforcement years of the latter two seasons and offers a version of Phelps’s life story that’s hard to reconcile with how cheerful and upbeat he was in the ’88 revival, but it’s very clever in the way it incorporates ideas from M:I continuity, the series bible, and even unfilmed revival attempts in building its narrative.)
Still, one way or the other, the story of Jim Phelps is over now. From here on out, this series is about the adventures of Ethan Hunt. Although this wasn’t a particularly impressive introduction to Hunt as a character. I can’t say much about his personality except that he gets really ticked off when his teammates get killed and he isn’t above flirting with his boss’s wife. I know he gets better later on, but this is not an impressive beginning. Frankly I’m surprised this movie even got a sequel. But it did, so there’s more to come.
While the first season of the Mission: Impossible revival felt surprisingly like a typical season of the original series — mostly following the classic formula with only a little more flexibility or innovation than the original generally had — the second season experimented and departed more. In the first half or so of the season, this worked pretty well, giving us a run of mostly solid episodes with a good amount of legitimate suspense and personal stakes for the team members. In some ways I was reminded of my favorite season, year 5 of the original, in terms of the frequency with which Jim’s plans hit snags and dangers and the team was forced to improvise.
But then, in the latter portion of the season, things began to fall apart. In four of the last five episodes, the intricate advance stratagems that had always been the trademark of M:I vanished, and the team’s strategies were mainly reduced to going into an unclear situation, trying to find stuff out, getting in trouble that they weren’t prepared for, and having to improvise solutions. (This also happened in “Target Earth” in the first half of the season.) Maybe this was at network request to create more of a sense of suspense and danger — something that, admittedly, the original series generally lacked when the team’s plans usually played out like clockwork — but it was a fundamental change in the premise and character of the series. As I’ve remarked multiple times, Mission: Impossible wasn’t really a spy series at heart; it was a caper series in the spirit of Topkapi or The Sting, or the more recent Leverage. The spy stuff was just an excuse to make the heroes’ con games and elaborate thefts and other crimes seem patriotic and heroic. What defined M:I was the intricacy of the team’s stratagems and cons; it was a show about people who triumphed with their wits and their skill rather than their fists or their guns. But this season increasingly departed from that approach in favor of a more conventional action formula where the heroes were reactive and unprepared, making things up one step at a time rather than plotting out a whole game in advance. It made the show feel simpler, less intelligent. The writers didn’t have to work as hard to come up with intricate strategies while concealing their specifics from the audience. It seemed that the writers got lazier, and that made it feel like Jim Phelps was losing his touch. Although that didn’t explain the rest of the team losing their basic competence in episodes like “The Assassin” where they broke cover right under the watching villain’s nose. And it wasn’t just the plotting that got lazier. A lot of the episodes in the back half of the season are extremely dumb and poorly thought out, often inconsistently plotted, and tending toward lazy stereotypes of other cultures just as badly as the previous season, and perhaps even worse.
As a result, the season feels split in two. The first half is stronger overall than the previous season, with only one episode I’d rate below average (“Command Performance”). But of the final eight episodes, only one was excellent, three were decent, and the other four were weak to horrible. So while I’d call the first half of the 1989 season one of the strongest runs in the franchise, the second half was, overall, the weakest in the television franchise’s history. It’s an unfortunate way for the series to go out, especially after such a promising start.
Despite the writers’ strike being long over, this season has two stories that seem loosely inspired by original episodes, borrowing their setups if not their details: “Command Performance” has a similar premise to the 1966 season’s “Old Man Out,” while “The Assassin” has nearly the same setup as season 6’s “Mindbend.” There are no actual remakes this year, though.
The strongest episodes this year were “Countdown” and “The Fuehrer’s Children,” both of which created a strong sense of danger and had effective stories. These were followed closely by “For Art’s Sake” and “The Princess,” both solid capers, if imperfect ones. “The Gunslinger” is almost as effective, if a bit sillier in premise. “The Golden Serpent” and “Target Earth” were pretty entertaining, albeit more as action thrillers than standard M:I capers; “The Golden Serpent” in particular feels like an over-the-top ’80s action movie that occasionally pays lip service to being M:I, and is enjoyable largely for its extravagance, which is unmatched by the rest of the season. In a lot of ways, it feels like a test run for the feature films (particularly since the second film was also shot in and around Sydney and made extensive use of its scenery). “War Games,” “Deadly Harvest,” and “Church Bells in Bogota” are reasonably entertaining if unremarkable. “Command Performance” is mediocre and pales in comparison to the original episode it resembles, and “The Sands of Seth” is not exactly awful, but quite fanciful and ridiculous in premise, feeling like the kind of story you’d see in a Saturday morning cartoon version of M:I. “Banshee” and “The Assassin” are badly written and incoherent, and “Cargo Cult” is a disaster, nonsensical and deeply racist, probably the worst episode in the entire franchise.
Cast-wise, Phil Morris continued to be the breakout star, showing great talent, charisma, and versatility. In a more ideal, colorblind Hollywood, I could’ve easily seen Morris taking over the lead role if the series had continued long enough for Graves to retire from it — or even becoming the lead of the movie franchise. Jane Badler was pretty impressive too, charming and sexy and confident, conveying a lot of strength and competence despite the producers’ insistence on putting her through the Perils of Pauline on an ongoing basis. (But then, Pauline in the original 1914 silent serial was a pretty competent action heroine herself, not the helpless damsel we’ve subsequently come to associate with the name.) Peter Graves was his usual stalwart, avuncular self, playing up his kinder side as the emphasis on team bonding increased, and took the occasional opportunity to show off his skills in horse riding, quick drawing, and the like. Tony Hamilton didn’t seem to have as much to do this season, but continued to be effective when he did. And Thaao Penghlis was consistently adequate, managing to do a few more accents this season than last, though American still eluded him. Still, he remains perhaps the least versatile “master of disguise” I’ve ever seen.
The season expands on some of the characteristic elements of the previous season. There’s a lot more of the team out of character, discussing plans and problems — often with the usual roleplay/scam elements diminished to near nothing. We see more of the team’s friendships and affinities, particularly all the men’s warm feelings for Shannon — which gets a little tired when the episodes constantly put Shannon in danger to create anxiety among her teammates. We also continue to get a number of episodes where the team skips Jim’s apartment and assembles at a “command post” on site — although it’s only five out of the fifteen distinct stories, fewer than I’d thought (“The Golden Serpent,” “Banshee,” “For Art’s Sake,” “The Assassin,” and “The Sands of Seth”). Four of those five are in the latter half of the season, though.
Last season, the focus was somewhat split between espionage and organized-crime missions, but here there’s a far stronger emphasis on international intrigue, terrorism, and politics. The criminal cases all involve greater international-scale threats: the international drug triad in “The Golden Serpent” includes the prince of a foreign nation, the arms dealers in “Banshee” threaten to reawaken a religious war, the art thief in “For Art’s Sake” is working to create an international incident, and the drug lord in “Church Bells in Bogota” threatens to overthrow the Colombian government. So essentially every episode has political stakes, making this perhaps the only M:I season without a purely crime-oriented caper. By contrast, the percentage of episodes featuring supernatural-themed cons is close to what it was in the previous season, though “War Games” only dabbles with playing on the villain’s astrological obsession, and “Cargo Cult” uses supernatural illusions to fool the “primitive villagers” and turn them against their exploiter rather than the usual trope of playing on the villains’ superstitions. “Banshee” is perhaps the crudest example of said trope, with a caricatured villain who goes into a cartoonish panic over any superstition, even one he’s never heard of before. And “The Sands of Seth,” like “Cargo Cult,” features a villain who is himself using supernatural deceptions, so it’s fighting fire with fire.
Beyond the opening 2-parter, which for the first time shows us a second IMF team operating independently of Jim’s, we get no further insights into the IMF as an organization. Indeed, the season is unique in having not a single episode in which the core team was joined from the start by a supplemental agent. The only episodes where anyone assisted the core team were the 2-parter “The Golden Serpent,” where Barney Collier worked with Jim’s team after having previously been assigned to another, unnamed IMF agent’s team, and “Command Performance,” where the rescued priest Father Thomas Vallis (Ivar Kants) assisted in his own rescue. So despite the variations in story structure, in some ways this is the most formulaic season ever: Essentially no variation in team composition, no off-book missions, no briefing discs without the “Secretary will disavow” line.
Location-wise, Europe was the site of five episodes and the teaser of a sixth, with most of the locations this season being fictional: the Monaco-like Valence in “The Princess,” a nameless Baltic state in “Command Performance,” the Eastern European lands of Sardavia and Bucaraine in “War Games,” and the fictional Irish town of Bally-na-Gragh in “Banshee.” The only real European locations were Hamburg (or nearby) in “The Fuehrer’s Children” and Geneva in the teaser of “The Assassin.” America was the focus in “For Art’s Sake” (NYC), “The Assassin” (Boston), and “The Gunfighter” (the fictional Pontiac, NV), though “Fuehrer’s” began in Oregon, “Deadly Harvest” was partly in Kansas, and “Target Earth” featured scenes at NORAD. Australia was the site of two stories, “The Golden Serpent” (Sydney) and “Target Earth” (the Outback), while “Cargo Cult” was on the fictional island of New Belgium in the Southwest Pacific. “Deadly Harvest” and “The Sands of Seth” were in the Mideast, the former in the fictitious terrorist state of Orambaq and the latter in some alternate-reality cartoon version of Cairo, Egypt. Only “Countdown” was set in Asia, in the fictional land of Kangji, and only “Church Bells in Bogota” was in Latin America — do I even need to say where? Oh, and “Target Earth” was the first and only M:I episode to take place partly in Earth orbit.
Musically, there is very little to say. Every episode was credited to John E. Davis, though IMDb lists Neil Argo as an uncredited additional composer throughout the season. The music was generally unremarkable and often cliched, nothing to write home (or blog) about. It’s quite a letdown from the original series, where music was so important. I wonder why the producers chose to go with the bland Davis over the more talented and interesting Lalo Schifrin and Ron Jones from the ’88 season. But then, a lot about the new series lacks the stylistic sophistication of the original, in terms of directing and cinematography, and in this season the plotting got a lot less sophisticated toward the end. Its visual effects were far more ambitious than the original’s, but usually quite crude in execution. The revival just didn’t quite have the class of the original. The one thing it consistently did better was location work, featuring lavish and varied locales in contrast to the backlot-bound feel the original generally had. But then, that’s one thing that Australian and New Zealand productions are known for — the lush, spectacular scenery.
In sum, the ninth and final season of Mission: Impossible started off strong and ambitious, improving on its predecessor and coming close to rivalling the best of the original — but toward the end, its weaknesses came to the fore and it became downright sloppy, stumbling its way toward what by that point was an inevitable cancellation. I wonder if the producers saw that cancellation coming well in advance and just stopped trying. If so, it’s a shame. If only they’d kept up the quality of the first half or so of this season and gotten at least one more year at that level, this revival could have been a really impressive addition to the franchise. As it is, I’d say it’s still worth checking out, even just for Phil Morris and Jane Badler, who are two of the best IMF team members we’ve ever had. And it’s still a legitimate continuation of the original — mixed in quality, but then, so was its predecessor. If nothing else, it gave us the continued adventures of Jim Phelps and the IMF as we knew it from the original… a last look at the familiar incarnation of M:I before it moved to the big screen and transformed into something radically different. Even several different somethings. But we’ll get to that.
And now, the final two:
“Church Bells in Bogota”: The second episode by Frank Abatemarco, who previously did “The Fuehrer’s Children.” After Esteban Magdalena (Henri Szeps), the “Godfather” of the Colombian drug cartel, assassinates a kidnapped federal judge by dropping him from the helicopter that’s supposed to be returning him to his family, Jim gets the mission at an auto racetrack: Bring Magdalena to justice before he overthrows the Colombian government. Jim’s cover is a disgruntled former government contractor with secrets to sell, Max is a mercenary, and Shannon, yet again, goes in as a singer for the nightclub Magdalena owns. A point is made about the ironclad cover story they’ve prepared for Shannon, and about Shannon apparently having a fear of small planes like the one she’ll be taking to Colombia from the Hollywood talent agency where she’ll be recruited.
At said agency, Shannon is hired by Magdalena’s nephew Luis (Tony Xauet), who doesn’t even audition her first, since he’s in a hurry to get back to Colombia, even though there’s a storm brewing. Maybe it’s also supposed to be because he’s attracted to her, but that doesn’t come across in the scene. They subsequently bond over her fear of flying, and of course the plane is struck by lightning and goes down. The plane/storm footage, while obviously miniature work, is a damn sight better than the usual amateurish video effects on this show, so I assume it’s stock footage from some other production. Mercenary Max (coming soon to a toy store near you), who’s training Magdalena’s men in the use of a rocket launcher and having no luck getting past his supervisor Sanchez (Michael Long) to meet Mags himself, hears that Luis and some singer went down in a plane crash and are in the hospital. Jim sneaks in to see her as a doctor, and she doesn’t recognize him as anything else. Gasp — she has… amnesia!
Before long, Luis pressures the real doctor into releasing Shannon into his care, so she’s taken into the Magdalenas’ fortress-like compound. Now the team has two objectives: get Mags and rescue Shannon. But as usual lately, they don’t have any advance plan in place for getting Mags — they’re just trying to track him down. Defense contractor Jim, hoping to get into the compound to find Shannon, instead gets taken to a run-down safehouse where he’s faced with a drug-lord version of To Tell the Truth with a panel of ski-masked men, one of whom is Magdalena — but unlike in the game show, he doesn’t get to pick out the real one. He makes his spiel and convinces Mags to let him install a heat-seeking missile defense system in the compound. Plan B is to get to Mags when he sneaks out to his nightclub, where Shannon surprises Luis by singing “Someone to Watch Over Me.” A watching Grant and Nicholas are surprised when the lights go out and Magdalena appears as if by magic, evidently through some secret passage. There’s no getting him out that way either. And they’re even more surprised to see the whirlwind romance blooming between Luis and the amnesiac Shannon.
Once Jim gets into the compound, he has Max create a diversion for Sanchez (arranging for the expensive launcher to jam) so Jim can slip into Shannon’s room as the doctor she remembers from the hospital. He’s brought along a couple of highly specialized gadgets Grant apparently just had lying around, the first of which is a remote medical sensor developed by NASA for diagnosing astronauts in space (perhaps on Mars missions, since Grant says it could diagnose them from “millions of miles away”). This lets Grant remotely determine that Shannon has classic soap-opera amnesia, with no brain damage, presumably from the psychological trauma of her fear of flying, though that’s a totally lame explanation. The second device is a pair of video goggles, sort of a proto-Oculus Rift, that plays home videos of the team celebrating her birthday in Jim’s apartment (though it’s unclear who shot the video). It only takes about 20 seconds of this for her complete memory to return, an implausibly easy fix, and she feels pretty bummed about falling in love with a drug kingpin’s heir — particularly since he’s already proposed to her! Jim realizes that a wedding would be the perfect way to lure Magdalena out of hiding, but then has second thoughts, concerned for Shannon’s feelings. But she agrees to go through with it because they’re awful people. (Umm, the drug lords, not the IMF team.)
So then Grant and Nicholas carjack a priest and steal his clothes. Better rethink that awful people thing. Okay, it’s not as awful as it sounds, since the priest seems to have a pretty good idea of who they’re after and blesses their endeavor. (In that case, why didn’t they just ask?) It’s implausibly easy for them to get past the compound’s security to get ready, and when Magdalena comes up to Shannon’s room prefatory to giving away the bride, priest Nick arrives and trank-darts him, and for some reason nobody is patrolling that side of the house at all as Grant lowers them all down a rope to the ground. And the gate guards are totally unconcerned when Jim and Grant drive out in a florist’s truck with the others and Mags in the back. Why is this compound so impenetrable again? But Luis has figured out that they’ve taken his girl and his uncle, so he calls out pursuit, but Max finally uses that rocket launcher on Mags’s helicopter, and thus the team is able to get to the airport and steal Mags’s inexplicably unguarded replacement Lear jet. Luis shows up just as they take off and screams for his lost love, and Shannon mopes about betraying the murderous drug lord she knew for two days and who totally took advantage of her at her most vulnerable.
Okay, so it’s an implausible scenario in a lot of ways, and it’s got a number of problems, but it’s not bad overall. I’m still not loving this looser investigate-then-improvise approach that seems to have replaced the intricate capers that used to define M:I as a series, but seeing the team humanized by concern for one of their own isn’t bad in principle, as long as it isn’t handled as ineptly as it was in “The Assassin.” At this point my expectations have been lowered, and this is an adequately entertaining story. Even the music’s a bit more interesting than usual, since John E. Davis uses more Latin sounds (which don’t sound as cliched to me as some of his other attempts at regional music like Irish and cowboy stuff) and more romantic-drama-style music than we usually get. Also Jane Badler performs two songs, “Someone to Watch Over Me” by George and Ira Gershwin and “Tangerine” by Victor Shertzinger and Johnny Mercer. (Apparently Badler pursued a professional singing career after this series ended.)
“The Sands of Seth”: The series finale, and the last M:I television episode to date, is written by executive producer Jeffrey M. Hayes. It opens in Cairo with an Egyptian museum director, Horus Selim (Tim Elliott — and IMDb misspells it as “Horace”), warning an Egyptian government official that the old ways will rise again and Egypt must return to its ancient greatness yada yada yada, which the official pooh-poohs. Then a mummy shows up and strangles him. It took this episode less than 90 seconds to evoke the first “Seriously?” from me.
Perhaps fittingly for the series finale, Jim goes to an animatronic dinosaur exhibit and trades code phrases about extinction with the latest and last of the improbably pretty women who keep getting these assignments this season. (She says the dinosaurs lived for over 200 million years, which is off by about 35 million unless you count birds as dinosaurs, which I totally do.) His mission is to find out if Selim is behind the murders of four prominent Egyptian officials whose deaths threaten to destabilize the tenuous Mideast peace process, and if so, to stop him. The team’s command post, seriously, is a tomb that’s just behind the Sphinx but that apparently was only discovered the year before.
Nicholas plays an Egyptian secret police officer who accosts Selim’s second-in-command and mummy-impersonating assassin, who is actually named Karnak (Gerard Kennedy, who was the main villain in “Holograms” in season 1). He offers Karnak a set of envelopes to hold to his forehead and divine the answers to the questions inside… no, sorry, that was Carnac. What he actually does is to hint that the authorities suspect Selim of the murders and offer Karnak a chance to break with him to save himself. But Karnak is loyal. Meanwhile, Shannon arranges to meet Selim at the museum and let him know that her archaeologist father (Jim) has unearthed a find related to Seth, the god of death that Selim worships and is obsessed with. That gets him out to the tomb, where they show him a fake Scroll of Seth and also set up Max as a not-very-gruntled employee of Jim’s. Selim really wants the scroll, but Jim won’t part with it, so when Max offers to bring it to him, he’s interested. At their arranged meeting at an outdoor cafe, a bunch of Selim’s cultists show up dressed in black and abduct Max, who doesn’t go without a fight. Somehow this does not attract the attention of any kind of police. Oh, did I mention that Selim has his own cultists? Yup, they gather in a secret underground tomb with a huge statue of Seth in it, and I don’t mean the guy from Robot Chicken. Basically their pillars of faith are “Kill, kill, chant a lot, and kill.”
So once Max hands over the scroll and lets on that he’s a Sethophile himself, he hears Selim order Karnak to deal with Jim and Shannon, but he can’t warn them because he lost his communicator in the fight. Shannon gets her requisite dose of distress for the week when Mummy Karnak almost strangles her, but it’s a lure to draw out Jim to be knocked out so they can both be trapped in the tomb, which the team has set up with fake Sethaphrenalia for Selim to plunder. Max can only watch helplessly — even though he’s the last guy to leave and could easily have just pulled the door back open a crack to give them some air. So Jim and Shannon are trapped there in this tomb with only a couple of hours of air, and can’t call out because the walls are too thick. Remember: they’re trapped in a room the team spent hours setting up. It didn’t occur to them to install some oxygen canisters, like the one we saw Grant put in the fake sarcophagus earlier? Or, like, an interior door handle?
In that fake sarcophagus is Nicholas as a mummy, who arises and terrifies Karnak, because Shannon mentioned earlier that there’s a curse on the tomb entailing the usual dead-rising stuff. Consider, Gentle Readers: Karnak has committed several murders while dressed as a mummy. Now a guy dressed as a mummy is coming after him, and Karnak accepts it as entirely real. I guess you can kid a kidder. Nick knocks Karnak out, and the henchman wakes up in the desert, where Grant is dressed as a Nubian shaman or whatever and intones that Karnak must renounce Seth and stop Selim’s planned mass murder of Egyptian officials if he wishes to save his soul. This is supported with mystical images holographically projected in a pool, images that are obviously from old movies but that Karnak, again, accepts as entirely real. It’s stupid as hell, but what saves it is Phil Morris’s performance, which lets him show off the superb, mellow voice he’s made such excellent use of in animation roles in the ensuing quarter-century. I’ve never heard him deepen his voice this much, almost into James Earl Jones territory, and it’s thrilling to listen to.
So Karnak tries to turn Selim’s followers, but just gets a garotting for his troubles and is dumped into the sand pit that swallows the cult’s victims. The team slipped a tracker onto Karnak to follow him to the temple, and find it by the expedient of Shannon falling through a buried skylight, whereupon they find themselves inside the head of the Seth statue. By the way, Nicholas has been captured and brought before the cult, but fortunately Selim assigns Max to kill him as his initiation, so they fake Nick’s death together. By an astonishing coincidence, the head of the statue contains a sun reflector, and now that the skylight is open, the morning sun (conveniently at the correct position in the sky) will shine beams through the eyes in just a few minutes, letting Jim time the payoff of the plan. The rigged scroll reveals a “faded” part of the text speaking of a curse, and then self-immolates. Nicholas magically springs back to life, restored by the rays from Seth’s eyes. Grant rigs his communicator to resonate with the stone columns of the buried temple and bring it all crashing down, once the cultists have turned on Selim and dumped him into the sand pit. The team climbs out and watches as the lost temple collapses and millions of archaeologists cry out in protest and are suddenly silenced.
And Peter Graves delivers his final words in the role of Jim Phelps: “Present-day evil has joined ancient evil. Both of them lost in the sands of time.” He deserved better. Although I guess it’s not as bad as what the character of Phelps has coming for him in the movie — but that’s for a later post.
Oh, wow, so many, many things wrong with this episode. First off, the portrayal of Egypt. The extent of Hayes’s research seemed to be watching some old movies. Okay, granted, the age of the pharaohs was pretty much the last time prior to the modern age when Egypt was an independent nation, rather than a portion of someone else’s empire (whether Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Ottoman, or British), so maybe it’s not completely out of the question that a rabid Egyptian nationalist would look back to those times for inspiration, rather than to Egypt’s more recent, 1400-year-long history as an Islamic society. But the three named characters, supposedly living in modern, majority-Arab Egypt, are named Horus, Serapis, and Karnak, after two ancient Egyptian gods and an ancient temple site. Hayes didn’t even bother to give them names that residents of present-day Egypt might actually have. And here’s a fun fact: The population of Egypt is about 90-91 percent Muslim and 9-10 percent Christian, mostly Coptic Orthodox. There’s also a smattering of Baha’ists and Jews. A nationalist looking to mobilize the Egyptian people to reclaim their greatness as a world power wouldn’t win a lot of support by invoking an ancient faith that pretty much nobody in Egypt actually follows anymore. Maybe one deluded museum director who got too buried in his work (no pun intended) might end up with such an obsession, but I doubt he’d be able to gather an army of Seth-worshipping murder cultists.
Also, painting Set/Seth as a “god of evil” and murder is just the usual propaganda that Christendom has used to demonize other religions. Set was a god associated with chaos, violence, and storms (also the desert and foreigners), but played an important positive role in Egyptian religion as well; though he had killed his brother Horus, that was part of the necessary cycle of death and resurrection, and both gods functioned as counterparts in a cosmic balance like the yin and yang. Now, I will grant that the episode ended with the team convincing the cultists that Selim’s portrayal of Seth as a murder god was slanted and incomplete. But that was just a ploy, and Jim was pretty adamant about Seth being pure evil. So I can’t really give the episode credit for that.
It’s not a completely awful episode, just a silly one with a lazy, cartoony view of a foreign culture. Like “The Gunslinger,” it seemed to be motivated by a desire to do a genre pastiche, this time of mummy movies and Indiana Jones ancient-cult stuff. That gave it a fanciful quality rather far removed from what we generally think of as Mission: Impossible. But I’ll give it this: It finally breaks the trend of episodes where the team has no advance plan beyond “get in and wander around trying to find stuff out.” Yes, the plan has a number of contrived setbacks and improvisations, but there’s also a strategy being played out from the beginning, with the fake tomb and the scroll and the roles the team adopts. Although it’s a little unclear what the original endgame was planned to be, and contrived that the team’s advanced preparations meshed so neatly with random happenstance. Oh, and Davis’s music is back to cliche, with the same old “Egyptian” sound we’ve heard in a thousand movies and cartoons.
The one last thing on the DVD box set, aside from promos for a few of the episodes, is a Holiday Promo. Santa Claus rides up to his North-Pole home in his sleigh and finds a disc-player box in his mail basket, or something. He opens it up without needing a thumbprint scan — well, he is Santa Claus, after all — and the screen displays an image of the team wishing the viewers a merry Christmas. Santa walks away, but the disc does not self-destruct. I guess Santa already knows what his mission is.
Overview to follow!
“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.
“Deadly Harvest”: Written by Jan Sardi. We open in Kansas, where a vaguely Middle Eastern scientist named Jared (Nick Carrafa) is irradiating some seeds with “Danger: Laser Radiation,” and is then interrupted by Laurel, a beautiful blond woman he’s clearly romantically involved with. He gets a call from someone named Jouseff, and once he thinks he’s alone, he tells the man that he’s perfected the virus, which Jouseff wants deployed immediately. But Laurel is listening in on the extension, and he catches her. They have a rather clumsy fight, but she gives a good showing for a while; their fight starts a fire in the lab and he eventually impales her on something, but with her dying breath she traps him inside the “Danger: Laser Radiation” chamber and his image goes all wavery as he screams. Cut from the fire in the lab to the match at the start of the titles.
Then we’re not in Kansas anymore, because Jim is at the San Francisco Zoo (allegedly) to get the disc from a zookeeper who’s really beautiful but a really bad actress. I was distracted by the polar bears behind Jim as he listened, but the gist of it is that Jouseff (Ritchie Singer) is a minister from a country called Orandaq and also a terrorist; Jared developed a “genetic virus” that would wipe out a nation’s entire wheat crop, and only the fire postponed its release in the US. Jared survived with horrible scarring and needed plastic surgery for his face — which should be convenient for Nicholas, I’m guessing at this point. The mission is to stop the virus, of course. Oh, look, it’s a poly bear!
We’re back to Jim’s apartment again, and it’s another old-school type of briefing where the team already knows the plan. Turns out Laurel’s death has been covered up so Shannon can take her place. Jouseff (weird spelling, but that’s what the captions say — and his full name is inexplicably “Jouseff K.”) is coming to the US to retrieve Jared, and of course Nicholas is hidden under the bandages, with Grant as the doctor explaining the extensive facial reconstruction to Jouseff after Max sneaks out the real Jared. Jouseff insists on taking “Jared” back home right away, and Nicholas insists on bringing “Laurel” (Shannon) with him. Once they get there and the bandages come off, Jouseff is initially suspicious of the “changed” face underneath, but Nick and Shannon sell it. Nicholas is wearing fake fingerprints to help convince Jouseff. Later, he and Shannon take a walk through Jouseff’s compound, and his glasses have a microcamera and LCD display so Grant can see what Nicholas sees and text him instructions. This intel gives Grant an idea for breaking himself and Max into the compound so Max can find a way to destroy the deadly wheat crop. It involves hiding Max in a truck full of wheat with a rebreather, something Grant quips “goes totally against your grain.”
Grant also swipes a personnel file so he can text Nicholas data on Jared’s coworkers — one of whom, Isfahan, turns out to be an old flame who resents Shannon. Once Shannon’s alone in the lab, she swaps out the deadly seeds for fakes, but hides inside the laser chamber when Isfahan comes back, and Isfahan closes the door and traps Shannon in there by accident, rendering the whole jealousy beat rather pointless. Shannon has her walkie and calls Jim and Grant, who text Nicholas, who has to contrive a way to save Shannon without letting anyone know she’s in danger, so he has to cut it really close.
Then Nicholas and Shannon erase Jared’s research, which Isfahan discovers, leading to their arrest. This was part of the plan. Max puts gasoline in the sprinkler system to immolate the wheat crop, but he gets in a fight with a guard and his timing device is destroyed — so Jim tells him via communicator how to construct an old-school timer, a bucket hung from the sprinkler with a slow trickle of gasoline falling into it, and tied to a light fixture so that when it gives way, it will pull out the fixture and create sparks to ignite the gasoline. Meanwhile, the speedy and corrupt Orandaq justice system puts Nicholas on trial for sabotaging the plan to give the country a superweapon (with Shannon as a witness for the prosecution), but Jim finally deals himself into the game as an Amnesty International attorney sent to represent Shannon and, upon learning she’s just a witness, offers to represent “Jared” instead. In so doing, he rather heavy-handedly turns suspicion against Jouseff as the saboteur, which would never fly in a legitimate court of law, but the presiding general is basically the “I’m going to allow this” judge from Futurama, okay with every bit of irregular procedure. Maybe he’s so paranoid that it primes him to assume the worst of Jouseff, or maybe he just wants to punish Jouseff for his failure (like Jouseff laser-executed Isfahan earlier for failing to keep the files from being erased). But Nicholas plays along and “confesses” that, yes, he sabotaged the project, but did so under Jouseff’s orders. Once the lab blows up, the general orders the guards to take Jouseff away for execution and take Nicholas and Shannon to prison, but the guards on the latter are Max and Grant in keffiyehs, so the team walks away intact.
A workmanlike episode, a pretty solid M:I caper with a couple of legitimate setbacks for the heroes to overcome, though nothing too serious. Aside from the usual tendency to make Shannon a damsel in distress, and the use of the Arab-terrorist stereotype which was already a tired cliche even back in January 1990 when this debuted, the main drawback is the weakness of Jim’s strategy to turn suspicion against Jouseff in the trial. But as I said, that could perhaps be justified in a guilty-until-proven-innocent system like this one.
“Cargo Cult”: Written by Dale Duguid. At a gold mine in a place called New Belgium, we meet — holy cow, it’s Crais from Farscape! Lani John Tupu plays Michael Otagi, the commissioner of the territory, and his henchman shows him a truck full of corpses, whose disposal they have to put off because there’s a territorial health inspector on site. The inspector hugely overacts his outrage at finding cyanide in use at the gold mine, poisoning the indigenous population, but Crais saves us from any more painful overacting by forcing the inspector to drink his own cyanide sample.
At a church supposedly in San Francisco, Jim trades code phrases with an organist playing Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, which, as every TV/film viewer knows, is the one and only piece of pipe organ music ever composed by anyone, ever. The mission is to stop the poisoning of the “simple hill folk” of New Belgium, one of the last surviving Stone Age populations, from the deadly mining practices the corrupt New Belgium government turns a blind eye to. At Jim’s apartment, he and Grant are briefing Nicholas and Shannon: Crais — err, Otagi — has been building a bridge that will let him get heavy machinery across to the mine, but Max, who’s already been embedded in the mining camp, has been unable to find a way across the temporary wooden bridge to find out what’s on the other side, because apparently security is really tight. Remember this, folks.
Jim takes the place of a currency broker that the IMF has arranged for Interpol to arrest, with Grant as his bodyguard. The miners are paid in gold, and they’re there to swap it for negotiable currency. There’s a bit of business about Crais’s henchman — who’s actually called Bull — being upset that Jim and Grant are gouging them on the exchange rate. Then Nicholas and Shannon show up as vulcanologists, with permission from the government to go across the bridge to study the volcano, which the Stone Age hill people worship as a god. Somehow it didn’t occur to Jim until this moment that Shannon could be in trouble coming into a camp full of men who haven’t seen a woman in months. He orders Max to get Shannon out of there quickly, but somehow this entails starting a fistfight with Bull, and Shannon nearly gets molested in the resulting melee until Grant fires his Uzi to calm things down. Crais — err, Otagi — approves the order to let Nicholas and Shannon across the bridge, and when Max raises an objection to make it look good, Otagi orders Max to go with them. Jim mutters to Grant that this is too easy.
No sooner does our trio cross the bridge that they’re surrounded by spear-carrying, chalk-covered tribesmen and imprisoned in the village, where they discover Regehr (Adrian Wright), a crashed aviator who’s gotten the villagers to worship him as a cargo-cult-style deity and is working with Otagi to exploit the villagers as slave labor. We’re supposed to be outraged at the racist exploitation of a noble indigenous people, but the villagers are portrayed as the worst kind of television cliche of mindless, bloodthirsty, chanting primitives. Before long, when Regehr complains to Otagi about how quickly his villagers are dying off, Otagi suggests appeasing them with a sacrifice of their captives — though Regehr intends to keep Shannon and make her his goddess wife. He doesn’t consider her consent to be an issue, as we see when he paws at her inside the crashed plane where he lives. It’s unclear why she doesn’t just kick his ass right then and there.
So Jim and Grant are worried when the others don’t report in — for the first time, as far as I recall, their mini-walkie-talkies are named onscreen as “communicators” — and Grant manages to get across the supposedly impassable bridge quite easily by hiding in the truck when Otagi and Bull bring over some more cyanide. He finds the others and then goes to their abandoned truck, where he retrieves a tranquilizer-dart rifle which he uses to knock out some of the villagers, with Nick and Max playing along to make it look like they’re doing it with their supernatural power. Once the men are reunited, they cross the supposedly impassable bridge twice between scenes to pick up Jim and bring him across. They need a plan to rescue Shannon, since now that Regehr has lost face, Otagi suggests he blame his setback on the “witch” Shannon and have her sacrificed to appease the volcano god.
Now, Jim says the key is to turn the villagers against Regehr and Otagi. But heaven forbid that should involve actually engaging with them as people and helping them take responsibility for solving their own problems. Of course not. They’re subhuman primitives too stupid to reason, so the solution is to manipulate and trick them the same way the bad guys are.
So Jim and the others then go back across the supposedly impassable bridge to the camp to get some explosives to fake a volcanic eruption, then the younger men go back across again. Grant goes to get a laser projector out of the same compartment where the dart gun was, even though it manifestly wasn’t there before. It’s magic! He’s somehow able to modify it into a hologram generator even though it apparently wasn’t designed for that.
Then Jim convinces Otagi to take him across the bridge (though why he’d need to when it’s so damn easy is unclear). Otagi takes him prisoner, though, and intends to throw him into the sacrifice as a sorcerer. So now Jim and Shannon are surrounded by spear-carrying tribesmen. But conveniently, the darts Grant used only knock people out for exactly four hours to the second, independent of individual body mass or metabolism, so Jim is able to wave his hand over the “dead” tribesmen and return them to life. And then they blow the dynamite in the volcano crater — causing all the miners to evacuate the camp, leaving Max free to rig the cyanide shed to blow up — and Grant projects an image of his face onto the smoke (makes more sense than their usual hologram-in-midair tricks) while Nicholas uses Regehr’s PA equipment (which he used to fake volcanic rumblings from the displeased god) to play his voice telling the tribesmen to let the prisoners go and turn against Regehr. So the team gets away, and then Regehr and Otagi get away in their truck, which just happens to be going across the bridge when the explosion goes off, and in a mix of bad bluescreen shots and a mediocre miniature shot, the bad guys fall to their fiery doom. (Not to worry — Grant says the explosion will “ionize the cyanide to 2000 degrees,” turning it into harmless smoke. Although I think this is completely untrue: “Sodium cyanide is not combustible itself, but contact with acids releases highly flammable hydrogen cyanide gas. Fire may produce irritating or poisonous gases. Runoff from fire control water may give off poisonous gases.” This is supposed to make things better for the locals??) Jim is pleased that the hill people will again be “untouched by man.” So, um, they don’t qualify as “man”?
Ohh, this one was painful. First off, let’s be clear about one thing: The portrayal here of a “cargo cult” as a bunch of foolish, superstitious primitives worshipping white men and the products of their civilization as divine because they’re so incomprehensibly advanced, and thus reduced to hapless pawns of any white or civilized person with an agenda, is grotesquely wrong. Cargo cults were founded by members of Melanesian cultures as a way of co-opting the material wealth of colonizing civilizations as a symbol for reasserting their own cultural autonomy and agency; as Wikipedia puts it, “Since the modern manufacturing process is unknown to them, members, leaders, and prophets of the cults maintain that the manufactured goods of the non-native culture have been created by spiritual means, such as through their deities and ancestors. These goods are intended for the local indigenous people, but the foreigners have unfairly gained control of these objects through malice or mistake.” So far from being blind submission to superior outsiders, it’s a reaction against their material superiority, an attempt to claim their goods and symbols for indigenous use and restore the traditional social order that contact has disrupted.
Now, the horrible racial condescension, the thoughtless dehumanization of the people who were supposedly being saved and protected, was bad enough — and only slightly mollified by the fact that the mastermind of their exploitation was played by a part-Samoan actor. And the treatment of Shannon made it even worse. I’ve talked about how often she’s cast as the damsel in distress, but she’s never spent the majority of an episode under the ongoing threat of rape before. But the rest of the episode doesn’t work either. It mostly ceases to be an M:I episode after the first act, becoming more of a cliched action plot out of a B-movie. Going through all the usual ritual to set up the team’s plan seems rather pointless when the plan is scuttled so early on; maybe they should’ve taken a cue from the fifth-season episodes that started in medias res with the plan already underway. And so much about the story is inconsistent — first the bridge is impassable and what’s happening on the other side is a total mystery, but as soon as the audience is let in on the secret, the commute across the bridge becomes effortless. Also, Regehr and Otagi’s men are able to command the villagers in English, yet at other points, the team members are able to carry on conversations in English without the adjacent villagers knowing what they’re saying. The villagers are props rather than people, so their ability to comprehend is at the convenience of the writer. This is a bad episode on every level, but the racism is enough to unseat “The Devils” and earn “Cargo Cult” the title of worst episode ever.
At least, I hope this is as bad as it gets. Four more to go…
“Banshee”: Writer Ted Roberts takes us to the land of Irish stereotypes and fake accents, Bally-Na-Gragh in Northern Ireland, where jaunty, cliched Irish music plays and tweedy Mr. O’Rourke (Rob Steele) actually says “Top o’ the mornin’ to ye” when greeting a young woman leading various old people–from both sides of the historic Protestant-Catholic conflict–on a trip in a tour bus. O’Rourke gives her a crate full of beers, but one of them has a bomb in it. He seems cheerful about this at the time, but later, when he hooks up with his boss Brian McCarron (Peter Adams) to watch the pensioners go to their reward, he laments that there’s no luck in harmin’ old people, whereupon McCarron tells him he’s a superstitious fool, and already I can practically sense Jim’s team warming up their hologram generators.
At a model train yard (the big kind), Jim gets the disc and learns that the bombing has rekindled sectarian tensions (which this 1989 episode optimistically suggested had been mostly resolved already), with the sides blaming each other for the act of terrorism, and that McCarron is an arms dealer suspected of staging the bombing to bolster his business. Jim’s mission is to “bring McCarron to justice, end his trade in arms, and bring the warring factions of Bally-Na-Gragh to the conference table.” Anything else while you’re at it?
The team sets up what Nicholas calls a “command post” in an automated lighthouse before the briefing scene, which introduces two young firebrands, Skelton and Carney, who represent the rival sides in microcosm — it doesn’t matter which is which, and their role is fairly token. They even clash in McCarron’s pub and are warned by O’Rourke to stay on opposite sides of a line — yes, there’s an actual line down the middle. Shannon in the pub as a singer, and is the only team member faking an Irish accent, which I’d say isn’t very good if it weren’t for the fact that none of them are, with Adams’s accent as McCarron being the worst of all. Nicholas is her manager, but that doesn’t really matter since it’s just to get him in the door. Jim and Max show up and offer a wager for anyone who wants to fight Max, and Grant comes in as a surly sailor and takes the bet. The fight is a distraction for Nicholas to spy on McCarron as he takes one of the two token firebrands to the cellar to sell him guns, which he’s already done for the other guy. What elaborate, clever IMF spy technique does Nicholas use to spy on the meeting? He peeks through the cellar window. After he sees how McCarron locks his hidden cache, Nick moves in to sabotage all the guns. Surprising that Nicholas is doing the “Barney” work while Grant is doing the “Rollin” work, an inversion of their original roles. More evidence that the producers were recognizing Phil Morris as the MVP of the show. But Shannon’s also using the distraction to plant speakers and other gimmicks in the tavern.
So afterward, Jim lets drop to McCarron that he deals in arms, and McC takes the bait readily, while Shannon regales the superstitious O’Rourke with tales of how if old people are murdered, being so close to death as it is, they’re given “the key” to come back and haunt people. It’s a weird idea, that being near death anyway would make it more outrageous to be killed — not that I think anyone’s life is worth less than anyone else’s, of course, but if someone did believe some lives were worth more, you’d think they’d favor people who had more life expectancy to be deprived of. But that’s beside the point here, since O’Rourke is basically a suggestible idiot who’ll believe any superstition even if it’s one he’s never heard before. Case in point: When Grant rejects Jim and McCarron’s offer to go into the arms business and storms off, McC says he knows too much, and when Jim sends Max out to fake-kill Grant, McC orders O’Rourke along to finish the job, preparing to shoot him a second time after Max has fake-shot him once. So, to prevent that, Max improvises a superstition that “It’s bad luck to kill a black man.” Really, Max? You went there? Anyway, O’Rourke swallows this invented superstition hook, line, and sinker, and lets Max deliver the second (fake) shot. That night, the team regales O’Rourke with holograms of Shannon as a banshee, and he completely falls apart and begs for mercy. This cowardly idiot is the easiest mark the IMF has ever taken on. McCarron comes down to see what O’Rourke is blathering about and doesn’t believe him.
Later, Max and Nicholas convince both the firebrands to come to the lighthouse to buy arms, and Shannon tips McC off, prompting him to arrange with O’R to go kill them both. The team knocks the firebrands out and handcuffs them together to a table, telling them they can either fight or talk. They also arrange for McCarron’s car to break down near an old church, and hurl the banshee illusion at him and O’Rourke, though where the projectors are hidden is unrevealed. O’Rourke breaks easily and runs off, loudly and stiltedly declaring his intention to warn the firebrands, which just gets him a shotgun blast in the back. But McC turns out to be just as superstitious all of a sudden, since the banshee illusion, plus a recording of the song the old folks were singing when they died (how did the team know what song they were singing, and how did they get a recording of it?), drives him to the old church, where he pleads for sanctuary. Jim shows up as the driver of the carriage of the dead and prompts McC to confess that he killed the pensioners to sell arms, a confession that the firebrands are shown live on video, leading them to instantly set aside generations of grudges and agree to talk, after they’ve taken care of McCarron.
Wow, this was bad. It was broad and caricatured, the marks were too easy, the accents and music were too stereotyped, and the video effects were staggeringly awful, especially a matte shot of the lighthouse at night with a stormy sky roughly matted in and an animated yellow lighthouse beam that looked kind of like a War of the Worlds heat ray.
There’s some disagreement over the music credit; the episode itself credits Davis as usual, but IMDb credits Neil Argo, also giving him an “additional music – uncredited” listing for 16 episodes of the series. I don’t know what to make of that. Aside from the hokey “Irish” music, the score doesn’t sound any different from the usual, using Davis’s truncated version of “The Plot.” Perhaps Argo was Davis’s orchestrator or assistant, and on this one he did the bulk of the work himself?
“For Art’s Sake”: At a New York gallery, a ninja-attired art thief descends on a rope and uses infrared goggles to see the lasers protecting a painting — your standard TV/movie laser grid designed with nice big gaps that thieves can get through, instead of something sensible like motion detectors covering the whole space in front of the painting — and he uses a fancy cane with an extending knife blade to cut the painting out of its frame (somehow he only has to cut the sides and not the top and bottom). A guard interrupts, and he uses the knife cane as a spear to kill the guard. Then he takes off the mask, and it’s Alex Cord — the first actor to play Dylan Hunt in Gene Roddenberry’s Genesis II pilot movie, which I’ve reviewed on this site. As it happens, this episode’s writer John Whelpley would later write several episodes for the later incarnation of Dylan Hunt in Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda. Anyway, Cord flips his black ninja jacket (ninjacket?) around to become a white tuxedo jacket, hides the rolled-up painting in his cane, and goes downstairs to the party that’s already underway in the gallery. Wait a minute — if he was already a guest at the party and could freely come and go, why did he need to do the ninja-break-in thing? (Mainly so we’d recognize him in ninja gear later in the episode, I suppose, but it’s still awkward.)
At a ballet class, Jim does the code phrase exchange with an instructor played by Chelsea Brown, who was the first murdered IMF veteran in last season’s “Reprisal.” (By the way, the IMDb entry for this episode misspells her name as “Shelsea Brown,” so that Chelsea Brown is not credited for this appearance on her own page. If anyone reading this has IMDb editing privileges, could you please fix this?) Turns out Cord’s character is a hotelier named Travers, who’s believed to have made his fortune through art thievery. He’s colluding with Ocha (David Bradshaw), the minister of culture (read: propaganda) of the Latin American country of San Marcos; the stolen painting is their national treasure, a painting of their namesake patron saint, and their president wants it destroyed while on display in America so the US will be embarrassed. The mission is to get it back and bring Travers to justice.
Doing the briefing in the “command post” instead of Jim’s apartment seems to be a steady thing now, but for once it’s a traditional briefing scene where the team already knows most of the basics and they’re just touching base, clarifying details, and showing off Collier gadgetry whose purpose the audience doesn’t yet know. Shannon goes in as an art buyer who catches Travers’s eye (she’s got bigger ’80s hair than usual, but it looks good on her), letting him outbid her on a painting but making it costly to beat her. That gets him interested, among other things (though for once she’s not leading with her cleavage). Meanwhile, Max and Grant break into Travers’s penthouse by climbing up on top of an elevator to reach his private level, and seeing Grant climbing in an elevator shaft felt kind of like old times with Barney, though it was brief. They bug his computer and download the memory of his fax machine (interesting), but find no stash of art, so they have to try another scheme.
While entertaining Shannon at the museum, Travers encounters Ocha and takes him aside, threatening to renege on his deal unless the San Marcos president gives him coastal land for a hotel. Travers spots Shannon eavesdropping and threatens her, until she talks herself out of it. She lets him figure out that she’s a fence, and having learned that he’s totally obsessed with Edgar Degas, she lets on that she knows the whereabouts of an unknown Degas. The purpose of Grant’s gadget, a “simulator,” is to use a computer program to extrapolate the essentials of Degas’s style and use a, err, paint-jet printer to create a convincing Degas pastiche to tempt Travers.
Jim, playing the painting’s owner, meets with Travers and Shannon in a faked Central Park, with an impressionistic rendering of the Manhattan skyline matted in over the far side of a lake — more resembling the view of the skyline from somewhere in New Jersey than Central Park (and way on the right, I think they’ve put the Empire State Building right next to the World Trade Center). And in nearer reverse-angle shots, there’s a row of low houses beyond the edge of the park.
Anyway, Travers is convinced enough by the painting to call in a discreet appraiser to confirm it, but Jim holds out for an unreasonably high price, forcing Travers to steal it later on — coming upon Shannon in the bubble bath and apparently stabbing her to death, though she had a knife-proof vest and blood packs on under the bubbles. The faux Degas has a tracking device, and the team follows Travers down into the maintenance levels under his hotel in hopes of finding his secret gallery. Amazingly, John E. Davis uses nearly the complete melody of Schifrin’s “The Plot” to score this portion, leaving off only the last three bars. I think it’s the first time he’s ever used that much of it. But the team loses the signal when Travers enters his vault-like gallery. A new plan is needed!
So NYPD captain Jim and Interpol agent Max go to Ocha, telling him the painting has been recovered. An angered Ocha calls Travers, who assures him that he still has the original and whatever’s been found must be a forgery, inviting Ocha to come see for himself. The team uses an entertaining bit of slapstick to deal with Ocha: dog-walker Shannon tangles his legs in her leashes, so he falls down behind Grant’s hot dog stand, which opens up to reveal Nicholas disguised as Ocha, who trank-darts him and swaps places with him in seconds, all under his unwitting chauffeur’s nose. So Travers shows his private gallery to Nicholas instead. (And Bradshaw is another actor who’s well cast as someone Nicholas is impersonating, having a similar facial structure.) Nick takes photos of everything with his lapel-pin camera, but Travers won’t let him take the St. Marcos painting without a signed document giving him the coastal land. And without Travers’s palmprint, nobody can get to the painting without a booby trap exploding. Another new plan is needed!
So Grant and Max break into the gallery when Travers isn’t there (Nick caught the access code), Grant planting flame bars and hologram generators while Max recovers the stolen art and replaces them with hastily printed copies. Jim and Nicholas release the real Ocha, telling him he hit his head on the sidewalk when he fell, and unleash him on Travers. When he arrives, they start the fake fire and set off the vault alarm, leading Travers and Ocha down to find the gallery seemingly burning. Ocha sees that Travers cares most about the Degas, so he threatens to destroy it unless he gets the St. Marcos painting. Travers gives hims that painting, and Ocha, who wants it destroyed, conveniently tosses it into the holographic fire (lucky break that he didn’t aim for one of the real fires). Travers kills him with the knife-cane, and the team assembles before him to gloat and adds insult to injury by igniting the fake Degas before leaving him for the cops to find.
This is a fun episode, one of the most entertaining of the season, with an intricate plot, some interesting setbacks requiring readjustment on Jim’s part, some pleasantly old-school M:I touches, and a nicely sexy turn by Shannon (although she still gets damsel-in-distressed a bit more than I like). But my main problem with it arises from something that I was wondering about from the start and that was actually spelled out in dialogue in the episode. When Ocha calls Travers after the Interpol scam, he says that if the American government recovers the painting rather than losing it, then San Marcos will fail to score its propaganda points and the plan will be ruined. Okay, so in that case, why is the American government using an IMF team whose involvement will be disavowed if it’s discovered? As with “The Haunting” last season, this is a case where you’d think the government would want its involvement openly known. So this is one of those cases that doesn’t really make sense as an IMF mission — especially with the disavowal disclaimer included in the briefing, something that the original series usually skipped in episodes dealing with domestic criminal cases.
“Target Earth” is an oddly sci-fi name for an episode of this series, but it’s written by former Star Trek scribe Stephen Kandel — also the only writer other than Walter Brough to contribute to both the original and revival series, having been the seventh season’s story editor and scripting the excellent “The Deal” and “The Question” as well as the more disappointing “Incarnate” and “The Fountain,” plus the okay “Movie” and “The Fighter.”
We’re back in Australia again, at what’s supposedly the Outback launch site of the first privately built and operated space shuttle — although the private shuttle looks exactly like the American one so they can use the stock footage. There’s a weird shot panning down what looks like a life-sized wall mural of the shuttle (visibly 2-D) to where a blonde woman, Alina (Gosia Dobrowolska), is dragging an unconscious man under the shuttle’s rockets. Alina then goes to Mission Control, where they’re puzzled that the pilot is missing this important test firing, and she cheerfully orders the rocket ignition that vaporizes that very pilot.
Jim’s briefing today is by Robert Louis Stevenson, or at least that’s where he finds it shelved once a librarian directs him there. The shuttle, called Frontier One and operated by the Eurospace Consortium (whose initials are ESS for some reason), is carrying a powerful laser for destroying orbital debris, taking mineral samples, and nice stuff like that, but the IMF suspects that the disappearance and suspected murder of the pilot was part of a plan to take over the shuttle for terrorist purposes. They don’t know of a specific group or individual behind this, they’re just speculating, but they’re still sending in Jim’s team to find out, an oddly nebulous mission profile for them. And I hope the self-destructing disc didn’t start a fire in the book stacks.
The apartment scene establishes that Jim has done something I’ve often thought would be a good idea: Instead of having everyone just show up on the same day, he’s already had Grant and Shannon embedded at the ESS center for three weeks by the time he briefs Nicholas and Max — Grant as one of the scientists, Shannon as one of the two candidates for replacement pilot, with Grant coaching her through her radio earring. Jim goes in as a NASA observer, Max as a technician, and Nicholas as a doctor (or something) who’ll approve the winning candidate. Shannon has her hair pulled back in a severe bun to play a cool, competent professional, and I’ll be damned if it isn’t one of her sexiest looks yet. Anyway, her main competition is Rhine (Lewis Fitz-Gerald), and for some reason they’re competing in a piloting simulation in the actual shuttle cockpit, with Grant helping Shannon cheat to win. The simulation involves dodging asteroids, a situation that any space shuttle pilot would have little chance of ever encountering. It’s really unclear what the plan was going to be once they got Shannon the job; evidently they had no intention of having her actually fly the thing into space. Because they’re all shocked when Alina takes control and remotely launches the shuttle — which for some reason was fully fueled and powered up for launch even though it was just a simulation. Shannon Reed becomes the first IMF agent in space (that we know of!), and Rhine turns out to be a traitor, working for Robard (Eli Danker), a beret-wearing, chain-smoking revolutionary of unspecified origin whose band of soldiers storms in and takes over the command center. Robard is mad that Alina sent Shannon up with Rhine. She explains she figured Shannon was useful for her (cover identity’s) laser expertise, but Robard still kills Alina for taking initiative without clearing it with him.
Rhine uses the laser to blow up a communication satellite drifting past the shuttle’s viewports, even though those orbit 22,000 miles higher than any shuttle has ever gone. Robard threatens the world on TV, saying he’ll blow up all communications satellites unless America cedes control of a weapons satellite he intends to use to defend the borders of his own nation, which he doesn’t bother to identify. Cut to NORAD, where a general who’s poorly hiding his Australian accent orders a missile strike on the space center if they can’t resolve the problem otherwise.
Grant communicates with Shannon to get her to sabotage the laser, and she has to find ways to respond without tipping Rhine off that she’s talking to someone. (I remember when I first saw this episode, I had the idea that if I ever wrote an undercover agent in that kind of a situation, I’d have her, or him, establish a habit of muttering to herself under her breath, so that it wouldn’t seem suspicious when the need to communicate arose. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten around to using that idea, but it’s interesting what you remember after so long.) Anyway, the sabotage works, so Rhine makes her spacewalk to fix it — something her cover identity is trained in, but Shannon isn’t. Jim says Shannon is “gutsy enough,” as if that alone were sufficient qualification for performing an EVA. But her “spacewalk” consists of tiptoeing slowly across the set of the top of the shuttle — I guess it’s the old magnetic-boots dodge — and then standing next to the laser to fix it. After which her tether gets snagged (I guess it didn’t get the memo about guts equalling competence) so she has to unhook it, whereupon Rhine swings the laser around to knock into her (dude, you’re just gonna break it again!), and she goes spinning off into space like Sandra Bullock in Gravity. Except that when we come back from commercial, she’s suddenly stabilized, despite a complete lack of thrusters, and perfectly oriented so that purging her oxygen valve will jet her back to the shuttle. (I wonder, are spacesuits even designed to be able to purge oxygen? Seems kind of counterproductive.)
Meanwhile, Jim and Max have planted the notion that there are loose radioactive materials on the base — none of the techs bother to question this, perhaps because they sense these guys are helping them, or more likely because they’re extras who aren’t being paid to do dialogue. They fake a radioactive steam leak next to Robard, get him into the bio lab for decontamination, and use a rigged cigarette to knock him out so that Nicholas can impersonate him using the mask generator that Grant just happens to have with him even though they didn’t know they’d need it. Nicholas-as-Robard orders the troops to follow Max to a “bunker” against the missile strike, so Max can lock them up. Once Shannon knocks Rhine out by purging the airlock to suck him into it (more wasted oxygen) and locking him inside, she uses the shuttle’s relay to patch Jim into NORAD, where he gives his “government cryptonym” — US Alpha 716 Charlie — and tells the general the base is secure. (The general doesn’t actually confirm the cryptonym with anyone first, though.) Then it’s just a matter of Shannon single-handedly flying the shuttle home, which she somehow does effortlessly.
Okay, so the spacey stuff is rather ridiculous, the special effects are cheesy as hell, and Earth is never actually a target, unless you count the part of Earth that the ESS base was on, which was targeted by people on another part of Earth. Still, despite all that, this is a fairly good format-breaking episode of the type seen mainly in the fifth season, where the original mission (ill-defined though it was) is blown in the first act and the rest is all improvisation. Shannon continues her streak of being the team member most commonly placed in danger, but she’s also the one who must do the most single-handedly to resolve the situation, so it’s a strong showing for her. And even John E. Davis’s music is relatively interesting for a change, since he’s doing some more spacey stuff, a bit grander than his usual scoring. All in all, I rather enjoyed it, though parts of it made me wince.
“The Fuehrer’s Children”: Or perhaps “Fuhrer’s,” as it’s spelled on the DVDs. The first of two episodes written by supervising producer Frank Abatemarco, who would later write Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s abysmal “Man of the People,” but then redeem himself by co-writing the classic “Chain of Command” 2-parter.
We open in Oregon where white supremacist Richard Kester is holding a meeting of his White People’s Coalition and spewing a nauseatingly vicious racist screed (complete with the n-word) to his eager followers. Kester is played by Albert Salmi, who was such a ubiquitous character actor in the ’60s that I’m surprised this is his first M:I appearance. Anyway, Kester’s daughter Eva (Nancy Black) informs him that there’s a “race traitor” in their midst, a government agent they capture and hang.
Peter Graves is showing off his equestrian skills again, for Jim gets the disc at a show-jumping ground from a fellow rider. It’s hidden in a haystack by a jumping fence — again with the flammable locations for the self-destructing discs! But “flammable” is the word, for Kester’s WPC is the most violent Neo-Nazi faction around, and he’s meeting in Germany with other international Neo-Nazi groups to unite them under his leadership and start a global race war. The mission is to discredit him and undermine the Neo-Nazi movements.
Jim sets Shannon up as a manager at the inn near Hamburg where the meeting is being held, while Jim himself takes the place of a real South African computer expert Kester has reached out to for help (no word on how they intercepted the real guy, who looks nothing like Jim). The others are basically responsible for tracking down the “secret weapon” Kester supposedly has to support his cause. There’s a setback when Eva catches Grant bugging Kester’s suite just before Kester arrives. Jim is fortunately there too, and is able to talk Kester out of shooting Grant then and there, but they lock him up to be the prey for a special “hunt” the next day.
Then Kester goes out to a freighter he’s owned for a dozen years, just sailed in from the Philippines. Max, Nicholas, and Shannon have already come onto the ship as customs inspectors, and here’s a blast from the past: Their cover was that they were looking for contamination by the Mediterranean fruit fly virus — a slightly garbled reference to the problems that the US and other nations had in the 1980s with infestations of the invasive “medfly” species (the actual flies themselves, not a virus), including a deliberate release of medflies in California as an ecoterrorist act in the summer of ’89, just before this season of the show. Anyway, Nicholas follows Kester and discovers his “secret weapon”: Horrifyingly, it’s a room full of young boys that he’s held captive on this ship since abducting them as infants, raising them to know nothing but his Nazi propaganda, the perfect Hitler Youth. They’ve been trained by Kester’s man Vogel (John Bell), who leads them in singing a Nazi song (a familiar one, but I can’t place it) in their sweet little boys’-choir voices, while Nicholas and Shannon look on in horror through a window. It’s really rather horrific.
Meanwhile, Kester talks to Jim about setting up a computer network to allow hate groups to communicate worldwide. Oh, for the days when that was still science fiction. Jim proposes connecting it to the world’s financial network, both because it’s the most secure and because it would let him set up a program to embezzle insignificant amounts from many banks and thereby steal a lot of money undetected. To make this work, though, the team needs to rescue Grant, who’s been strung up by his feet by Vogel and had a tracker put around his neck so the kids can easily find him — quite an unsporting “hunt,” though that’s the least of the things wrong with it. Nicholas and Shannon knock out Vogel and Eva, and Nicholas somehow has a Vogel mask all handy and intercepts the boys before they can shoot Grant full of crossbow bolts. Then they take the boys back to their cabin and Grant introduces himself as a friendly human being and begins to show them that what they’ve been taught all their lives is a lie. It doesn’t prove hard at all to change their minds once they’re faced with the benign truth.
So Jim is able to make the funds transfer successfully (or Grant is, doing it remotely so it looks like Jim did it), and all the Neo-Nazi leaders agree to put their financial info on the special cards he hands out. This will let the team bankrupt their organizations. And Eva almost escapes, but Shannon chases her down and recaptures her, while Grant and Nicholas-as-Vogel give the kiddies a lesson about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. So that night, when Kester proudly presents his Hitler Youth to the waiting Neo-Nazis, they begin singing a song about the Rev. Dr. King while Grant hijacks the video projection to show the “I have a dream” speech and clips of John and Bobby Kennedy, and Jim and Nicholas slip out in the tumult as the other, about-to-be-financially ruined Neo-Nazis turn violently on Kester.
Okay, so it’s hokey and unsubtle, but I love it. What Kester did to those children is probably the most horrific and sick thing any M:I villain has ever done, and it creates a sense of a more palpable threat from this group than you usually get from M:I villains. And while the racial message is kind of awkward, I love it that this becomes a story about rescuing and redeeming the children, about good ideas winning out over evil ones. It gives it a more optimistic feel than M:I episodes usually have. And seeing Nazis get their comeuppance never gets old. The climax reminds me of a line I wrote in Only Superhuman, about some of the things that Emerald Blair’s Freakshow gang did on behalf of persecuted transhumans: “They cracked the computer net of the Fourth Reich Neo-Nazi habitat, wiped their database, and replaced it all with endlessly looping video files of The Great Dictator, Casablanca, and The Producers.” I wonder if maybe I unconsciously remembered this episode when I wrote that.
“Countdown”: Written by Chip Hayes.
We meet religiously motivated terrorist Su Lin (Julie Ow) praying to a photo of her Dalai-Lama-like Holy One, who looks a lot like Nicholas in glasses and a pointy hat — oops, spoilers. A subordinate arrives in a truck with a stolen item, and when it turns out he peeked and saw what the item is, Su Lin kills him. Because it’s a French-made nuclear warhead. Jim has a one-sided code exchange with a mime in a park (praising his art, as if anyone would believe that), and the Voice on Disc tells him that Su Lin stole the warhead on behalf of General Xang Kai (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa in an eyepatch — IMDb calls him Vang Kai, but I’m going by the subtitles and the pronunciation). He’s one of several military strongmen ruling the fictitious and oddly Anglophone Asian country of Kangji (of course, all M:I foreigners speak accented English), and he plans to nuke the capital and blame it on America in order to kill off his competitors and seize absolute power. He got Su Lin to help him in exchange for a promise to rescind the Holy One’s exile. For some reason, Voice finds it necessary to describe Su Lin as “beautiful but deadly,” as well as encouraging Jim to stop the general’s “evil plan.” He’s in a melodramatic mood today. It’s also the first of three times in this act that she’ll be called beautiful or a beauty, though I don’t think she quite lives up to the hype.
The plan is to take advantage of Su Lin’s religious loyalties, but Jim warns the team that Xang Kai would kill her as casually as swatting a fly — and would do the same to any of them. But when Su Lin meets with the general and tells him where she hid the bomb, she points out that he won’t just kill her because he can’t know what plans for retribution she might already have in place. So she leaves intact — but Xang Kai tells his aide Major Chung (John O’Brien) to swap out her control keypad on the bomb for his own.
Su Lin plans to board a train to where the Holy One is staying. Nicholas rather crassly impersonates a Buddhist to convince a monk to tell him where that is, and Shannon arranges to make contact with Su Lin on the train, with Max running interference with Chung, who has orders to kill Su Lin if she seems to be making contact with anyone. The team rigs a track signal to make the train stop suddenly, and Shannon bumps into Su Lin and uses a knockout-needle ring on her. Su Lin wakes up in the hospital ward the team is using (they’ve convinced the hospital that they’re running an inoculation program), and is told she was in a train wreck that killed over a dozen followers of the Holy One. Grant plays a fellow patient, a mercenary who bonds with her in their mutual resentment of Chung (played by a masked Nicholas, who comes to threaten them both). He also uses the latest IMF gadget to digitally edit the general’s speeches to fake a news broadcast where he says he’s rescinding the Holy One’s exile so he can commiserate with the victims of the “tragedy.” Horrified that the general has tricked her into nuking her own religious leader, Su Lin convinces Grant to help her break out. The team contrives to let her escape with Grant, then track them to a shrine in the center of town,where the bomb is hidden. (It’s a shrine to past leaders, not the Buddhist temple.) Su Lin is dismayed to discover the keypad has been swapped out for a tamper-proof one she can’t disarm. Pulling at Grant’s lapels, just when it looks like they’re heading for a romance beat (since Grant is clearly into her), she exposes the tracker under his clothes, accuses him of being a spy for Xang Kai, wallops him good, and runs off screaming bloody vengeance against the general. Chung guns her down before Grant can catch up, and Grant grieves over her corpse. Hmm, I guess the “beautiful” part trumps the whole murdering-terrorist part.
So now the team needs a Plan B to get the general to deactivate the bomb. And it entails more crass manipulation of sincere believers, as Nicholas starts a rumor that the Holy One is at the shrine in order to get them to go there (right toward the bomb? Oh, nice, guys!), then briefly dresses up as the H.O. to make an appearance before the believers (complete with fake epicanthic folds — something I’d hoped they would’ve stopped doing by 1989). Jim has Grant use the video-editing software to make a tape of Su Lin telling the general that she’s stopped the bomb’s timer. This provokes Xang Kai and Chung to go to the shrine, where they find the bomb still counting down with minutes to spare, so the general is forced to enter his shutdown code. He and Chung conveniently incriminate themselves with their dialogue, which Grant’s bug broadcasts over the shrine speakers, leading to a people’s arrest of the bad guys and a “not with a bang but with a whimper” quip from Jim.
Okay, so there’s some cultural insensitivity and a few bits of silliness in this one, plus a labored attempt to set Su Lin up as a romantic interest for Grant, but mostly “Countdown” is a strong and effective episode, a solid M:I story with high stakes. It continues what’s evidently a trend this season to have the plans go awry and the team forced to improvise and adapt, but for once the adaptation led to a second clever caper rather than being an excuse for more conventional action storytelling, so it really feels like an authentic M:I story in the vein of the best of the original series. And it seems to me that the producers are building up Grant’s role to take more advantage of Phil Morris’s talent, since here he was in the key roleplaying capacity that would normally go to Nicholas. Morris continues to be the one cast member who gets the most chances to emote, and for once it’s not involving his father.
“War Games” is the last episode of the revival to be written by original series veteran Walter Brough. General Szabos (Kevin Miles) of the Eastern European socialist republic of Sardavia (as if M:I-verse Eastern Europe weren’t crowded enough already) is conducting war games, but a junior officer (later revealed to be a US agent) is asking questions about the amounts of live ammunition and such, suspecting there’s more going on. So Col. Garva (Lewis Fiander) contacts Szabos, who arranges to have the officer’s jeep blown up. Jim gets the briefing in a restored Rolls, learning that Szabos is using his war games as a cover for an impending invasion of neighboring Bucaraine — against the wishes of his own superiors in the Politburo — and has ballistic missiles ready to launch. The team has very little time to prevent the war. Fortunately, Szabos, like his “war hero” Hitler, is nuts for astrology, and that’s Shannon’s way in.
Jim and Nicholas play good cop/bad cop as UN observers of the war games (Jim sympathetic and appeasing, Nicholas suspicious and hostile) so they can get pictures of the big board in the war room and scans of the circuitry behind it (Nicholas’s pen is a digital camera, an advanced technology for 1989). Grant is their driver. Max tries to break into the military compound to find the hidden missiles, but an alert captain catches him promptly and interrogates him. Surprisingly, this turns out not to be part of the plan, but somehow Max and Grant already have the necessary tech to break him out (Max has a beacon in his coat button, and Grant has a tracker that turns into a gun that fires an explosive round and blows out the cell wall). They almost catch Grant when he hides Max in the limo’s trunk, but Max has hidden behind a false panel by the time the soldiers get the trunk open.
Meanwhile, Shannon is playing a countess related to the deposed royal family, and the haughty persona Jane Badler puts on was like seeing her play Diana from V once again, albeit with a faux accent. She makes subversive comments and insinuates knowing what the murdered officer/agent knew about the invasion plans, in order to get herself arrested, and then impresses Szabos with her astrological technobabble, convincing him that his auspicious horoscope was the result of his astrologer’s incompetence. I think this is mainly just to get his attention, since the key thing she does is to say the agent disarmed the missiles, so that Garva will go check on them and the team can follow him to them, whereupon they disarm the missiles themselves. Then Grant sneaks in behind the big board in the war room and rigs it so he can send false orders to the troops, making them retreat, while showing Szabos the invasion he wants to see. The one hitch is that Szabos has had Shannon taken out into the field to be a target. Max rescues her, but their jeep is being targeted, until Grant changes the target to Garva’s bunker. So much for Garva.
Grant makes the missiles self-destruct, but Szabos believes he’s successfully bombed the enemy and advanced across the border, and with the Rubicon crossed, he makes a statement on TV ordering the Bucarainians to surrender and promising to overthrow the Sardavian Politburo — who of course promptly come to arrest him while the team saunters away.
Not a bad one — a pretty classic type of M:I caper, and continuing the season’s practice of having things genuinely go wrong with the plans. That hasn’t happened this often since season 5. Still, I’m getting a little tired of Shannon being the damsel in distress. And Szabos is too broad a character, too irrational and easily fooled. On the other hand, while this borders on being the first supernatural-themed con of the season, there’s no attempt to use technology to fake supernatural occurrences, just a lot of empty talk about horoscopes that doesn’t really accomplish anything (just like actual astrology!). And John E. Davis finally deigns to work a few more notes of “The Plot” into his score, though it’s still just snippets.
“The Princess”: Written by Ted Roberts. We open with Grigor Caron (Robert Coleby) getting intel on the title princess from a nervous man who feels guilty about betraying his country — there’s some interesting dialogue and characterization bits in their exchange. Caron pays him with money in a briefcase that, predictably, blows him up. Jim gets the disc from a rowing coach who directs him to a racing shell, and we’re informed that the target is the princess of the tiny Monaco-like principality of Valence (pronounced the French way), an American ambassador’s daughter whose influence has persuaded her husband the prince to pull away from the Warsaw Pact and propose a US alliance. An Amurrica-hatin’ resistance called the Red Guard, led by Caron, intends to assassinate the princess as part of a terror campaign to prevent this. In the briefing, for once, Grant seems to be hearing things for the first time along with the rest, though Nicholas has some knowledge about Valence already. The princess refuses to leave the country because she’s sponsoring a film festival, so the team goes in as a film crew.
While movie-producer Jim and starlet Shannon schmooze at the festival, Nicholas — inexplicably using his full real name — makes contact with Caron and convinces him that he and Grant have a plan to mount an armored car heist. Since the Red Guard bankrupted itself hiring their assassin (and blowing up all that money in the teaser), this is an effective lure. They stage an actual armored car heist, orchestrated to ensure the guards are unharmed by using knockout gas, and then when Nicholas and Caron drive off in the hijacked car, the gas “accidentally” comes on again. Caron wakes up in the interrogation-cell set at Jim’s rented studio, and Jim and Max play brutal interrogators who “kill” Nicholas before Caron’s eyes, getting him to confess that he hired a noted international assassin called Coyote, whom he only knows through his female contact. Concluding they’ve learned all they can, Jim reveals the scam to Caron and has him taken away for the authorities to find. (I was surprised they didn’t just fake the entire armored-car heist, but I guess they wanted to implicate him in a real heist attempt to get him put away.)
Which leaves the new problem of identifying Coyote, and the beginning of the episode’s second caper. Two for the price of one! Grant researches Coyote and finds that though “he” leaves no evidence behind, all his assassinations are committed before large crowds; Coyote loves an audience. They decide to appeal to the assassin’s ego, so producer Jim announces that he’s abandoned the film he’d been touting before in order to do a new project based on the true story of the assassin Coyote — including the killer’s next crime, which writer Grant tells the press he’s been able to predict given all he knows about Coyote. A woman is watching — the “contact,” whom I’d already guessed was the real Coyote (Dale Stevens) — and she decides to pay them a visit and find out how much they do know.
Oddly, even though this whole thing was bait to lure in Coyote, Jim and the team are ill-prepared to respond when she takes the bait. It’s unclear what they actually planned to do, or why they didn’t anticipate that Coyote would be there waiting when they got back to their rented studio. The assassin prepares to shoot Jim, but Shannon senses the intruder and shoves Jim aside, taking the hit. Coyote then gets away without anyone seeing her. I was unclear on whether this was part of the scheme, but the next act begins with Shannon in the hospital and the team out of character, so somehow they really let the bad guy get ahead of them. Maybe it’s because they were forced to improvise, but Jim is usually so many steps ahead that this lapse is surprising. Anyway, Shannon’s in bad shape, so she can’t tell the team how she detected the intruder’s presence in a darkened room — except to mutter one word, “Camion.” I’d already guessed that Shannon smelled the assassin’s perfume, but I had the advantage of already knowing it was a woman. Grant and Max figure out that Camion is the name of that perfume through an Internet search — or since this was 1989, I guess it’s supposed to be a search of IMF Research’s database.
So Grant rigs a laser spectrometer to identify the unique chemical signature of that perfume interacting with Coyote’s skin chemistry (which he knows because she left some transfer traces on the things she touched at the studio). The plan is to scan every woman at the princess’s big speech — but gasp, Coyote is disguising herself as a male waiter! That’ll teach you to profile, Grant. But Grant catches a lucky break, since the “waiter” steps into the path of his spectrometer beam after planting a bomb on the podium. So Grant fingers her, the team chases after her, she jumps out a window, Grant throws the bomb out the same window, and she’s a victim of her own bomb — though her eyes are open and moving when we last see her, so it’s unclear whether she’s supposed to have died or not. Then there’s a very silly ’80s-ish jokey tag scene with Shannon and the team in the hospital.
Although there were some conceptual problems here, I really liked this one. There was some nice dialogue writing and characterization (still limited by today’s standards, but something), and I like these formula-breaking episodes where the team faces real crises and needs to adapt and improvise — even if lately the trend has been to use those as excuses for conventional action-adventure stuff, which was somewhat the case here. I would’ve preferred it if the second caper had actually played out longer rather than falling apart after the first move. Still, I found it enjoyable and effective. There was even a nice bit of music from Davis for a change, accompanying the parallel scenes of the assassin preparing her bomb and Grant explaining his spectroscope.
“Command Performance”: Written by Robert Brennan, but bearing similarities to one of my favorite first-season episodes, “Old Man Out.” A dissident runs from troops in uniforms bearing a generic swastika-esque insignia that I could swear I’ve seen in past M:I episodes, and manages to hide a gold cross he’s carrying before they shoot him. He gets to a church and tries to pass a message (the name David and the number 1769) to Father Thomas Vallis (Ivar Kants, previously appearing in last season’s remake of ‘The Legacy”), a dissident leader. Vallis is arrested by the head of the security police, Defense Minister Savitch (Grigor Taylor, who looks kind of like a cross between Sean Patrick Flanery and Henry Darrow), who wants the location of the cross.
Back in San Fauxsisco, Jim gets the disc from a flower vendor. Savitch’s nameless Baltic country is democratic, but Savitch’s secret police has carried out a reign of terror under the clueless prime minister’s nose, and the cross — a relic called the Cross of St. Boniface — hides a microchip containing proof of his atrocities (how this happened or how the IMF found out about it is unknown). The mission is to free Vallis from a mountaintop fortress prison and expose Savitch. Jim’s plan involves infiltrating a circus that will be giving a command performance for the PM in a few days (he basically blackmails the owner into letting him join), and will also involve a helicopter that Max says is like the one he flew in ‘Nam. Wait a minute, I thought Max was too young for Vietnam but mounted a rescue mission to save his POW older brother. Maybe that’s what he meant — that he flew the chopper during the rescue — but that isn’t what the line implies. Meanwhile, by a staggering coincidence, the world’s greatest expert on the Cross of St. Boniface just happens to look exactly like Nicholas with a cheesy goatee and gray temples, which lets Nicholas get into Savitch’s circle without the need for latex.
Jim makes several phone calls to Nicholas, whose phone Savitch’s paranoid henchman Braun (Nicholas Bell) has bugged, and that leads Savitch to the circus to meet him. The idea is to set Jim up as a relic hunter searching for the cross. Shannon plays Jim’s unhappy wife (talk about your May-September romances) and basically uses her cleavage to catch Savitch’s eye, while making it clear she’s not particularly loyal to hubby, so that she can later pass Savitch fake info about where the cross is hidden and also trick out his phone with an interactive recording of Nicholas speaking in Savitch’s voice. Savitch is a violent man, using a knife to cut a couple of buttons off of one of Shannon’s few tops that don’t display her cleavage (although we get one hell of a closeup as the buttons come off), and forcing a kiss on her — though fortunately this is commercial TV so a forceful slap is enough to dissuade him for now.
Meanwhile, Grant and Max climb up the studio cliff toward the matte-painting fortress (in case I haven’t made it clear, the special effects on the revival are kind of lame), using a fanciful sci-fi “disruptor” device that slices through stone, and having to dodge some Indiana Jones-ish deathtraps. Nicholas uses a forged letter and the phone voice thingy (see last paragraph) to get Braun to let him in to see Vallis, where he knocks out Braun, lets in Max and Grant through the hole they’ve cut in the wall, and helps the father escape in Braun’s uniform, while putting Braun in Vallis’s cassock and a mask of his face. Obviously Nicholas is setting up Braun to be shot by Savitch (and he is, once Savitch has retrieved the fake cross), but the priest seems to have no objection to this. He and the team later figure out that the dead guy’s message was referring to verses 6 and 9 of Psalm 17, which was a really, really obscure clue to the fact that he’d hidden the cross in a statue with wings. Once workmen Grant and Max retrieve the cross, they just have to get out of the country even though Savitch has closed the borders.
And they choose to do it right under Savitch’s nose, probably to provoke him into Gestapo tactics in front of Clueless Prime Minister so he’ll get a clue. Jim causes the ringmaster to lose his voice so he can take over. (When the circus owner asks Jim what he knows about being a ringmaster, Jim replies, “I know more than you could imagine, my friend.”) Then Grant, Nicholas, and Vallis dress up as clowns and they and Shannon get lifted up out of the tent as part of the clown routine, getting out to the helicopter Max has hijacked for their escape. Vallis drops the cross, but Jim retrieves it with Savitch close after him, and they get to the choppah and fly away.
If this was meant to be a reworking of “Old Man Out,” it wasn’t handled nearly as well. The circus angle seemed rather random, and the escape was quite inelegant compared to the one in the original episode. The matte-painting prison fortress with its B-movie death traps felt kind of tacked on too. And Savitch is such an impulsively violent and cruel man that it’s hard to believe he could’ve kept his brutal tendencies hidden from the prime minister for any length of time. All in all, and throwing in the sex-appeal angle with Shannon, this felt like an exercise in flash over substance. It had its moments, but wasn’t very smart or subtle.
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.
As I thought about how to sum up this season for this overview, what struck me was how much it feels like a direct continuation of what came before. Yes, there’s been a gap of 15 years, the cast and crew are almost completely different, and the technology’s been updated, but the basic formula and approach of the show are essentially unchanged, and most of its tropes and conventions are intact. It even continues the conventions specific to the final couple of seasons of the original, such as the use of cold opens and the establishment of San Francisco as the site of Jim’s mission briefings. It really feels like it picked up right where it left off. I can’t think of many other series revivals that have picked up with so little change after so much time. Looking at the Revival page on TV Tropes, maybe The New Avengers, The New WKRP in Cincinnati, or the recently revived Red Dwarf might qualify, not to mention Jack Webb’s revival of Dragnet in the ’60s.
Indeed, in some ways, this revival was even more formulaic than the original. Aside from the replacement of Casey Randall with Shannon Reed, the team composition was the most uniform it’s been in any season, with every regular player appearing in every episode (even though Casey often had very little to do). It’s the only season other than S6 to have no off-book missions; even the episodes with personal stakes for Jim were still assigned IMF cases. Every episode therefore had a disc-briefing scene. And every briefing, even the domestic crimebusting ones, had the “Secretary will disavow” line whether it made sense or not. And while the original series periodically featured cons with supernatural elements, this season returns to that well more often than any previous one, five times out of nineteen episodes (over a quarter of the cases!).
The changes we do get are quite subtle. There’s more interplay and expository dialogue among teammates during the missions; more is told rather than simply shown, and it gives the actors more moments to play off one another. The apartment briefings are less focused on methods and mechanics and more on general mission overview. And the team often assembles on site for the initial briefing, though the norm is still to have it in Jim’s apartment — and Jim still lives in San Francisco as he evidently did in season 7.
I’d expected that the revival would feature more character development and continuity than the original, but I guess it wasn’t until the ’90s that those things really came to be demanded by audiences. This season does have a number of episodes that have personal stakes for the characters (mainly Jim Phelps), like “The Killer,” “The Condemned,” “The Lions” (kind of), “The Fortune,” “Spy,” and “Reprisal,” but the majority are standard M:I capers with no particular significance for the leads. And only a few episodes have missions going awry in any significant way — “Spy” is the prime example, though there are several where the team doesn’t have all the facts ahead of time and is engaged as much in investigation and improvisation as manipulation, e.g. “The Killer,” “The Condemned,” “The Legacy,” “The Fixer,” and “Reprisal.” (True, there are a lot of episodes where they’re trying to find where something or someone is hidden or discover a piece of information, but those are more McGuffins than anything else.)
As such, we don’t learn much more about the new characters than we did about their predecessors. Jim Phelps believes in meticulous planning and cares about his former and current teammates; Grant Collier loves his father and forgives him for being an absentee working dad; the team members like each other and have a friendly rapport; and that’s about it. We learn a bit more about the characters’ backgrounds and reasons for joining the IMF than we did about the originals, but it never comes into play. (For instance, if Casey Randall was a “top designer on three continents,” how come the police needed Jim to identify her body?)
It implicitly seems that Grant Collier is Jim’s second-in-command or closest confidante, and probably a lifelong family friend. He always seems to be the first one Jim briefs, joining him in explaining the plan to the others — although Nicholas also has advance information more often than the other two, further suggesting a certain hierarchy in the team. The new team is a little less specialized than the old ones, or comparable to the season 6/7 team, since all team members participate in role play. Still, Grant is the principal technical genius, Nicholas the principal role player, and Max the principal muscle and pilot. Jim often takes a less central role than he would in the past, frequently favoring eccentric character parts; perhaps after all these years in the game, he’s gotten a bit self-indulgent.
One substantial change in the new series is that we get a bit more insight into the IMF as an organization. The original series never showed us an IMF agent who wasn’t a part of Dan’s or Jim’s team; indeed, it was implied that the “agents” were civilian assets only loosely or unofficially affiliated with the agency. (Which is actually a bit like how real intelligence work operates today. Contrary to fiction, actual spies are pretty much useless in the field, since other governments already know who they are. So they mostly just work out of embassies and solicit local civilian assets to be their eyes and ears in the field. Though that’s just for listening and observing, not engaging in elaborate deceptions or risking death.) But here, we meet other IMF assets, including Jim’s successor as team leader and an inventor formerly with “IM Laboratories,” as well as the teenage son of another IMF agent. We also learn that IMF operatives perform advance research for the briefings Jim receives. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s the beginning of a fleshing-out process that would culminate in the much larger IMF bureaucracy of the movies.
The IMF’s mission as of 1988-9 seems like an evolution from its past as well. For five seasons, it was mostly focused on international espionage and security missions with occasional diversions to deal with organized crime in the US. In season 6, it shifted exclusively to stateside mob-busting. But while season 7 was mostly crime-focused, the number of overseas and/or intelligence missions started to creep up again. This season references overseas spy missions as early as six years after season 7, and in itself it portrays a mix of espionage and crimebusting missions, with many of the latter now occurring overseas. Specifically, eight episodes deal with criminal foes, including two international drug cartels and one international slave-trafficking ring. Three of the other criminal cases involve crimes directed against IMF agents, and thus could qualify as intelligence-related, while one (“The Haunting”) is a simple murder but has possible international ramifications. I’m not including the blackmail schemes in “The Fixer” and “The Devils,” because they involve the manipulation of government officials and thus fall more into the spy/intrigue category. I’m also not counting the fake refugee-smuggling scheme in “The Wall,” because its perpetrators abducted the daughter of an arms negotiator in order to influence international policy. Other criminal acts such as the arms dealing in “The Cattle King,” the chemical-weapons dealing in “Spy,” and the bioweapon theft in “The Plague” are in support of terrorism and thus count as national-security cases. Still, the number of straight-up espionage/political stories in the season is fairly low, and we don’t begin to see them until a quarter of the way into the season. This is yet another way that the ’88 season feels like it’s picking up right from where season 7 left off.
So how does the new cast measure up? Well, Peter Graves is still a stalwart presence, bringing the same mix of deadpan seriousness and avuncular charm that worked for him on the original, but he’s also showing some of the comedic chops he began to exercise in Airplane! and continued to draw on in subsequent works (like fellow Serious Sixties Actors William Shatner, Leslie Nielsen, and Lloyd Bridges — that movie transformed a lot of careers). But I’d say the real breakout and MVP here was Phil Morris as Grant Collier. Casting him was a terrific idea, not only because of the nostalgia/legacy factor of being the son of Greg Morris/Barney Collier, but because he’s a strong, charismatic actor in his own right, and probably quite popular with female viewers. Tony Hamilton also did an impressive job as Max Harte, good at being a tough guy but also able to give engaging performances in a variety of roles. And Jane Badler was capable and sexy as Shannon Reed. I said in an earlier overview that Lynda Day George was the most beautiful M:I leading lady, but Badler is a contender for the sexiest one — while also conveying competence and a tough edge. Thaao Penghlis as Nicholas Black was a decent leading man, at his best reminding me of a poor man’s Roger Rees; but he was playing a part that called for more of a chameleonic character actor, and in that respect he just didn’t measure up, his range far too limited for the job. And then there’s Terry Markwell as Casey Randall — attractive, more or less, and competent up to a point, but lacking in range and ultimately just not measuring up. I still have mixed feelings about her brief and disappointing tenure; sometimes I feel she wasn’t really given a chance to live up to her potential, but then I recall there were a couple of times when she was given a chance and fell short. Whatever the true reasons, it’s safe to say that of all M:I’s main-cast female regulars, Markwell made the least significant contribution to the series — except in the trivia-question sense of being the only M:I series regular to be killed and “disavowed.” But that’s kind of an ignominious honor.
Rating the episodes, I’d say the best one of the season was “The Pawn,” followed by “The Fortune” and “The Legacy.” These are solid and clever capers with interesting twists and various qualities that lend them added appeal — the music in “The Pawn,” the guest cast and personal stakes in “The Fortune,” and “The Legacy”‘s improvements on the episode it remakes. “The Killer,” “The System,” and “The Fixer” were all strong, effective capers, and “Spy” was also quite effective for its formula-breaking tension and danger, even if it ended up turning into too much of a conventional action-show episode. The remake of “The Condemned” and “The Lions” are imperfect episodes made stronger by their character elements, particularly the return of Barney Collier in the former. “The Plague” is a good story with some awkward writing, while “Holograms” is a flawed and formulaic story improved by a strong guest star and a good score. “The Wall,” “The Cattle King,” “The Greek,” “Reprisal,” and “Bayou” are mediocre, sometimes with good qualities cancelled out by their shortcomings, others just run-of-the-mill. “Submarine is also mediocre but comes out a bit more on the negative side of the ledger due to problems of plot coherence, and in contrast to the superb episode it was a very loose remake of. “The Haunting” was a silly mess, and “The Devils” was simply awful, quite possibly the worst episode of the franchise to date. Basically the season starts out reasonably strong, then has a mix of better and worse episodes in the middle, then ends up fairly weak and mediocre. Overall, a lot of the stories were less clever or less intricately worked out than in the original; complications that didn’t quite make sense increasingly took the place of intricacy. Also, the season started out with strong guest actors like John DeLancie, James Sloyan, and Gerard Kennedy, as well as a memorable turn by BarBara Luna later in the season; but toward the end, the villains began to become increasingly cartoony and grotesque, undermining what would’ve been stronger stories otherwise.
There were six episodes that were remakes of originals. “The Killer,” “The System,” “The Condemned,” and “The Legacy” were fairly close remakes with largely or mostly identical plots and verbatim dialogue, while “The Wall” (based on “The Bank”) and “Submarine” reused only the basic premises while changing the specifics, the characters, and the dialogue. Of these, the ones that most improved on the originals were “The System” and “The Legacy,” while the one that suffered most in adaptation was “Submarine.”
Jim Phelps, Nicholas Black, Grant Collier, and Max Harte were in every episode. Casey Randall was in episodes 1-12 (sometimes just barely), Shannon Reed in episodes 12-19. Episodes featuring guest agents or other assistants included:
- 01 The Killer: Anonymous two-member team of hotel dressers/extras
- 03 Holograms: Kieron Taylor (Gavin Harrison), son of IMF agent
- 04 The Condemned: Former IMF agent Barney Collier (Greg Morris)
- 07 The Cattle King: Shaman Mulwarra (Warren Owens) and tribe assist
- 08 The Pawn: Magician Joseph Rultka (Philip Hinton) and chess champion Gregor Antonov (Bryan Marshall) assist
- 09 The Haunting: Honolulu Police cooperates
- 13 The Fixer: Senator Tom Oxenford (Terence Donovan) cooperates
- 14 Spy: KGB colonel Dr. Yuri Nikolai (Shane Briant)
- 17 Reprisal: Former IMF agent Lisa Casey (Lynda Day George)
- 18 Submarine: Possible offscreen assistance of submarine soundstage crew
- 19 Bayou: New Orleans Police cooperates
However, only “The Killer,” “Holograms,” “The Cattle King,” “The Pawn,” and “Spy” mentioned these additional team members in the initial briefings, and only Rultka in “The Spy”‘s case; Barney, Lisa Casey, Antonov, and Oxenford were initially rescuees who became involved in the plans later on, and the others were incidental.
Additionally, we learn of several other IMF assets who did not participate in Jim’s teams:
- 01 The Killer: Tom Copperfield (Vince Martin), Jim’s successor as team leader for up to eight years prior to 1988
- 03 Holograms: Taylor, IMF agent
- 17 Reprisal: Former IMF agents Laura Ann Wilson (Chelsea Brown) and Marilyn (Paula Goodman); former IM Laboratories consultant Russell Acker (David Cameron)
Not to mention the Voice on Disc (Bob Johnson), the one person who’s been with the IMF longer than anyone else we know of, except maybe Barney Collier (I don’t recall whether Barney was retired or not in “The Condemned”).
Due to new union rules by the 1980s, every episode has a mostly or entirely original score. However, only three composers contributed to the season: original M:I composer Lalo Schifrin did the first three odd-numbered episodes, Ron Jones did the first six even-numbered episodes, and John E. Davis did the other ten. The best scores are Schifrin’s “Holograms” and Jones’s “The Pawn,” with Schifrin’s “The Killer” and Jones’s “The Lions” and “The Fortune” also being memorable. Davis’s work is adequate but fairly uniform and lacking any real standout episodes, and his avoidance of any full statement of “The Plot,” instead reducing it to a simple 7-note phrase, is annoying.
The locations this season were mostly overseas, with only five episodes set on US soil (though none produced there), including Honolulu, the Florida Keys, the District of Columbia, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Most overseas episodes were set in real locations, and unlike in the original series, Warsaw Pact powers like the USSR and East Germany were mentioned by name as adversaries. The only episodes set in fictitious countries were “Holograms” and “The Lions,” though several villains were from unspecified hostile powers, and the villains in “The Fortune” were from the fictional Central American nation of Alcante. Two consecutive episodes, “The System” and “Holograms,” were set in the Caribbean (although I’m unsure of that in the latter case) — the former in the Bahamas, the latter in a fictitious island nation. Seven episodes are set in Europe: “The Killer” and “The Devils” in England, “The Legacy” and “The Wall” in Germany, “The Pawn” in Prague, “The Greek” mostly in Athens, and “The Plague” in Paris. The teaser of “The Greek” is in Southeast Asia, and other Asian locations include the fictional Himalayan nation Bajan-Du in “The Lions” and Hong Kong and the South China Sea in “Submarine.” Only one episode, “Spy,” is set in Africa (an unspecified Central African country), and one, “The Condemned,” is in the Mideast (Istanbul). “The Cattle King” is the first M:I episode set in Australia — and thus the only one in the season shot on the actual locations it portrays.
The downside of this more international flavor, however, is that the show’s portrayal of ethnic diversity has not improved. In fact, it’s gotten worse, since the original series rarely attempted to portray non-Western cultures. The amount of stereotyping and condescension toward groups such as East Asians, Indigenous Australians, and “Gypsies” is distasteful. It’s a reminder that the timeframe of this series — and the culture of that era — was closer to the original series than it was to today.
So that’s season 1 of the revival — or season 8 of the series as a whole, since it is such a smooth continuation in so many ways. The season grew beyond its predecessors in some ways while hewing closer to the formula than a number of earlier seasons. It was a surprisingly authentic and respectful continuation, but with some lapses in insight and quality, and not quite living up to the cleverness of the original at its best. It’s better than what we might have gotten from a show that was commissioned simply as a way to work around a writers’ strike and was initially planned as a straight remake; but in other ways, it’s pretty much just what we’d expect from such a show. It’s not the finest season M:I has produced, but neither does it feel like it’s just going through the motions or that it’s missed the point. It is, quite simply, more Mission: Impossible, and that’s not a bad thing.
And yes, I will be carrying forward with the second and final season of the revival, since one of my readers was kind enough to help pay for the purchase of the DVD set. So I should be able to start in on that pretty promptly, other responsibilities permitting. After which I intend to proceed to cover the movies, allowing me to complete this review series at last.
“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!
“The Devils”: Written by Ted Roberts.
Oh, dear. We open with a scene of a drugged blonde being led by chanting guys in hoods to an altar where a guy in a goat-demon mask sacrifices her. One of the spectators looks on in horror, then wakes up screaming — it was his dream. Or was it? After the titles, when Jim gets the disc from a shrimp boat captain (and John E. Davis for once uses the main theme rather than “The Plot” to score it), we learn the guy is a diplomat in London who’s catatonic in an institution, while two others have committed suicide — all of them guests of Lord Holman (John Stanton), who’s believed to be a traitor who’s blackmailed these guys into sharing state secrets. Holman likes to indulge in New Age druidic practices, with a big celebration coming up the next week — and the episode treats these alternative spiritualities as indistinguishable from Satanism. This alone got me fearing the worst — but then Grant brought out the stupid-looking magic helmet that read the catatonic diplomat’s “electrotelepathic emanations” in order to get video images of his thoughts, which reveals the goat-head sacrifice. With total deadpan gravitas, Graves intones, “He’s been involved in Satanic rites.”
It’s like a scene out of a parody of this very show.
As if there weren’t enough cultural insensitivity already, Shannon and Nicholas are going undercover as stereotyped “Gypsies” — and for once we get a gadget demonstration in the apartment briefing, a video crystal ball for fortune-teller Shannon, as well as a few other gadgets in a second group discussion later on. Shannon makes contact with Holman’s groundskeeper Challis (Ron Graham) — no word on whether he holds the brew that is true — and gives a reading in which the video crystal ball is a totally pointless embellishment, and in which she fingers Jim, arriving in a limo and dressed in a black suit with a bright red tie and handkerchief, as The Evil One. Yes, folks… Jim is undercover as Satan. Oy. Freaking. Vey. Holman is skeptical of this at first, but Jim and Max uses various gadgets like glowy-evil-eye contact lenses, shoes that burn cloven hoofprints in the rug, and a gas that causes a brief lapse of consciousness so Holman thinks they’ve disappeared before his eyes.
Grant makes contact with the local Constable Egerton (Russell Newman), initially putting on an act as an uncaring American cop who’s only making a pro forma investigation of the three murdered girls who’ve turned up near the Holman estate. It seems random, but I guess this is to provoke a reaction from Egerton, who seems to express genuine concern for the victims — so Grant (with Jim’s approval) soon drops the role altogether and lets Egerton in on their investigation linking the pond where the bodies were found to an underground stream passing through Holman’s estate. Really, most of the elaborately set-up scheme seems to get tossed aside pretty quickly this week. But confiding in Egerton is a mistake, since the constable is on Holman’s hook and tells him about the investigation — but not much of a mistake, since when Holman orders Egerton to kill Grant, Egerton refuses to play along anymore, killing himself — along with any possible tension or suspense that plot thread could’ve generated.
Oh, and there’s an earlier scene where all four junior team members break into Holman’s underground devil-worshippin’ catacombs to scope them out. It’s unclear why they all had to go, especially since they don’t bother to split up and search to find the captive girl slated for the next sacrifice, instead having to make a separate effort later on to trail Challis to her cell. Why wait? Anyway, they free the girl, but by that point I’d already predicted that Shannon would get captured to take her place and end up as a cliched damsel in distress on the altar, and I was right. There’s even a scene where Holman’s upper-class, all-male cabalists (wait, are they being blackmailed or willingly part of the cult?) strip the drugged Shannon to put her in a white shift for the sacrifice — and it’s hard to believe they wouldn’t have taken some liberties with her in the process, but the episode is totally unconcerned with that. I sometimes forget how much sexism still remained in ’80s TV. Anyway, even though they kidnap her and dress her up, they somehow fail to discover that she’s wearing a wig.
All this culminates in a rather unfocused climax where Jim convinces Holman that he’s already claimed the latter’s soul, which shocks and terrifies Holman — why? Hadn’t he already pledged his soul to Satan? I guess the idea was that it was just a pretense for his blackmail, though the episode never addresses why so many prominent British politicians are sincerely Satanists and murder cultists. (At one point, Jim says that if the truth came out it would bring down the government, but if the government consists of men like that, doesn’t it deserve to be brought down? The episode implies that they were just weak-willed men that Holman pressured into going along with devil worship and serial murder, but that’s not much better.) And just as Shannon’s about to be sacrificed, the team springs some gratuitous gadgetry like red spotlights on Jim and Max’s faces, and Jim basically drives Holman back to fall into his own underground river, which is on fire because of another Grantism. So, yeah, that happened.
Wow. I think this is the worst episode of the entire franchise so far. It’s sometimes hilariously awful, but there were moments when I couldn’t tell if I was laughing or sobbing. The stupid, it burns! And the ethnocentrism, the reduction of women to passive victims, the over-the-top horror-movie villain scheme… this was more like a second-season Man from U.N.C.L.E. episode than an M:I episode, but it was played with absolute seriousness, only unintentionally emerging as farce. Graves makes an effectively suave Prince of Darkness, but even he has trouble selling some of the dialogue or the ridiculous situation.
“The Plague” is written by Rick Maier and features two-time Bond girl Maud Adams as the villain, Catherine Balzac, who’s our third blackmailer in the past four episodes. She’s blackmailed a French general into stealing a hyper-deadly US-made (and US-renounced) bacteriological weapon from a facility with amazingly lax security; when he sets off an alarm, we see the guards running around in response, but then they disappear and the guy just walks out and hands the petri dish to Balzac right outside the building, whereupon he asks “Now will you stop blackmailing me?” and she rewards his stilted expository question by shooting him. Right next to the building that was surrounded by guards on alarm just a few moments before. (But, to her credit, she did stop blackmailing him.)
Jim gets the disc from a bikini-clad aquarium employee, after Jim quotes a really condescending adage that dolphins are “God’s most obedient creatures.” Just for that, he’s not getting any thanks for all the fish. Anyway, Voice tells him that if the bioweapon was stored in unsafe conditions, it could breach containment and spread a plague across Europe.
This is another episode where the team is already at the site (Paris — the city, not Leonard Nimoy) for their first briefing. The plan involves using subliminal audio to do a couple of things, the first of which — for reasons that never quite become clear — is to make the audience at Balzac’s nightclub go gaga over Shannon’s singing. (Her first number is “La Vie en Rose.”) I’m pretty sure it’s Badler herself singing — the episode was probably written to let her show off her talent. Four episodes in, Shannon has already gotten more to do than Casey had in twelve episodes. Which seems to support the idea that Terry Markwell was let go for not being up to the job, rather than leaving because the producers didn’t give her enough to do. (I have a memory of watching this episode when it first aired and hearing my father criticize Badler’s lip-syncing to the prerecorded music. Even when it’s the performer’s actual voice, onscreen singing is almost always prerecorded in a sound studio for best quality and then lip-synced for the camera. I think my father’s complaint was that she was visibly just mouthing the words rather than putting her breath into it, but I couldn’t really tell the difference then or now.)
Anyway, Max gets himself noticed as a nightclub guest with an obviously fake cover, and when they question him, he makes a break and leads them on a motorcycle chase to Jim, whom they catch when Max gets away. Jim pretends to be the scientist who created the bacteria and warns Balzac of the danger that she’s infected. Grant then reinforces this by playing a US agent offering satellite secrets in exchange for the return of the bacteria before it goes virulent. And Nicholas replaces the eyepatched scientist sent by the terrorist buyers of the bioweapon, whom the team intercepts. When Balzac and her henchman leave Nick alone in the lab, Grant (via walkie-talkie) guides him through the procedure to use the waldo arm to secure the sample in the team’s special container. Even though he needs Grant to explain the workings of the equipment, he still knows what buttons to press even though Grant just gives him very generic directions. But then he’s startled by a noise and fumbles the waldo arm, cracking the glass. But the bacteria politely waits 15 seconds before becoming dangerous, so Nick has that much time to secure it in the case, although of course it’s really far longer than that, because seconds are longer in TV-land.
So Shannon swaps out one of Balzac’s earrings with a subliminal-sound earring that will induce anxiety and loss of balance, symptoms of the bacteria, and Nicholas contrives a lab accident that coats their skin in a harmless polymer Grant prepared that will dry in a way that makes it look like they’re breaking out in hideous sores. (Actually the exposition says the bacteria causes rapid aging of the internal organs, but that never becomes relevant.) Somehow the bad guys never notice that Nick cracked the glass. Oh, and Shannon makes the lights flicker so Balzac and henchguy think they’re going blind. Jim agrees to work up an antidote if they tell him where the rest of the bioweapon is stored, and she accedes; Nick and Shannon find the container intact and safe. Jim tells Balzac that there’s only enough antidote for one, so the henchman fights her for it, and a fire breaks out in the lab. The heat melts the polymer coating on their skin and they see they’ve been tricked, but the fire has already trapped them in the lab and Jim trades a solemn look with Balzac before leaving her and henchguy to their fate. “You know what I say?” he says to the team. “A plague on both their houses.” Uh, that’s not quite what that line meant.
An okay but flawed episode, and a decent attempt to fake Paris as a location. Having an actual Bond villain as the antagonist lends it some prestige, I guess, and Adams was reasonably effective, even if the villains are starting to blend together lately. And Penghlis broke out another accent, something Eastern European this time. Why can’t he manage American? Meanwhile, John E. Davis’s paraphrases of “The Plot” continue to drift further from the original melody, although I guess that’s better than just using the same 7-note phrase over again. (I said before that it was six notes, but it adds a final note to resolve to the tonic.) And he’s still using fragments of it to score the villains’ actions in the teaser, but less so than before. Beyond that, I can’t say much more about the scores, because they’re all pretty much the same. Which is disappointing, since the original series was so heavily reliant on strong music.
“The Fixer”: This is the first non-remake episode of the revival series to be written by a veteran of the original series: Walter Brough, who wrote “Squeeze Play” and “Casino”, and who’s also on board the revival as a co-producer. It’s also the second episode in a row to feature a guest star from the original series, Richard Romanus, who played a guard in “Gitano.” Romanus plays Arthur Six, a Washington journalist who’s blackmailing many US government officials with the dirt he’s accumulated on them — much the same setup as the original series’ “Mastermind,” though the plot is very different. The teaser shows him backing a federal judge into a corner and driving him to kill himself.
The main titles have been redone to feature Jane Badler in place of Terry Markwell, recreating similar shots in a couple of cases (which don’t work as well for her since her background is in journalism rather than fashion), but adding a new one of Badler soaking wet in a bathing suit with a plunging neckline. The new shot of Shannon Reed’s passport gives her the same March 8 birthday Casey’s passport showed. And the shot of Badler accompanying her credit is much better than Markwell’s, looking over her shoulder and smiling alluringly where Markwell was piling her hair up over her head for some reason. There’s also a new shot of a mask-fabricating device (Grant’s invention) that debuts later in this episode. (Meaning that Richard Romanus’s likeness is in the credits every week from now on, apparently. Did he get residuals for it?)
Jim gets the disc player from a news vendor. The mission is to destroy the blackmail files that Six is using to sway the members of a Senate committee investigating him, and to ensure that he’ll be indicted. Since Brough has done this before, the apartment briefing feels more like it should, with the team comparing notes about a plan in progress rather than being told about the mission for the first time — although the focus is still just on assumed identities and planning rather than showcasing gadgetry to be used later.
Jim gets Six on the hook by playing an old friend of the Senate committee’s chair, Senator Oxenford (Terence Donovan) — a friend who (according to a fake fax the team sends Six) was involved in a fatal drunk-driving accident. I guess the idea is that the senator helped him cover it up or something, giving Six dirt he could use to blackmail Oxenford, though that isn’t clear. He and Six meet in front of a bluescreened Lincoln Memorial (I think they were still using blue rather than green at the time.) Jim’s using the name of a real friend of Oxenford’s who died heroically decades ago, and he convinces Oxenford to play along with the scam. Meanwhile, Shannon (oops, typed “Casey” at first) is catching the eye of Six’s loyal muscleman Doyle (John Calvin) in order to set him up for a divide-and-conquer ploy. While Badler’s acting is rather broad (and involves quite a lot of headshaking as she talks), she’s definitely better at the femme fatale game than her predecessor was — and evidently the producers and costume designer think rather more highly of Badler’s cleavage, given how much they show it off.
Grant and Max are mostly filling Barney and Willy’s traditional roles, with Grant behind the scenes doing tech stuff and Max mostly looming as a security guard. But Grant does a bit of role-play as a delivery man bringing in a giant American flag for Six’s upcoming party, which he uses to conceal his break-in to Six’s safe — a plan that goes awry when he finds the safe empty, then gets shocked by a security system when he tries to plant an incriminating document as “Plan B.” Apparently this is a genuine setback in the plan, but it doesn’t seem to have a major impact on the team’s operation, except for Jim deciding to “turn up the heat” — i.e. send Nicholas in as the guy behind the planted evidence, demanding half a million bucks for his secrecy, and setting himself up to be killed by Doyle (though he wears a bulletproof vest and blood packs),with Max snapping shots of the murder. There’s another setback when the team can’t figure out where Six keeps his blackmail files, though that’s resolved rather easily when they break into his office later.
Anyway, everyone’s there for the party, and Jim tips off Doyle that Shannon is actually one of Oxenberg’s investigators. He drags her into Six’s office (almost catching Grant in the act) and roughs her up a bit, but she continues to play her part, showing Doyle the photos of his “murder” of Nicholas and saying that Six plans to throw him to the committee as the scapegoat. While Six is in makeup preparing for his TV broadcast from the party, a Six-masked Nicholas comes in and further sells the illusion to Doyle. We see the return of an old M:I standby, the knockout-needle ring (although now it’s an actual ring rather than the palmed joy-buzzer-esque needle from the original), which Nick uses to drug Doyle long enough for Max to empty his gun and Nick to ditch the mask. (There’s an attempt to do something clever by bluescreening Romanus against a window, having him walk out of frame, then show a “reflection” of Penghlis pulling off the mask, then have Penghlis walk back into frame. But the positioning and timing of the reflection don’t match what it’s supposedly reflecting.) So when the real Six comes in — having been told by Jim that Doyle is going to testify against him — they get into a highly incriminating argument that Grant, who tapped into the security cameras earlier in the episode, switches into the live national TV feed, bringing Six down. (Although technically Six doesn’t say much that’s decisively incriminating; it’s mostly Doyle alleging that Six has ordered him to commit crimes. Six does threaten to kill Doyle, but that doesn’t really prove anything.)
This was a pretty solid episode, feeling a lot like the original, but with a bit more tension than usual. It felt like there were some genuine setbacks and uncertainties in the plan, although they didn’t really seem to affect the flow of events that much because Jim already had fallback plans ready. There were also some nice, brief moments where we got to see team members drop character and show glimpses of their true feelings, like when Grant was hurt and the others showed concern. But my favorite was where Six told Jim that he believed planning every detail in advance was the key to success, and after he walked away, Jim said, “I couldn’t agree more.” Hearing it put into words like that made me realize how much M:I’s meticulous plots are a reflection of Jim Phelps’s character, since he’s the master strategist who devises these clockwork schemes. I never really thought about it that way before. (Although of course it was Dan Briggs who set the template.)
Musically, we’re into the era where John E. Davis will be the permanent composer, with one exception in season 2. He’s still using “The Plot” to score the disc scenes, but at least here he doesn’t use it for the bad guys. And he seems to have settled into using a specific, briefer variant of the opening bars of the melody, cutting out the middle six notes of the initial twelve-note phrase, and only occasionally using snippets of other portions. I don’t think he used the entire phrase at any point in the episode, or in his past few scores. He also makes less use of the main title theme than either Schifrin or Jones did.
“Spy”: Wow, and I thought it was generic when the original series did an episode called “The Spy.” Now they aren’t even bothering with the article. Anyway, this is not based on that episode; it’s an original script by executive producer Michael Fisher.
We open with a British agent named Crosby, entering a Central African village where everyone is dead, along with all animal and insect life for miles around (the plants seem fine). He’s recording a report and taking photos, calling the massacre “Christie’s work.” But John Christie himself (Tim Hughes) is watching and has the agent killed. (You could say he stills Crosby.)
Jim gets the disc in Chinatown after exchanging code phrases with a shop proprietor in Chinese (no idea how good his accent was). The Voice warns Jim that this is a particularly hazardous mission, since Christie is one of their own — an MI6 agent who’s gone to the other side. (For some reason, the Voice finds it necessary to explain to Jim, a seasoned intelligence agent, that MI6 is the British intelligence agency.) He must be stopped before he unleashes the massive stockpile of chemical weapons he’s been amassing for sale to terrorists. Since the superpowers have a common interest in stopping Christie, the team is being assisted by an expert from “way outside the team,” as Jim puts it: KGB colonel and physician Dr. Yuri Nikolai (Shane Briant).
Christie’s based at a hotel in Central Africa, and the chemical weapons plant is believed to be nearby. Grant and Max get themselves hired for Christie’s band of mercenaries, with Max’s job interview consisting of beating up Christie’s henchman Carl (Lee A. Rice II) with help from another drug-tipped ring that weakens him enough for Max to win. This is so they can get inside and find the weapons plant, which they do quite easily, although Max has earned Carl’s enmity. Nicholas plays an elderly French monsignor who grew up in the hotel in the time of Hemingway, and Shannon plays a reporter doing a memoir of his life, in order to convince Christie to let them visit his office so they can plant a bug. Amazingly, Thaao Penghlis actually adopts a French accent. It’s a pretty bad French accent, but at least it’s not the same Australian accent he’s used week in and week out even when playing Americans or Englishmen.
Jim’s part in the plan is to impersonate a representative of the people Christie plans to sell his hoard of diamonds to in order to fund his weapons plant, so that he can steal the diamonds and hobble the operation. But Dr. Nikolai — who was Jim’s opponent on a mission a decade earlier — warns Jim that this is risky. Christie’s access to US intelligence was cut off 5 years ago, so the rest of the team is safe, but Jim could be found out. Jim tries to avoid getting his fingerprints taken (refusing to give up his coffee cup or to accept a glass of brandy from which his prints could be taken), but Christie has a hidden camera and uses facial recognition to identify “Name: James Phelps — Nationality: American — Occupation: IMF Team Leader.” Oops! Christie pulls a gun on Jim. But Nicholas and Shannon have been listening in on the bug (which was for capturing the sound of the safe tumblers) and manage to blow out the hotel’s power long enough to get Jim away and for Nicholas to knock out Christie and swipe the diamonds. However, Jim is shot and needs to rely on the KGB doctor to save him. Fortunately, he spared the doctor’s life ten years ago, and Nikolai returns the favor. Grant and Max are also exposed and have to shoot their way out of the chemical plant.
Once Nikolai identifies the chemical mixture — which conveniently becomes explosive with harmless fallout if it’s mixed wrong — Jim’s new plan is to fake Shannon’s death in a car wreck so Christie can recover the diamonds and proceed with the chemical mixing, with the labels switched (thanks to Grant’s handheld scanner and portable printer) to precipitate the kaboom. But Grant and Max are discovered planting the labels and have to fight their way out again, with Max having to take on Carl barefisted without any drugged needles this time, and just barely winning. Christie discovers the switched chemicals and blithely drives away without warning anyone else in the plant, so presumably they’re all killed when it blows up. Jim says they’ll bag Christie next time, though we won’t see the character again.
Have you noticed this stopped sounding like Mission: Impossible a few sentences ago? Generally I like it when the plan fails and the team has to improvise a solution, but that’s when the solution is another clever plan. Here, once Jim is found out, the usual con-game approach mostly gives way to a more conventional action story complete with very long shoot-’em-ups and pointless fistfights. And the big shootout is practically A-Team style, with tons of automatic weapons firing and nobody appearing to get hit. (Although to be fair, automatic weapons are extremely hard to aim, what with all the recoils. Apparently continuous fire mode is used more for suppression fire than actually hitting people.) It’s a major departure from the way this show usually works — and it feels like a precursor to the movies to come.
That said, it was nice to see more of the team out of character, and to see Jim speaking openly with fellow spies — both Christie as an adversary and Nikolai as a former enemy who’s now an ally. Although that too feels more like a conventional spy story and less like M:I — which, as I’ve said before, is really more of a con-artist or heist show dressed up as a spy show to give its protagonists legitimacy.
Hmm, if Jim clashed with the KGB doctor a decade earlier, that would’ve been 1979 — six years after the original series ended and eight years after the IMF became a domestic mob-busting agency. I guess it went back to international espionage sometime in the interim.
Not much to say about Davis’s score, except that I’m starting to get tired of his stripped-down “Plot” variant. The thing about the original “The Plot” is that it was long and complicated, so even though it was used extensively in every score, there was a ton you could do with it, lots of possible variations on its parts, and even just a straightforward statement of it took you on a journey. But reducing it to just six or seven notes repeated over and over gets tedious in a way the whole thing never did. Ron Jones has only been gone for two episodes and I’m already missing him.
“The Greek”: Written by Ted Roberts.
We open in Southeast Asia, where drug tycoon/yachtsman Socrates Colonnades (Cesare Danova) murders an American agent who’s disguised as a fisherman in a passing boat, while his flighty, flirtatious opera-singer girlfriend Serina (Dina Panozzo) entertains his guests on the yacht. John E. Davis’s score reminds me of Jerry Goldsmith’s Rambo music — maybe both drew on Southeast Asian influences? But Davis also uses snatches of “The Plot” during this sequence. I complained before about using “The Plot” to accompany Jim getting the disc briefing — but using it to score the villains’ actions? That’s just not right. Davis seems to have, as it were, lost the plot. (Although the rest of his score is reasonably good. Although he seems to be getting into the habit of using just snippets of “The Plot” rather than fuller statements of its lengthy melody.)
Back in Stock-establishing-shot Francisco, Jim gets the briefing in a brewery, and I find myself starting to wonder about the people who exchange code phrases with him, both here and back in the original series. Does the IMF, or the larger American intelligence community, really have so many different agents embedded within the US population, doing ordinary jobs? If so, why? It’s not legal for the CIA to operate domestically. Or are these just ordinary citizens, the actual holders of the various jobs we see, who’ve been paid by the government to meet some guy, exchange a code phrase, and point him to a particular location, without having any idea what it’s all about? Do they also clean up the smoldering boxes after the discs have self-destructed? If so, where do they take them? Is there a point to such a complicated way of contacting an operative? And why did it take me seven and a half seasons to start asking these questions?
And about those boxes… The thing about the original series’ tape drops is that they were always played on ordinary equipment, with only the tapes (or records or films) themselves specially treated to self-immolate after playing, or (in early seasons) just thrown in the fire afterward. Often, before the little tape player became standard, we’d see Dan or Jim playing a record or tape on a normal piece of playback equipment. So once the message was destroyed, presumably there’d be nothing there but an ordinary record player or tape deck or other audio device, maybe with some strange residue or charring, and nothing more suspicious than that. Yet the new disc-player boxes are these elaborate, specialized, high-tech devices that are supposedly left just sitting around San Francisco. Sure, you need an authorized thumbprint to open them, but the very existence of these unusual instruments would tend to attract attention, and give potential enemy agents something to look for. So it’s nice and modern, but it’s too conspicuous to make a lot of sense in practical spy-biz terms. This being 1988-90, it would’ve made more sense for the IMF just to leave cassette tapes for Jim to play in his Walkman.
So anyway… Colonnades leads an international drug cartel that steals medical relief supplies meant for refugees and disaster victims, then resells them as “drugs of addiction,” as the Voice puts it. He’s meeting on his yacht with his five main distributors, and luckily, not only have they never met, but the authorities have nabbed two of them. As with “The Haunting,” the team is already on site, this time in Greece, when Jim briefs them, and as with several prior episodes, this is clearly the first time most of the team is hearing it. Usually it seems that Jim and Grant are the only ones fully briefed before the others are brought in, implying that Grant is possibly the second-in-command — much as his father effectively was in the last couple of seasons of the original. Grant will be impersonating the West African distributor, and Jim will play a Canadian agent allegedly sent by the English one (who conveniently sounds exactly like Nicholas, apparently, since Nick’s able to vouch for Jim with a phone call). When they fax Jim’s picture to Colonnades, Serina finds him “dashing.” I guess she likes older men.
Of the other distributors, the only one who matters is Woodward, a mean-tempered American thug played by Nicholas Hammond, who to me will always be Peter Parker from the ’70s Spider-Man TV series (the mediocre US one, not the awesomely insane Japanese one where Spidey had a giant robot). The team sets things up to make it look like Serina is cheating on Colonnades with Angry Spidey, which is easy enough since she flirts with him readily. Casey records a line or two with Serina’s accent, and somehow Nicholas is able to move a single slider on the audio equipment and make it an exact match for Serina’s voice. Then Casey and Max break in to plant the mini-disc in Woodward’s room, after Jim has drugged Angry Spidey to knock him out so they can abscond with him.
By the way, earlier in the episode, Max swam under the yacht to tangle its propeller in a fishing net so they’d be stuck in port. I wish they’d had Casey do that, since it was established back in “Holograms” that she was a trained scuba diver, and it would’ve been nice if the show had established she actually had a useful specialization other than being female. Instead, she’s relegated to the “tag along with others and occasionally make a minor contribution” role she’s been saddled with for most of the season.
Anyway, Grant sneaks into Colonnades’s quarters (while he’s in them, oddly) to swipe his ledger and plant a fake page to make it look like he’s screwing over the distributors. The safe is opened by a mock desk phone, and the episode uses the lame “guess the password based on obvious names associated with the owner” conceit rather than some IMF codebreaking gadget. Worse, the password turns out to be the name of the yacht they’re on at that very moment. And then they do the lame act-break cliche where a Mr. Collier is about to be discovered at the end of one act and then the threat harmlessly passes at the start of the next. Although they sort of make up for it later. First, Grant’s fake-page-printer gizmo causes electronic interference on the yacht equipment so he’s at risk of discovery, though this is another threat he dodges effortlessly. Later, though, while he’s returning the ledger, Colonnades and Serina come in and have an argument (that leads to her safe departure) and Grant has to hide in the bubble-bath-filled tub until they leave. The look on his face when he surfaces and gasps for breath is a nice moment of comedy.
Okay, so the captured Woodward wakes up in a fake cell where Nicholas, pretending to be a fellow prisoner, claims to be the real Australian distributor, with the guy on the boat being a ringer working for Colonnades. Nicholas helps Angry Spidey “escape,” getting “killed” by Max in the process (Casey at least gets to trigger the squibs), and Angry Spidey hies it back to the yacht to have it out with Colonnades and the Australian, insisting on seeing the ledger with its fake numbers showing that the two are in cahoots to profit at the others’ expense. Jim and Grant make an excuse to get out of the cabin before the bullets start flying. There’s a nice final beat where a wounded Colonnades comes out on deck, sees Jim and Grant rendezvousing with the rest of the team, and almost shoots them, but Angry Spidey shoots him, unknowingly saving them before he too succumbs to his injuries.
A pretty routine episode, and one that didn’t give any of the cast beyond Jim and Grant much to do — Nicholas a bit more than the others, but not much more. But it’s interesting to see the rapport that’s emerging between Jim and Grant. Given that Peter Graves worked closely with Greg Morris for seven years, I’d imagine Phil Morris was aware of him growing up, maybe knowing him as a friend of the family. In-universe, we did see M:I episodes where team members socialized when they weren’t on missions, for instance “The Town” and “Homecoming”, so evidently they were friends as well as colleagues, and it’s thus possible that Grant also knew Jim growing up — at least in the reality of the revival, where Barney was a husband and father during his time with the IMF, as opposed to the reality of the original series where he was a confirmed bachelor. Okay, I’m contradicting myself by both drawing on the original show as evidence and pointing it out as inconsistent at the same time, but that’s the nature of fictional continuity a lot of the time, retconning some things while keeping others. Anyway, it’s nice to think that Jim and Grant are more than just teammates, that there’s a special connection between them as there arguably was for the actors.
“The Fortune”: Written by Robert Brennan.
This one is a Very Special Episode in several ways. First off, its two main guest stars are both veterans of the original series: BarBara Luna, who was the title character/love interest in “Elena” and a guest agent in “Time Bomb”, and Michael Pate, who was a supporting character in “Trek.” Luna, as we’ll later learn in the disc scene, plays Emilia Berezan, formerly the ruthless power behind the throne of Pate’s Luis Berezan while he was the figurehead ruler of a Latin American country named Alcante. When Luis fell ill and lost his mental clarity, they were deposed and sought asylum in the Florida Keys, but not before ripping off the nation’s treasury and leaving its people in poverty.
But the episode opens with the paranoid, hypervigilant Emilia monitoring her estate’s security feeds, where an intruder is being chased by guards and dogs. The intruder is Casey! And the chase is cued with one of those Ron Jones melodies I’ve never forgotten even though I haven’t heard it in a quarter-century. This is partly because the scene it accompanies made quite an impact on me when I first saw it. Emilia’s men catch Casey and bring her before Emilia — and incidentally before Luis, but he’s too busy watching Mitzi Gaynor sing the title song in the movie Anything Goes as Emilia confronts Casey and, not even bothering to question her, gives her a lethal injection. Yes, Casey’s finally been given something big to do: die. Perhaps the movie Luis is watching was chosen to make a statement: anything goes on this M:I, even the killing of a main cast member.
Okay, nominally a main cast member — in practice, not much more than a decoration. Casey’s surprising murder at the opening of an episode hit me hard when I first saw it, because I had kind of a crush on Terry Markwell at the time. But now I can more clearly see why she was replaced, given how little she contributed — or was allowed to contribute. I’ve done a bit of Googling on the question, and apparently it’s unclear whether Markwell was let go by the producers for not measuring up or asked to be let go because she wasn’t being given enough to do. Perhaps it was a mutual decision, though given how ignominious her demise is — and given that she isn’t even allowed any valedictory lines beyond “No, no” — it seems there wasn’t any love lost on the producers’ part. But in any case, her death scene is the most impressive bit of acting she’s done in the entire series. And it’s the briefest role she’s played in any episode she’s in — but not by that much.
What surprises me on the rewatch is that the team, for the first half of the episode, is totally unaware of Casey’s murder. Jim gets the briefing as normal on an elevated train (meant to be BART, I guess), and the mission is simply to return the Berezans’ funds to Alcante so they can’t bankroll a return to power. In the apartment, the mood is jovial as Jim tells the others that the Secretary sent Casey ahead on special assignment to do the research for this mission. It’s an interesting fragment of insight into IMF procedures, touching on the never-before-addressed question of how they get the information they deliver to Jim. Although it’s never explained why an actual team member was sent to do preliminary research. Anyway, Jim assures the team that they’ll be meeting up with Casey when they get there (although once they arrive, nobody wonders at her absence), and in the meantime they’ve been assigned a fill-in lady agent: Shannon Reed, a 5-year Secret Service veteran with a background in broadcast journalism. Shannon will be Casey’s permanent replacement, though the team doesn’t know it yet. She’s played by Jane Badler, who’s best known as the villainous Diana from the miniseries V and V: The Final Battle and later from V: The Series. (Badler would later play another character named Diana in the dreadful 2011 remake of V, as an homage to her original character. That means she’s been a regular or recurring player in two TV-series revivals.)
Jim and Grant present themselves to Emilia as oil-company representatives willing to help the Berezans reconquer their country in exchange for drilling rights. The plan involves letting the marks in on the team’s trickery, an unusual twist: Nicholas is playing an actor and master of disguise who will impersonate Luis in order to give a speech showing that he can still be virile and commanding and win back the respect of his people. This will be staged for Emilia’s benefit using a pre-taped speech (Nicholas will insist on working without an audience so she’ll watch the speech from the security room), while Nicholas, still disguised as Luis, slips out to the bank and convinces Luis’s banker to transfer the funds back home, using account numbers provided by Grant when he hacks the computer. Shannon plays a reporter who agrees to broadcast the speech (and her bona fides is a shot of her terribly chroma-key matted over riot footage, which convinces Emilia she was in Alcante even though the video fakery is obvious). Meanwhile, Max’s role is to become the latest of Emilia’s many young boy toys in order to gain access to her highly secured home and help the others with their infiltration. Not an unpleasant task; at this point it had been 23 years since Luna had played Martin Landau’s love interest in “Elena,” but she still looked pretty good.
At least, this was the plan. Halfway through, while the team is preparing to fake the broadcast, Jim alone notices a TV report about an unidentified dead woman washed up on shore, a woman he recognizes as Casey. At first, he doesn’t tell the others, presumably not wanting to throw them off their game. Or maybe he just wants to make sure first, because he eventually does tell them. The team is angry and devastated, and Max doesn’t think he can go ahead with his part and seduce the woman who probably killed Casey. Jim says he understands, that Casey was like a daughter to him — although that’s the first indication we’ve ever gotten of that. But Jim convinces the others that continuing the mission is the best way to get justice, since Emilia’s cameras capture everything and may contain evidence connecting her to Casey’s death. Once Max helps smuggle out the security tape, Grant digs through the layers of recordings and re-recordings to try to reconstruct the magnetic palimpsest from the night Casey was captured — allegedly an infrared image according to his expository dialogue with Shannon, although once he reconstructs it, it’s in perfect full color.
So the plan goes ahead, and for the second week in a row it entails Grant having to guess a password and making stupid guesses like Luis’s own name (why would someone’s username also be their password????). Of course, it turns out to be “Anything Goes,” like on the movie poster right next to the computer. So Grant forwards the information to the LCD display on Nicholas-as-Luis’s sunglasses and the money is transferred back. Normally this would be the end, but this is a special case. Once the job is done, the whole team (except for Nicholas, who’s away at the bank) confronts Emilia directly and shows her the reconstructed proof that Casey was hunted down in her estate on the night of her murder. Jim angrily grabs Emilia and snarls that she’s going to jail for the rest of her life and it’s too good for her. She goes full Evita, defiantly insisting that her people love her and will rally to her defense, but when she asks Luis to back her up, the doddering ex-figurehead trades a knowing smile with Jim and turns on his movie again, letting Mitzi Gaynor drown out his wife’s rantings.
Fade to black, fade in a computer screen showing a mission status debrief file. The file for Casey Randall, age 28, has her status amended from Active to Deceased (the other options being Inactive and Retired), and a red DISAVOWED flashes on the screen. And that’s the last we see of Casey, and this time around I don’t particularly regret it. Rather, I wonder if it even makes sense for the agency to have a file notation that an agent has been disavowed. Shouldn’t they just wipe all records showing that she was ever part of the agency? And come to think of it, should we feel uncomfortable that the IMF is a US intelligence agency operating illegally on US soil, which is presumably the reason for their ultra-secrecy even on domestic missions?
Oh, well. Farewell, Casey Randall. We hardly knew ye. Hopefully Shannon will actually be given more to do. I’d assume so, but it’s hard to be sure, since Markwell wouldn’t be the first female lead of an ’80s Paramount show to leave due to the smallness of her role (if that was why she left). Just a season earlier, Denise Crosby had left Star Trek: The Next Generation for the same reason — and Ron Jones also scored her death scene, with another unforgettable piece of music (and a much more poignant one than this). The rest of Jones’s score here is moderately interesting, but not one of his best. It is, however, his last. This is his M:I swan song as well as Markwell’s, and it’s a departure I regret a lot more.