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Leverage: A Modern Day Mission Impossible

on Wed, 12/22/2010 - 00:00

Although the Tom Cruise-starring movie franchise is filled with plenty of chase scenes and explosions, the original Mission: Impossible television series was more cerebral and relied on the long con rather than brawn within its narrative. “It was basically an action-adventure movie and not Mission,” actor Martin Landau explained to MTV in 2009 about the first Cruise film. “Mission was a mind game.” Mission: Impossible aired on CBS from September 1966 through March 1973 and each week the cast, which included Landau’s character of Rollin Hand, would take on assignments within the Cold War context of the times by infiltrating the enemy and successfully completing their operations through elaborate deceptions and misdirection.

Forty years later there is another team of specialists likewise using their intellect to accomplish equally challenging tasks in much the same way as the Impossible Missions Force of the 1960s. Instead of fighting a war against foreign enemies that pose a threat to the country, however, this small group takes on non-traditional adversaries that pose a threat to every day Americans. And while Mission: Impossible was a secret government agency, the quintet on Leverage are specially-skilled criminals operating outside of the law.

Leverage premiered on cable channel TNT in December 2008 with a pilot episode that effectively established its premise. Nathan Ford (Timothy Hutton) was a former insurance fraud investigator whose only son died from a rare disease that could have been effectively treated with an experimental procedure. The company that Ford worked for, however, refused to pay for the treatments, sending the grieving father on a downward spiral of unemployment and alcoholism. When Ford is approached by the CEO of a research company to oversee a group of criminals hired to steal back stolen documents—and screw over his former employer in the process—he reluctantly agrees only to be double-crossed in the process. Nathan Ford and his criminal cohorts inevitably turn the tables on the CEO, while likewise making a small fortune by short-selling the company’s stock, and decide to continue their working arrangement by taking on cases involving ordinary people who have fallen victim to various forms of corporate scheming and wrong-doing.

“The rich and powerful, they take what they want,” Nathan Ford explains in the opening credits of Leverage. “We steal it back for you.”

Just as the original Mission: Impossible was a product of its Cold War times, the same is true with Leverage. Bank failures, ponzi schemes, corporate cover-ups and even crooked politicians all make their way from today’s headlines and into the narratives of the show. Leverage is about more than just “stealing” back what was illegally taken, however, as the crew led by Nathan Ford also devises ways to “set-up” their targets through elaborate cons designed to either publicly discredit them or ensure they are captured by law enforcement.

“Sometimes bad guys make the best good guys,” Ford adds at the beginning of each episode, and the small collection of criminals working with him are arguably the best at their dubious professions. The group likewise mirrors the core group of operatives on Mission: Impossible. The 1960s classic consisted of fashion model/actress Cinnamon Carter, electronics genius Barney Collier, professional weight-lifter Willy Armitage, and “master of disguise” Rollin Hand. The quartet on Leverage, meanwhile, consists of “grifter, hitter, hacker, thief.”

Sophie Devereaux (Gina Bellman) is the grifter of the group, an accomplished con woman who has amassed a fortune in stolen art. Nathan Ford was on her trail for a number of years while working as an insurance fraud investigator and developed a mutual attraction/infatuation with his female prey. Although Sophie has the ambition of eventually becoming a professional actress, in reality her thespian skills on stage are atrocious. Offstage, however, she is brilliant at conning her way through the real world, utilizing a full array of accents and exotic personas coupled with a detailed understanding of the human psyche and the ways of persuasion.

Eliot Spencer (Christian Kane), meanwhile, is a “retrieval specialist” with a penchant for using superior fighting skills to take down an adversary as opposed to gadgets or conventional weapons. Eliot previously served as a “soldier of fortune” which, coupled with his military training, makes him adept at identifying his enemy based on mere sound and body language, insisting that gunshot reverb is just as distinctive as the fighting styles of various clandestine espionage organizations.

Alec Hardison (Aldis Hodge), on the other hand, is lacking in the physical department but makes up for it as a top-notch hacker and expert in the world of computers. With a modified cell phone and array of electronic devices, he is able to tap into almost any known security system and continually accomplishes the technologically impossible within the most limited amounts of time. Hardison is also a self-proclaimed “geek” who prides himself on his video gaming skills and knowledge of Star Trek while often serving as the source of comic relief on Leverage.

Then there’s Parker (Beth Reisgraf). The most socially-awkward of the group—and maybe just a touch “crazy”—the resident thief is the product of an abusive childhood and turned to a life of crime more for the thrill than anything else. Parker is capable of cracking any safe, picking any pocket and devising a means of breaking-and-entering within seconds of casing a location. She also has a penchant for jumping off tall buildings with safety cables attached, and utilizes gymnastic skills to make her way through mazes of security lasers and motion sensors.

Rounding out the Leverage crew is Nathan Ford, the mastermind behind the various cons that the team embarks on. “You each know what you can do,” Ford tells the others in the pilot episode. “I know what all of you can do so that gives me the edge, gives me the plan.” In that sense, he serves the same role as Dan Briggs and Jim Phelps in Mission: Impossible, although his ego and self-destructive nature makes him less stable on occasions than those predecessors. In fact, the entire cast of Leverage is filled with their own foibles and internal demons, adding to their unique and individual natures. Unlike Mission: Impossible, as well as the multitude of generic forensic dramas on network television, the characters on Leverage matter and add to the enjoyment of the series as much as anything else.

And Leverage is indeed an enjoyable television series. It may not have the memorable theme song that was the staple of Mission: Impossible but its inventive use of deception and misdirection as the main narrative device makes Leverage a direct descendent of that show nonetheless, while its “sticking up for the little guy” mentality is refreshing during these financially difficult and corporate driven times. Add likeable characters, crisp dialogue filled with witty one-liners and the right amount of comic relief into the mix, and Leverage is a TNT recipe for success.

TNT as in cable channel, that is. Leave the other kind for Tom Cruise and the faux Mission: Impossible movie franchise.

Anthony Letizia

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