Monday, February 25, 2013

Invasion U.S.A.

Invasion U.S.A., by Jason Frost
October, 1985  Pinnacle Books

Who would’ve thought there would be a novelization of Invasion U.S.A.? A movie so stupid that it borders on genius, Invasion U.S.A. is probably the only Chuck Norris movie I can stand to watch – even as an action-obsessed kid in the ‘80s, I still thought Chuck’s movies were bottom of the barrel. I only watched them out of a misguided sense of obligation, given that for a few years I studied tang soo do in the Norris-fronted United Fighting Arts Federation.

However Invasion U.S.A. I actually liked; even as a kid I realized it was just so goofy and campy. Watching it now it’s mindblowing that the film was even released, as it’s almost surreally underwritten and underperformed; scenes aren’t set up or resolved, shit just happens for no rhyme or reason, the barest of plot elements are not described, and Norris waltzes through the proceedings with his standard blank expression (his only expression, actually), magically appearing to save people at the last second, like some micro-Uzi bearing Superman.

But the novelization is great!! Credited to “Jason Frost,” Invasion U.S.A. was actually written by Raymond Obstfeld, a seriously talented writer who’s churned out a plethora of novels, both series and standalone, starting in the 1980s. He even penned a few Executioner novels for Gold Eagle, a few of which I read back then (of course I didn’t know they were by Obstfeld), so I guess with this novelization I was sort of rediscovering his work. Anyway the Frost psuedonym is one Obstfeld used for the vaguely-post-nuke pulp series Warlord, so I wonder why he retained it for this novelization.

The movie was based on a story by Chuck's brother Aaron Norris and a writer named James Bruner, but the script is credited to Bruner and Chuck himself. My guess is that the script must’ve been a hell of a lot better than the actual film, thus giving Obstfeld a lot more to work with – or it could just be that Obstfeld wrote all of this himself, realizing the movie’s storyline was so bareboned. Obstfeld is known for inserting comedy into his genre novels, and there’s a bunch of it in this novelization, but have no fear it is very well incorporated into the story, so that it all comes off as fun and entertaining, not like some poser-produced spoof.

If you know the movie, you know the story, but again it is delivered here much, much better. Rostov, a crazed Russian commando who specializes in sowing revolution, infiltrates the US with a horde of multinational terrorist commandos in tow. Rostov is old enemies with Matt Hunter, a mysterious former CIA agent who nearly killed Rostov a few years ago, but had to let him live due to the usual politics bullshit.

The novel does a better job of explaining the Hunter/Rostov rivalry. “It’s time to die,” is Hunter’s oft-spoken threat to Rostov (and you have to love how robotically Norris delivers this line…and, well, every other line), and here in the novel we learn that this line is actually due to a sight gag; since he knows he must let Rostov live this time, Hunter takes out his knife and carves an “H” on Rostov’s wrist, right where Rostov wears his expensive watch, so that everytime Rostov checks the time he’ll know that soon it will be time to die.

Now of course Rostov has a burning-hot lust – uh, I mean hatred – for Hunter, and his first order of business before launching his invasion of the USA is to kill him. Cut to the rural sticks of southern Florida, where Hunter, retired from the agency, now wrestles alligators with an old Indian named John Eagle (unfortunately not the Expeditor). The attack comes much as in the film, with Rostov leading a squad of terrorists on air boats as they descend on Hunter’s shack, but in the novel it goes on longer, and better. Hunter actually fights back here, taking out several of the terrorists – and Obstfeld also does a superb job of filling us in on who many of these terrorists actually are, and how they came to be here.

Another thing better worked out is Rostov’s actual plan. In the film it comes off like Rostov just invades Miami and his thugs wander around killing people while the government does nothing. Obstfeld works it up so that Miami is just the entrance and Rostov sends out six-man terrorist squads to each state, where they cause much hell. We learn throughout the book of some of their atrocities, and Rostov’s ultimate goal is to sow an internal revolution so that America tears itself apart. In order to do this he stages racial killings (like sending terrorists dressed like Nazis into a synagogue), attempts to break open prisons, and even has his men impersonate cops and the National Guard, who then murder the citizens who think they are there to help.

Also Hunter’s one-man war on Rostov’s army is given a more realistic showing (comparatively speaking, that is). Instead of Hunter appearing just in the nick of time to waste the terrorists before they commit their latest evil deed, in the novel he follows clues, tracking down Rostov and taking on his various lieutenants in well-done action sequences. Along the way Hunter also must avoid the cops and the Feds, who attempt to track down this “vigilante” who is sowing further dissent in the already-chaotic mire that has overtaken the country.

Probably the biggest improvement of the novel is the character of the female reporter, Dahlia McGuire. If you’ve seen the film, then you certainly remember this completely useless character, who bears ultimately zero influence on the film, and indeed seems to only be there so the producers could put a female name on the cast list.

Dahlia sparkles in this narrative, and it’s a damn shame that her character wasn’t given any room in the movie. She has a direct influence over what’s going on, and her interactions with Hunter have much more depth. In the film there’s no depth between the characters, with Hunter saving her in his Superman fashion and Dahlia cursing him out in return, making her character seem pretty despicable. The novel fleshes this out, and there’s even a believable romantic development between the two, complete with the customary sex scene (nothing too graphic, mind you). But again, all of this was gutted from the movie…either that or it was never there in the first place, and Obstfeld added it all himself.

In fact Dahlia makes possible the conclusion…the film climaxes with Hunter wandering around in some business office, blowing away several terrorists before getting to Rostov, and you have no idea how the hell he got there or what’s going on. The novel explains. Dahlia pretends to set up Hunter, so the Feds and cops take him away. This also explains that otherwise nonsensical part in the film where Hunter is arrested while he’s sitting alone in a hotel room watching an old sci-fi flick – even here the character of Dahlia was gutted from the movie. But in the novel it’s her staged set-up which leads to the news announcement that Hunter has been caught and is being held in a hotel room; a news announcement that Rostov of course sees, and he takes the bait and heads for the hotel.

So now, the climax occurs in this hotel, with Hunter taking out Rostov’s goons one by one before dealing with the man himself. (He kills him the same way as in the film, though, blowing Rostov away with Rostov’s own grenade launcher.) But whereas the film ends right here, the novel continues on, giving us an actual wrap-up of what the hell happened to Rostov’s army and what the US is going to do to get a little vengeance. Adams, Hunter’s old CIA contact, informs Hunter that the government intends to form a strike squad, with Hunter as the leader, and the ending intimates that Hunter is going to take him up on the offer.

How about what isn’t in the novel? Well, for one the movie has more carnage – I think I read somewhere that the film has like a killcount of 160. The action scenes here are more smallscale – and by the way, Obstfeld doesn’t play up much on the gore. (Despite which there are actually more action scenes in the novel.) And unlike the film Hunter does not go into combat with a twin pair of micro-Uzis; Hunter does his fighting in the book with either a shotgun or a Hechler and Koch MP5 submachine gun. Some of the more infamous/goofy moments from the film are also absent from the novelization: there’s no scene, for example, where Rostov and his comrades blow up a bunch of peaceful homes with their missile launchers! Also no scene where Hunter saves a school bus of kids, tearing the bomb off their bus while driving – indeed, we learn in a news broadcast in the novel that a busful of schoolkids has been blown up. And most importantly, in the novel Hunter doesn’t have a pet armadillo!

But man, if the film had been like this novel, Invasion U.S.A. would today be considered an ‘80s action classic alongside Commando, a movie this novelization has much in common with – the same kind of one man army protagonist who doesn’t take himself too seriously, the same sort of near-homoerotic burning hatred between our hero and the villain, the same sort of snarky banter between the hero and the female character, the same sort of irreverent spirit mixed with over the top action.

In fact I almost wish someone would just buy the rights and remake Invasion U.S.A., only base it off this novel, and do it old-school style: a solid R rating, no cgi, tons of James Glickenhaus-style blood squibs, and a pulsing synthesizer soundtrack. But that would never happen; instead the remake would be PG-13 and loaded with bad cgi, and for the Matt Hunter role they'd get someone like Channing Tatum, a guy who has all the onscreen charisma of a rectal tumor. (Actually the tumor would probably have more charisma.) But he's young and "hot" and looks like he just walked out of an Abercrombie and Fitch ad, so the producers would snag him because he'd appeal to the target audience of girls and sexually-confused tweener boys who currently rule our entertainment world, and so the remake would do great at the boxoffice, and they’d follow it up with a sequel that would be even worse, and the cycle of bullshit would just continue twirling on.

Sorry, I got a little lost there. I’ll wrap up yet another overlong review by stating again how much I enjoyed this novel – and not just because Obstfeld even found a way to reference Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, having Dahlia read it. Just another indication of Obstfeld’s comedic skill, really, having a character reading a brainiac book in the novelization of an idiotic movie.


Anonymous said...

I've had this novelization on my wish list for a while, but no one has been kind enough to purchase it for me. But now that I know there's no armadillo... I'm not sure I want it anymore.

Marty McKee said...

I bought this paperback at Amazon for *one penny*! It's really good, and I love the way "Frost" (thanks for clearing up his ID, by the way) opens up the story, giving us a long chase scene building up to John Eagle's death and creating the character of the sassy bar owner to provide humor and some backstory to Matt Hunter. Good stuff.

Jack Badelaire said...

I've got the movie on DVD, one of a staple of Norris movies along with Delta Force and Lone Wolf McQuade that I watch now and then after a few beers late at night, but I agree that it is a terribly plotted movie, literally just jumping from moment to moment with no cohesion. It's good to see that a far better version of the story exists, albeit in paperback form.

Glen Davis said...

IIRC, the woman reporter was originally supposed to be played by Whoopi Goldberg.

Chris H. said...

I picked this book up from a used bookstore recently. I remember seeing the movie in theaters and thought it was really dumb but I thought I would give the book a try. It was surprisingly good. Compared to a lot of books in this genre, I thought the writing, dialog and story was great. Too bad they didn't base the movie on the book...maybe it's time for a remake!!