Thursday, March 28, 2013

Rambo III

Rambo III, by David Morrell
May, 1988  Jove Books

It’s usually dismissed, but Rambo III is my favorite of the Rambo movies. I place it up there with Schwarzenegger’s Commando as the pinnacle and epitome of ‘80s action movies. People usually complain that Rambo III is too unrealistic, a complaint which I find strange; I mean, who wants realism in an action movie? They should be all about escapism and fantasy, and Rambo III delivers in spades.

However I will admit that storywise the film has less substance than the average men's adventure novel. Rambo creator David Morrell felt the same way; in a recent ebook edition of Rambo III Morrell provides an introduction (which you can read here) where he states that the early scripts the producers sent him featured a more epic storyline, a sort of “Rambo of Arabia.” As the production went on and the script went through more and more changes, Morrell found himself swamped with conflicting revisions and plot changes. He decided to just push forward with his novelization of that earliest script, the final film be damned.

Whereas Morrell’s novelization of Rambo: First Blood Part II offered new and different layers to the iconic film, but still featured the same basic story, his Rambo III is radically different from the actual movie. In the ebook intro Morrell states that his novel was even significantly different from the early script he based it on. The end result is a pretty interesting book, only sharing the same template as the film, but playing out much differently. I don’t think it’s as good as the actual film, but it works fine as a novel, and in fact provides the Rambo character with a fitting end. (Well, about as fitting an end as when he got his head blown off in First Blood.)

The novel opens with Rambo living in Thailand, and Morrell informs us that it’s a year after the events of the previous book/film. Still mourning the loss of Co, still trying to avoid the truth that he’s a natural born warrior, Rambo gains admittance to a Buddhist temple and works in a forge. One of the more iconic (and parodied) scenes in Rambo III is that epic stickfight with the burly Thai martial artist, and it’s here, too, only in the novel it’s Rambo’s first time in the ring. He’s been inexorably drawn here, passing by the arena each night on his way to the forge, until finally he can’t help himself and gets in the ring to fight.

However he’s not here to win. Truly showing the depths to which Rambo has fallen, Morrell has it instead that Rambo only engages in the fight so that he can be punished. He wants to be beaten around, and is in the process of getting thrashed good and proper when he spots Colonel Trautman out in the audience. Trautman instantly figures out what Rambo’s doing – he knows Rambo could easily beat his opponent – and starts yelling stuff like, “Jesus Christ, John!”, just catcalling and jeering Rambo, which I found pretty funny.

Anyway this spurs Rambo to beat the shit out of his opponent, after which he meets again with Trautman, openly acknowledged as his “father” in the previous book. Trautman’s here because he wants to helm a CIA-backed operation in Afghanistan, running guns to the moujahideen warrior-tribes and teaching them how to fight off the invading Soviets. He wants Rambo to co-lead the mission with him. Rambo instantly says no, and that’s that. Just like in the film, Trautman is captured by the Russians a few weeks later, being ambushed after crossing over the Afghani border.

Rambo storms into the US embassy and demands to see the CIA agent in charge of the operation; unlike in the film, Rambo already knows something went wrong due to a strong case of foreboding. He demands that the CIA equip him for a solo mission to rescue Trautman. Once Rambo gets to Afghanistan the novel begins to significantly differ from the film. Hooking up with local contact Mousa, Rambo heads into the desert, where Morrell plays up on the adventure fiction angle he excels at, with the pair up against the elements. One gripping scene here is when Rambo and Mousa are almost buried alive by a massive sandstorm – a scene Morrell states was in the earliest scripts but was later jettisoned.

Rambo’s acceptance by the Afghani moujahideen warriors is more gradual here. First he must prove himself to them in a number of challenges reminscent of John Eagle Expedtior #4, including the mandatory bit where one of the tribal leaders instantly hates and distrusts this foreigner and thus challenges Rambo to a potentially fatal contest. And, as is mandatory, Rambo not only wins the contest but also wins the dude’s lifelong friendship and trust. Interestingly enough this tribal leader, Mossad, bears an eerie resemblance to Osama Bin Laden, described as tall and lanky and with a long, gray and white beard; he’s also the Soviets’s most wanted rebel, and is notorious among them for his terrorist activities.

Trautman meanwhile is getting beaten to death by his Soviet captors who are convinced he’s been sent here by the US government. Whereas the Soviet villains Morrell delivered in Rambo: First Blood Part II were mostly sadistic ciphers, the ones he gives us here are more three dimensional. Only one of them comes off as your basic flat “bad guy” type: Major Azov, who is willing to go to extreme lengths to get out of this “hell” of Afghanistan. But in addition Morrell also gives us Major Zaysan, who is disgusted with Azov’s inhuman torture of prisoners and openly fights against him, as well as Sergeant Kourov, Azov’s chief sadist who himself gradually becomes sick of following Azov’s orders.

Another character Morrell introduces (one that was supposed to be in the film) is Michelle, a “mannish” female doctor from the Netherlands who lives among the moujahideen and tends to their wounded. She develops a non-romantic bond with Rambo, and with the loss of this character Rambo III the film thus had zero female characters – that’s how much of an ‘80s action movie it is! Michelle though doesn’t add much to the storyline, and only plays a central role in the climax, where she endures a grueling escape across Afghanistan and to the Pakistan border alongside Rambo.

After a handful of taut action scenes where Rambo helps the Afghanis defeat small Russian forces, Rambo finally heads to the Soviet fortress to free Trautman. Here Morrell introduces yet another character, a young Russian soldier who has gone turncoat and wants to help Rambo and Mousa get into the fortress. I should mention that in this novel Rambo mostly fights with an M-16/M-203 combo, ironic given how he dismissively referred to it as “something out of Star Wars” in the previous novel, when Murdoch tried to equip him with the gun for his mission into ‘Nam. He also has his customary bow with explosive arrows, which Morrell runs down for us, but thankfully not in the excessive detail of the previous book. And of course he has his knife, which this Jove edition provides an illustration of in the text.

The fortress assault is where the film begins to fire on all cylinders, becoming an endless actionfest from there on out. In the novel the fortress assault occurs a little over midway through, and while it’s very exciting and gripping, it lacks the relentless nature of the film version – though I do like how in the book Rambo covers his face for the night assault with “leopard grease mixed with lampblack;” leopard grease because its scent will scare away the Russian guard dogs. Throughout this scene Rambo silent-kills a bunch of Soviets with his arrows and knife, until the sequence goes full-tilt with Rambo’s timed explosives going off and him mowing down soldiers with his gun.

I can imagine that Richard Crenna was pleased with the many changes the script went through; the role he was given as Trautman in this version of the story is pretty thankless, with Trautman reduced by his torture to a shell of himself, unable to walk or even speak, wholly in need of Rambo’s care as they make their escape. Actually it would’ve been an easy day on the job for Crenna, as all Trautman does from his escape on through to the end of the novel is lay on a stretcher while Rambo carts him around!

Morrell greatly expands the climax. While a maddened Azov gathers his soldiers and moves out in retaliation, the moujahideen split up in different groups and escape. Rambo, who spends this entire portion worrying over and caring for Trautman, insists that the Afghanis leave without him, as he’d slow them down. Mousa and Michelle however stay behind to help. Here the adventure/survivalist fiction stuff comes again with the group trekking across rough terrain as Soviet gunships and tanks gain on them. The situation Morrell describes though is much more hopeless than what Rambo encounters in the film, all of it compounded by the fact that he has to lug along a stretcher-bound Trautman.

As in the film it all leads to a final spectacular battle, with the moujahideen swooping in to assist their brave warrior-brother Rambo, but also Morrell weaves together all of his subplots about the bickering Soviet characters. Rambo himself doesn’t see much action here, too busy struggling to get Trautman to safety, only whipping out his machine gun/grenade launcher at the very end and blowing away some Russians. There is though a great bit where, overcome with battle lust, Rambo hops on a horse and charges down one of the main villains, hurling his knife right through the back of the bastard’s head.

So then, as for what’s in the film but not in the novelization…well, basically everything! The little kid who clings to Rambo and is given Co’s Buddha charm isn’t in the novel, nor are most of the action scenes. The action Morrell does give us is well done and entertaining, but again lacks the fantastic onlsaught of the film. And most unfortunately the novel doesn’t feature my favorite scene in the Rambo franchise, where Rambo takes on the nightvision-equipped Spetsnaz commandos in the caves. There’s absolutely nothing like that in this book, and Rambo’s “one man army” attributes are greatly toned down.

So while there is action, Morrell is more focused on Rambo’s internal struggles, in particular the torment of his soul. Religion is much played up in Rambo III, with Rambo starting off as Buddhist (which the previous novel informed us he learned from a Montagnard soldier during ‘Nam), but slowly coming to “think like a Muslim” due to his time with Mousa and the moujahideen. It seems to me though that Christianity, more particularly Catholicism, is the biggest theme here, with the constant stressing of Rambo’s suffering for others. There’s also a curious focus on how Rambo is always cutting his palms, how they bleed and are then cleaned and bandaged, all of which struck me as a sort of Christlike vibe. (I mean, he did die, after all…he is arisen!)

So could Rambo III be the world’s first action novel/holy text? Probably not, but Rambo does achieve a sort of divinity or at least savior aspect here, coming to this realization after his narrative-long soul struggle. Whereas the film also deals with Rambo’s aversion of his true nature, but then blows it all off at the very end with a witty exchange between him and Trautman (“John, I hate to admit it but I think we might be getting a little soft.” “Maybe just a little, sir.” – Wouldn’t be hard to take that exchange out of context, would it??), the novel follows the theme through with Rambo finally and fully accepting who he is and what he shall become:

The answer came at once. God had fated him to be a warrior. As long as innocent people were brutalized, he had a meaning. He served a purpose.

This actually sets the scene for the sequel, twenty friggin’ years later, where Rambo saves the group of missionaries in Burma in the 2008 film Rambo. One can only wonder what other adventures he had in the meantime (surely the Rambo: The Force of Freedom cartoon series doesn’t count…or does it?). And speaking of that 2008 film, Morrell unfortunately didn’t write a novelization for it; in the Rambo III ebook introduction he states that novelizations are mostly a thing of the past and thus a Rambo novelization would be unnecessary in this age of Blu Rays, DVDs, and etc.

I’d argue though that a novelization by the character’s creator would not be unnecessary. I would’ve enjoyed seeing how Morrell filled out the barebones storyline of the 2008 Rambo. And given that he’s recently been epublishing his novels, I wonder why Morrell never considered doing this latest Rambo film as an ebook-only novelization.

In fact in the ebook intro Morrell states that he was brought in by Carolco early in the production of Rambo III and came up with his own storyline for the film, with Rambo journeying down to the jungles of South America to save Trautman, complete with “a dramatic scene in an eerie Mayan ruin.” It would be great if Morrell just went ahead and wrote this story and published it on its own, but I’d imagine rights issues would be involved, and plus he’s probably not interested in writing yet another story about a character he killed off 40 years ago.

While this was my least favorite of the three Rambo novels (my favorite was actually Rambo: First Blood Part II), it was still great, providing a fitting and satisfying conclusion to the saga.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Rambo: First Blood Part II

Rambo: First Blood Part II, by David Morrell
May, 1985  Jove Books

In my novel First Blood, Rambo dies. In the movies, he lives.

With this pithy introduction David Morrell launches into the novelization of the sequel to the 1982 film First Blood. It might sound obvious, but it’s worth noting that this truly is a sequel to the film and not Morrell’s original 1972 bestseller. Beyond the fact that Rambo is still alive (he got his head blown off by Trautman in the book), even the minor details are taken from the movie and not the novel. It should also be noted that this novelization is an excellent piece of work, and shouldn’t just be disregarded as a quickie cash-in.

In a recent ebook edition of Rambo: First Blood Part II (hereafter just Rambo for reasons of laziness…but then, that’s how everyone referred to it until the 2008 Rambo really confused things), Morrell provides an introduction where he explains how he came to write this novelization (you can read this introduction here). Finding that he still had more to tell about Rambo, Morrell crafted this novel from the workprint (he was given a video tape of the already-completed film by the producers), James Cameron’s original script, and his own ideas. Morrell’s intent was to make it seem that the movie had actually been based on the novel, as was the case with First Blood. And he succeeds in every way.

To put my bias out front, I much prefer Rambo to First Blood. In fact First Blood is my least favorite of all four Rambo films. Rambo though is just one of the best action movies ever made, and it’s hard to imagine now the excitement that overtook kids my age when it came out in the summer of 1985. Sure, I was seven or so years younger than the R rating permitted, but as fate would have it my brother’s seven years older than me, and so was able to get me in as my “guardian.” I can still recall the excitement that rippled through the audience in that Frostburg, Maryland theater, and promptly after the film I went out and bought this Jove mass market paperback at a WaldenBooks store.

I read the book then, and about the only thing I remember about that reading is that I got pissed off over the differences from the movie! I guess I was expecting a straight-up transcript, who knows. But anyway I still have my original copy, one of the few books I still have from my childhood (and it’s in practically new shape, a testament to my lifelong book nerdishness). I had a blast reading it again, all these years later. I’d even go so far as to say I enjoyed it more than First Blood itself.

Morrell’s writing here is leaner, tighter. First Blood was tight, too, but parts of it were very literary, very much of its time. Rambo on the other hand is straight-up men’s adventure fiction (obviously though of a higher literary caliber than the genre norm), with none of the John Gardner-esque soul-plumbing of the original novel. Unfortunately it also tones down the metaphysical bent of First Blood, though Morrell does manage to work a bit in with descriptions of Rambo’s Zen-based meditations, where he sort of transfers his consciousness onto inanimate objects.

The novel of course follows the template of the film, with additional characterization and extra incidents. Rambo is sprung from prison by Colonel Trautman and sent to ‘Nam, where he is tasked by shady “spook” Murdoch with collecting photo evidence of American prisoners of war, with specific orders not to engage the enemy. Instead Rambo and his female guide Co basically take on every Vietnamese and Russian soldier in sight and save the prisoners, while finding the time to fall in love. Morrell though had nothing to do with the creation of this storyline, and so was limited to adding extra layers to the material in Sylvester Stallone’s revised script and James Cameron’s original draft.

In the intro to the ebook Morrell enthuses over Cameron’s script, which I’ve read (you can too; it’s available online), and I have to say, I don’t get this revisionist appreciation of Cameron’s Rambo. It just feels wrong, and I’m not just talking about its buddy-cop aspect (originally Rambo was to have a partner on the mission, to be played by John Travolta!). If anything reading Cameron’s script made me appreciate Stallone’s writing all the more, as practically all of the memorable moments from Rambo came from Stallone’s script.

Anyway, as I mentioned this novel is really a sequel to the film. Trautman is clearly identified as a father figure for Rambo, the man who trained him, whereas in the original novel it seemed as if the two had never actually met. And also when Rambo reflects back on the incidents in “the town,” it’s always to things that happened in First Blood the film and not the novel, like stitching himself up after getting injured and, you know, not killing everyone. And Rambo himself is clearly described as Stallone, not the “nothing kid” of the original book; he’s also more charismatic, while at the same time indulging in a little self-pity, all just as in the film.

Probably everyone knows Rambo and what happens in it, which means I can avoid my usual digressive rundown of events. It all goes down mostly the same, only with some changes here and there…dialog moved around, scenes rearranged, more backstory, more description. For example, Rambo’s introduction, which Morrell takes from Cameron’s script, has Rambo in a mental institution when he first talks to Trautman. Morrell also adds a bit that informs us early on that Rambo can pilot a helicopter, with his escaping a CIA tail in Thailand and flying a helicopter himself to Murdoch’s command center.

The biggest improvement Morrell makes to the film is adding a wholly relevant subplot that Rambo is returning to the POW camp from which he escaped, back during the war. This was bizarrely downplayed in the film. Morrell has Rambo actually nervous about going back to this hellhole, and he sets up a boogeyman from Rambo’s past, Sergeant Tay, a sadist in the camp who tortured the prisoners and gave Rambo most of his scars. Morrell has it that Rambo has fantasized about getting vengeance on Tay for all these years, and guess what, turns out Tay’s still here, stuck in the camp for allowing Rambo to escape so long ago! In the film, Tay is the thin, moustached Vietnamese soldier Rambo kills with the exploding arrow, and he has none of the backstory of the character in the novel. This was a missed opportunity on the part of the filmmakers; they should've played up more on the fact that Rambo was returning to this hell from which he once escaped.

Morrell also improves on the Rambo/Co romantic storyline. Again using elements from Cameron’s script, Morrell makes Co a widowed mother in her early 30s, rather than the 20-something of the film; her husband killed in the war, her 12 year-old son in America (having been there since he was 5 or so), Co is a battle-hardened warrior-woman who works for the American “spooks” and has a master’s degree in Economics. Her chacter is a lot more fleshed out here than in the film, and her latching on to Rambo doesn’t seem as contrived. You easily understand why Rambo gradually falls for her. Also Morrell makes it clear that Rambo is not a ladies man…we get lots of detail on how he hasn’t been with a woman in several years because he is unable to get close to anyone, and we also learn the fun fact that Rambo sometimes masturbates! See, you’d never learn that from the movie!

Morrell also adds more gore than was in the actual film. During the bit where the river pirates betray Rambo and Co, Rambo chops off one pirate’s head with his knife, then literally blows another in half with a shotgun. (All of which is like the 2008 Rambo, actually.) Morrell also adds a few horror-esque sequences, like having Rambo and Co walk across a ravine filled with the skeletons of American POWs, and a very squirm-inducing scene where Rambo, being tortured by Tay and the other Vietnamese, is dunked in a “slime pit” filled with slugs that crawl over his skin and up his nostrils. The whole scene is as unsettling as the “Rambo walks across a ledge of bats” sequence in First Blood.

The Russian characters are also given a little more depth. The leader, Podovsk (Podovsky in the film), is himself a sadist, and becomes sexually excited in the scene where a captured Rambo is strapped to a bed frame and electrocuted. Podovsk’s dialog with Rambo is more fleshed out, and his fate in the novel is superior to that in the film, with Podovsk, the last Russian standing, attempting to barter the life of the POWs in exchange for his own.

In fact Morrell changes the majority of the finale, again taking much from Cameron’s script, like Co’s fate and Rambo’s destruction of the Soviet gunship. This scene is certainly the most ridiculous in the film, with Rambo blowing the helicopter away with a missile launcher…while the POWs sit right behind him in the enclosed space of the Huey. In reality they would’ve been killed by the RPG’s backblast! Morrell changes it to Rambo using a passenger-safe “Dragon” minigun.

The action however is a bit more toned down in the finale. In exchange though you get more dramatic thrust, in particular Rambo’s long-held desire to kill Sergeant Tay, and also his gaining of vengeance upon Yashin, the Russian hulk who kills Co in the novel. But the novel misses a lot of the film's iconic action moments, like Rambo coming out of the mudbank and slitting the throat of a Vietnamese soldier, or in fact any of his solo war against the Vietnamese search party. Morrell covers this entire sequence in relayed messages that come back to Murdoch and Trautman, or from the point of view of Tay as his soldiers are killed by an unseen Rambo. This adds a thriller sort of tension, true, but it would’ve been nice to see more action from Rambo’s point of view.

Otherwise Morrell’s writing is just as strong as in First Blood. Lots of vivid description mixed with a skill for getting into his characters’s heads. There is however an excessive bit where he baldly exposits on archery and Rambo’s hi-tech bow (which Morrell actually has Rambo think of as a “Ram-bow!!”), including for some reason an actual drawing of the bow inserted into the text. But this is minor and in reality what Morrell has done here is great, taking an archetypal film and adding new elements to it.

I can’t say though that I prefer Morrell’s novel to the actual film; as I say, it misses too many of the iconic scenes. But in exchange you get better characterization, better plotting. And a better finale; in addition to the already-mentioned stuff with Podovsk and the prisoners and Rambo taking on the Russian gunship, Morrell also wisely has Murdoch playing an extra card, sending his henchman off to ambush Rambo as he escapes in the damaged Huey with the POWs -- this too is adapted from Cameron's script. In the film Murdoch just sort of waits for Rambo to come get him. Also with this added (and improved) scene Morrell gives Trautman one of the best moments in the book, saving Rambo before Murdoch’s henchman can launch their ambush (he’s hidden in their chopper and puts an M-16 to the pilot’s head). In fact this scene gives justification to Trautman’s presence; in the film he doesn’t do much except trade banter with Murdoch and promise that Rambo will come back for revenge.

Anyway, Morrell’s Rambo is a definite success, adding new layers to a well-known classic. It isn’t just a great novelization, it’s a great novel.

And in a savvy bit of cross-marketing, this Jove paperback features an ad for the MIA Hunter series! Too bad Morrell never wrote an installment of that…I’d love to have seen Rambo team up with Mark Stone and his POW-rescuing pals.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

First Blood

First Blood, by David Morrell
September, 1982  Fawcett Crest Books

The cover of this Fawcett mass market paperback obviously ties in with the 1982 film, but the Rambo of David Morrell’s novel (originally published in 1972) bears no resemblance to Sylvester Stallone. We learn in the first paragraph that he’s “some nothing kid” with shaggy hair and a mangy beard, and in fact looks more like a hippie, enough so that conservative chief of police Wilfred Teasle is appalled by the sight of Rambo wandering through his little kingdom of Madison, Kentucky and promptly kicks the “vagrant” out.

Teasle’s hassling of Rambo is enough to make even the reader uncomfortable, as within the first few pages you’re already sympathizing with “the kid.” But the reader already knows that Rambo isn’t some hippie; he’s just back from ‘Nam, where he was a Green Beret who won the Medal of Honor. But Rambo was also captured and spent some time as a POW, finally managing to free himself and escape to American territory. During this ordeal though he sort of lost his marbles, and thus was discharged back to the States.

Now he wanders around the country, living off the land, unsure what to do with his life, barely into his twenties. Getting kicked out of small towns by redneck cops is nothing new to him, but this time with Teasle sets off a chord and Rambo vows that he’s not going to back down again. This time he’s going to fight back. Teasle keeps picking him up along the road and driving him to the town limits and Rambo keeps turning around and walking right back in.

Teasle could obviously just give in and talk to Rambo, but he’s a stubborn redneck bastard. Actually he’s more than that, as Morrell will later prove, but the novel hinges on Teasle’s stereotyping in the first pages, and the mistakes he makes thereafter. Actually Teasle comes off as more of the protagonist of the novel than Rambo himself does, with more of the “character meat” one would expect – more backstory, more subplots, more character growth, and more scenes from his point of view.

When Teasle forces Rambo to get a haircut before putting him in a cell, Rambo snaps back to his POW days, grabs hold of a knife, and guts a cop. From there it’s on, Rambo easily escaping the redneck cops and getting out into the woods. Morrell must be an outdoorsman at heart, because there is a lot of forest-life detail here, with vast portions of First Blood coming off like adventure/survivalist fiction as Rambo lives off the land, including a cool part where he kills an owl, hollows it out, and roasts its carcass on a spit! Every once in a while I hear an owl hooting out behind my house, and this novel now has me thinking…

My favorite part of First Blood has always been this opening section of Rambo in the woods, using his superior training and skills to take out Teasle’s cops. The movie neutered all of this. Here in the source novel Rambo is a true killing machine; there’s none of the “I just want to be loved” stuff of the film. He’s here to make a point, and he’ll kill as many cops as he wants. It’s not until later that he begins to regret it. But for now it’s very personal and he wants Teasle to get the message. The novel trades on the personal war that develops between these two men.

First Blood comes off like an action-adventure take on Moby-Dick, with Rambo and Teasle acting as both Ahab and the whale for one another. It operates on that vibe that powers Great Literature, with multiple readings possible in what is presented as an oridinary story of two men in a battle to the death. In Morrell’s hands this becomes a masterful theme, especially in how he makes neither Rambo nor Teasle the hero or the villain.

Teasle gets the majority of the narrative time, and as the story progresses you see more and more the nightmare he’s unleashed. As the bodies rack up Teasle begins to, correctly, realize that it’s all his fault. And yet you also feel sorry for the stupid old hick. He loses men he’s worked beside for decades,he loses his foster father, and he’s just lost his wife, who’s moved out and gone to California. But after escaping Rambo in the woods, Teasle becomes so obsessed with Rambo that it’s all he can think of, the wish to see “the kid” brought to justice being pretty much the only thing keeping him alive.

The middle half of First Blood is very heavy on the adventure/survivalist fiction vibe. One of the more memorable scenes in the novel has Rambo figuring out he can escape down into an abandoned mine – making this discovery just as he’s about to surrender himself to the National Guard – and then working his way on and on into the pitch-black shaft. Morrell proves his mastery with prose in a squirm-inducing scene where Rambo must get over a ledge filled with flesh-eating beetles, “putrid goop” all over the ground, and swarms of bats looming above him.

An interesting thing to note is that the character Trautman is much different in the novel. He has none of the “father figure” quality that Richard Crenna brought to the character. In fact, it’s implied that Rambo has never even met Trautman – Trautman was just the trainer of the trainers, not Rambo’s direct trainer. There are no moments where Rambo and Trautman meet face to face, and Trautman comes off as more cool and aloof, very much the professional soldier. As in the film he’s been brought here to help, but he doesn’t offer much assistance – Morrell understands his characters well enough to know that Trautman would in fact be proud of the hell “his boy” has unleashed, and indeed he is. It isn’t until the very end that Trautman sees that Rambo has gone too far, and thus decides to step in.

I think it’s pretty common knowledge that the novel has a vastly different ending than the film. Would it be considered a spoiler to give away the ending of a 41 year-old novel? In case it would be, I’ll leave it that both Rambo and Teasle have different fates here than in the film, the only fates Morrell has left possible for either of them. One thing I forgot to mention is the metaphysical bent Morrell also gives the tale, with Rambo and Teasle becoming so in tune with one another that they gradually find themselves dipping in and out of each other’s minds, with both knowing what exactly the other is thinking. This progresses to the point where Teasle even feels that he can see out of Rambo’s eyes. The metaphysical aspect finds its fullest realization in Rambo’s final moments, a scene which is downright touching.

Obviously the film version changed the majority of the novel. For one, Rambo doesn’t kill everyone in the movie, let alone the different fate he experiences. The film version of the character is also thoroughly softened around the edges. There’s no argument that the film version of Rambo is more charismatic and human. Not to say the novel version isn’t charismatic, but he’s been honed into such a killing machine that he operates most of the time on pure training, with none of the mercy the film version would show. Even toward the very end of the novel, when Rambo shoots a guy in the arm and doesn’t kill him, it turns out that it’s just a mistake – Rambo was really aiming for the guy’s chest, but his aim was off.

As for other stuff in the film but not in the novel…well, Rambo doesn’t stitch himself up here, so there goes that memorable scene from the film. In fact he suffers from swollen and possibly broken ribs throughout, and does nothing to repair them. He doesn’t have a survival knife, and there’s no point where he commandeers a National Guard truck or appropriates an M-60. No soul-barring moments between Rambo and Trautman, no protracted “man to man” dialog between Teasle and Trautman. In fact the entire second half of the film is different from the novel, and you guessed it, the novel is superior in every way. But then the two are wholly different animals and should be treated as such.

Morrell’s writing here actually reminds me of now-forgotten author John Gardner (of Mickelsson’s Ghosts and The Sunlight Dialogues, among others). Maybe it’s due to Morrell’s talent for getting in the heads of his characters, or how he brings to life Small Town, USA. But then even the style itself reminds me of Gardner, from the topical detail to the way the story unfolds. The only difference though is that if Gardner had written First Blood, the book would’ve been a bloated excess. Morrell is skilled enough and smart enough to keep it at a lean and mean 250+.

In the “you’ll never believe this” department, Morrell was actually contracted to write the novelization of the 1985 film sequel, Rambo: First Blood Part II. I bought that one fresh off the racks at a WaldenBooks store in 1985, and still have my copy, which I will be reading next. I guess it would be a re-read, as I read it back then, but given that I was ten years old at the time I don’t remember much about it.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Ryker #3: The Terrorists

Ryker #3: The Terrorists, by Nelson DeMille
October, 1974  Leisure Books

It bears his name, but this third volume of the Ryker series was not written by Nelson DeMille; it was actually written by Len Levinson. Len says it was a last-second job from his editor at Leisure, Peter McCurtin, and since the publisher owned the series rights they could hire anyone to write it.

It’s easy to see though that this is not the same author who gave us #2: The Hammer of God. For one, “hero” Ryker isn’t a full-bore bastard this time around, coming off more like your typical Levinson protagonist, and the narrative has that same down and dirty (yet still funny) vibe common of Levinson’s work.

I asked Len about his work on The Terrorists in my interview with him for The Paperback Fanatic #23. Here are his comments on it:

I wrote The Terrorists around the time that the Symbionese Liberation Army was in the news for kidnapping Patty Hearst. It also was around the time that some Weathermen made an error in their laboratory and blew up themselves and a townhouse in Greenwich Village, not far from where I lived on Christopher Street. Weathermen and their affiliates were shooting and killing police officers during those years, so I came to hate terrorism in all its self-righteous, hypocritical forms, and this attitude was expressed in the novel. Amazingly, some people nowadays consider Weatherman terrorists to be heroic figures and noble idealists.

There’s nothing heroic or noble about the SLA stand-ins in this novel; Len calls them the American Freedom Army, and they’re made up of inner-city youths who murder in the name of “democracy.” In fact they have more in common with the drug-created zombies of GH Frost’s Able Team #8: Army of Devils, rampaging through society with little concern for the police, blowing away “capitalists” with insane zeal. If you kill one, five more rise up to take his or her place.

The Terrorists is also like The Penetrator #4: Hijacking Manhattan in how it plays on all the fears of the average mid-1970s middle American – the AFA is mostly made up of blacks and Hispanics and they’re all under twenty and they’re all hippie scum. To make another comparison to yet another forgotten book, they’re like a more military version of the hippie terrorists in Burt Hirschfeld's Father Pig. They start their campaign on New York with the shocking abduction of a banker’s son followed by several massacres in Manhattan, showing absolutely no mercy.

Sergeant Joe Ryker is called onto the case by his captain, who humorously enough proves to be just as willing as Ryker to break the rules in order to see justice. This alone goes against the old “stupid chief” cliché and was fun to see. Actually Ryker’s version of the NYPD operates in a mode far removed from reality, where they can stage raids on supposed hippie terrorist compounds, armed with machine guns and grenade launchers, and then blithely lie to the Mayor’s rep that the hippie terrorists shot first!

I get the feeling that Len banged this one out pretty quickly, probably fueled by some controlled substances. (This isn’t a criticism, it’s something I demand from my pulp writers.) But still Len has a tendency to fill some pages here, especially with lots of stuff in ALL CAPS. He doesn’t give us much of a view on why the Army is like it is – they’re just a bunch of sociopathic hippie scum, and that’s that. He does however play up the lurid quotient, with several scenes of unarmed people getting blown away, tortured, and murdered. Surprisingly though, there isn’t much sex in this one, the first Levinson novel I can say that about.

Ryker comes off as a more likable person here. Rather than the hateful prick of The Hammer of God, the Len Levinson version of Ryker is just a dedicated cop with a knack for goofy humor and a tenedency to stray outside the bounds of the the law. He also has no problem with picking up hookers for the night. Like most other Levinson characters, Ryker lives in a crumbling flophouse sort of place, rides around town in taxis, and gets most of his meals from Chinese takeouts.

When the AFA kidnaps a banker’s son and then mows down a disco filled with clubbing socialites, Ryker gets on the job and starts tracking down clues. This mostly entails meeting up with a young snitch in a 42nd Street porn theater and hobknobbing with a mafioso named Zagari. Along the way Ryker also continues to work on another case, namely the unsolved murder of a circus midget with the great name of Charlie Salt. This subplot really doesn’t add much to the story and comes off like another incident of page-filling, and in fact Len leaves it unresolved at the end of the book.

Ryker himself sees a lot of action, another big difference from the previous volume. He finds the time to lead two assaults on the AFA, gets in a lot of chases, and even manages to collar a pair of juvenile delinquents who break into his apartment and attempt to make off with his color TV and stereo. Again the character has little in common with the DeMille incarnation, and in fact we learn that Levinson’s Ryker was a Marine in Korea and wants to move to China someday so he can eat Chinese food all the time! There’s also a goofy sequence where Ryker, at a Chinese restaurant, overhears some dude calling the cops “fascists” and Ryker tosses his food at the guy.

But the cops sort of are fascists here, going to any means necessary to bring in the AFA. Actually, they just want to kill them all. “Civil rights” have no meaning as Ryker and squads of machine gun-toting cops will storm suspected AFA quarters with no intention of arresting anyone – they just want to waste them. But then the AFA are shown to be such merciless bastards that you want to see them get blown away. Some of it’s too much, though, like when Ryker catches an AFA guy, has the morgue doctor drug him with truth serum, and then blows the guy away in cold blood once he’s revealed the AFA headquarters!

When Ryker wants to go even further than his permissive captain will allow, though, he goes to mob boss Zagari. The two have a friendly sort of “one hand washes the other” relationship, with Zagari giving Ryker underworld intel in exchange for Ryker letting off cronies of Zagari that get arrested. Once Ryker knows where the AFA is, he tells his captain not to worry about it and goes to Zagari, who puts together an army of mobsters. This entails the second of two major raids in the novel (in the first Ryker gets shot in the leg, but manages to walk it off), and goes to even more zany extremes than the first, with the mobsters basically unleashing armageddon on the AFA-run tenement building, blasting it to its foundations.

The goofy humor you’d expect from other Len novels is still here, if a bit subdued. Ryker has a knack for delivering some dumb jokes, particularly one about dope-smoking monkeys. Ryker also has a penchant for pondering things, again as is expected in a Levinson novel. And funnily enough, Ryker is referred to a few times as “Blaze” in the novel. This is something Len spoofed in his must-read The Last Buffoon, with an editor calling his protagonist Frapkin and telling him to change the name of the hero in Frapkin’s latest tough cop novel. This happened to Len in reality; he later wrote an installment of the similar Super Cop Joe Blaze series, and he discussed the name-switching in the interview:

I don't think I consciously based Joe Blaze on Ryker, although they were similar characters. Joe Blaze began as a different already-established Belmot-Tower character, don't remember his name; he probably was a rip-off of Ryker. While I was writing, Peter [McCurtin] called and said BT was spinning off a new cop series, so I should change the name of the main character to Joe Blaze and keep going. So evidently Joe Blaze was a rip-off of a rip-off. I more or less reproduced my conversation with Peter in The Last Buffoon, changing names to protect the innocent or guilty, another example of art imitating life.

This was the only volume of the Ryker series that Len wrote; DeMille returned for the next one, and then the series went over to “Edson T. Hamill,” which I’m guessing was a house name. As mentioned, Len also wrote a Joe Blaze installment, The Thrill Killers, and I’m betting it will be along the same lines as The Terrorists. At any rate I look forward to eventually finding out.

And here’s an interesting postcript to The Terrorists, once again from Len’s interview:

After Nelson became a literary star, his agent Nick Ellison mailed me a legal document with a letter asking me to relinquish my rights to The Terrorists. I signed on the dotted line because I couldn't imagine what could be gained by being a pain in the neck to Nelson.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Soldier For Hire #5: Libyan Warlord

Soldier For Hire #5: Libyan Warlord, by Mark K. Roberts
No month stated, 1982  Zebra Books

This was the first of four volumes Mark Roberts wrote for the Soldier For Hire series, and it’s just as over the top and Team America-esque as the last one he wrote, #8: Jakarta Coup (which unfortunately was the last volume of the series – Mike Madonna told me that a Zebra editor once informed him that Soldier For Hire was canceled due to low sales, by the way). Libyan Warlord is just as unhinged as that later volume, featuring lots of gory action and goofy but explicit sex, mixed with frequent Right Wing sermons and random rants against commies and liberals.

Our “hero” is JC Stonewall, a white-haired ‘Nam vet who now works as a soldier for hire (he hates the word “mercenary,” by the way, referring to it as a “communist” word). I wonder how Stonewall fared in the hands of the first author who worked on this series, Robert Skimin, for in Roberts’s hands Stonewall is a complete bastard, a loudmouthed know-it-all dick who rants and raves and doesn’t listen to any opinion but his own. He is in every way an awesome spoof of the typical men’s adventure protagonist, but I don’t think Roberts intended him that way.

Also we learn that Stonewall is just an outright murderer. I knew from Jakarta Coup that something happened in Stonewall’s past to make him hate communists so much; here we learn that a squad of Pathet Lao soldiers killed a woman he loved (and was married to?) during the Vietnam war. She was hacked apart and mutilated in horrible ways before dying, and Stonewall gained vengeance by destroying an entire village of suspected Viet Cong supporters, killing “every man, woman, and child.”

This is shocking enough; even more shocking is how Roberts shuffles this under the carpet and instead plays it up that fortune was on Stonewall’s side in that he pulled this before the My Lai massacre – another ‘Nam atrocity that Roberts implies was justified, and was only played up as a “massacre” by the Liberal press – and thus was able to get away with it scott free. There’s a part in Libyan Warlord where Stonewall gets in one of many arguments with Left Wing reporter Melissa Gould, and he uses this butchery of his wife to explain his hatred of commies and liberals…and I always love how these rabidly Right Wing sentiments are always based off of fictional inciting incidents.

Anyway, we get a bit more detail on Stonewall’s operating parameters here. His contact is an older Texas millionaire patriot who goes by the handle “Trojan” and hooks Stonewall up with missions all over the world. The usual deal, those high-priority missions that the regular military can’t handle due to all of the goddamn liberal bureaucrats who get in the way. This time word’s come to Trojan that Qaddafi is currently putting together a nuclear plant somewhere in Libya along with a missile-launching service that could carry out strikes on the US. Helping Qaddafi are a few rogue US soldiers and CIA agents, one of them the infamous Marc Tolliver, an officer in Vietnam who came under fire for openly praising the VC and their methods.

Stonewall’s mission is to destroy the nuclear plant and kill Tolliver and his men. He decides to bring along only one man: Hank Polanski, apparently a muscle-bound type who comes off as a complete clone of Stonewall. I really couldn’t tell them apart, other than that Polanski only has about 10% of the narrative. Also, Polanski prefers to drink beer while Stonewall hammers scotch; indeed Stonewall comes off like quite the lush, always worried about when his Black Label is going to run out.

Much like John Eagle Expeditor #4, Stonewall holes up with some Tuaregs in the desert of Libya and trains them into a strike force. The military feel is not so prevalent here as in Jakarta Coup, parts of which came off like military fiction; the training isn’t given as much focus this time and Roberts instead doles out action scenes more expected of a men’s adventure novel, with Stonewall usually going up solo against Libyan forces while on recon missions or whatnot. However it seems that part of the schtick of this series is Stonewall training native forces in proper military conduct, so there is some of that here.

Stonewall’s weapon of choice this time is a Sidewinder submachine gun, which I couldn’t find much info about online. Roberts actually dedicates Libyan Warlord to the creator of this gun, and has Stonewall enthusing about it throughout the narrative. Roberts also displays his usual gift for in-jokery by mentioning that Stonewall has heard of the Sidewinder before, reading about it in “articles written by that guy Roberts,” ie Mark Roberts himself. (I wonder what magazine this was in??)

And this volume of the series wouldn’t be complete if it didn’t have frequent sex scenes. Stonewall scores with a whopping five ladies this time out, starting with his blonde beauty of a girlfriend (a lawyer who argues with Stonewall over his political views); a stewardess (who does him right there on the plane, drawing some curtains around his first class seat for privacy!); another beauty who happens to work in a consulate in Cairo and throws herself at Stonewall immediately after meeting him; Najeed, the “liberated” daughter of a Tuareg sheik who also throws herself at Stonewall; and finally the liberal reporter Melissa Gould, who garners the most narrative time, arguing long and often with Stonewall over his political views. It’s to Roberts’s credit that he doesn’t have these two go at it until the very end of the novel, even though you know it’s headed that way as soon as Melissa appears and Roberts mentioned that she’s not only, you guessed it, beautiful, but also that she has large breasts, another prerequisite for a guaranteed Stonewall shagging.

One thing I’ve found typical about veteran pulpsters like Roberts is that they have a steady command of their narrative, chugging along and doling out action, sex, topical detail about the environment and customs of whatever place they’re in, and etc, but when it comes to the climax they rush right on through it. Which is to say the finale comes off as too hurried, which is odd given the amount of page-filling stuff earlier in the book about various desert-crossing trips Stonewall takes (all of which feature action scenes, thankfully).

To wit, Roberts basically forgets about Tolliver and his band of turncoats until the very end, having Stonewall deal with them rather quickly. Strangely though, it isn’t until this time that Roberts decides to fill us in on who exactly these guys are, giving us pages-filling backstories that have no bearing on anything. So by the time Roberts gets to the long-simmering Stonewall/Melissa sex scene, he blows right through it in a sentence or two and then has Stonewall back in the US in the very next paragraph. He also just barely remembers to tie up a lingering question about someone who set up Stonewall at the beginning of the novel, but the resolution is pretty great, with Stonewall and Polanski hurling the poor bastard off of a rooftop.

The action scenes occur frequently and are filled with lots of gore, moreso than in Jakarta Coup. Stonewall kills hordes of Libyans with his new toy the Sidewinder, and also gets in a lot of close-quarter fights with an assegai tribal knife he picked up on an earlier adventure. He uses this thing to lop off several heads, and Roberts is sure to provide ample colorful detail about the ensuing carnage. Also worth mentioning is that Roberts is just as enjoyably detailed in the many sex scenes, leaving nothing to the imagination.

These Soldier For Hire books remind me a little of Norman Winski’s The Hitman series, with that same sort of ultra-heroic protagonist and overall goofy vibe. I prefer this series, though, just because Roberts is even more unhinged than Winski, delivering a nutcase “protagonist” who rants and raves against commies and liberals with such venom that he’d even put off Richard Camellion.

So I say again, if you are a fan of the movie Team America, you should check out this series, as it hits many of the same points…only it seems that the author of this one wasn’t being satirical. Which actually just makes it all the more entertaining!

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Stallion

The Stallion, by Harold Robbins
January, 1997  Pocket Books

It bears his name, but there’s no way in hell The Stallion is the work of Harold Robbins. I’ve been told that the last novel Robbins himself wrote was 1991’s The Piranhas, and after that the books published before his death in 1997 were actually the work of his last wife, Jann. Even if I hadn’t known that before reading The Stallion it still would’ve been obvious that another author was behind this novel.

For one, the writing is too polished to be Robbins. Too much characterization and scene-setting and topical detail, and also the novel doesn’t appear to be a coke-fueled first draft. But then on the other hand, the writing lacks that weird fire that burns so brightly in Robbins’s real work, and hence comes off as flat and lifeless, something you could never say about Goodbye, Janette or Descent From Xanadu. In fact, The Stallion is incredibly, utterly, irredeemably boring. An outright friggin’ snoozefest on par with Eric Lustbader’s The Ninja.

Anyway, the novel passes itself off as a sequel to Robbins’s earlier bestseller The Betsy. It comes off more like a piece of fan fiction, though. And I guess with Jann Robbins posing as the author, maybe that’s just what it is – the ultimate piece of fan fiction, even published under the original author’s name. In fact it looks like sequels to earlier Robbins novels were Jann’s speciality, given that the first book she produced under the “Harold Robbins” mantle was 1994’s The Raiders, a sequel to Robbin’s first major hit The Carpetbaggers.

But man, if The Raiders is as boring as this, then avoid it like the plague. This novel is just so bad in so many ways. For one, there’s this pedantic need to fill us in on every damn year that passes between The Betsy’s end date of 1972 and The Stallion’s original publication date of 1996, making the book come off like a breathless recap of the years. This alone is different from the real Robbins books, which would just hopscotch between eras, never to the obsessive level of this. I mean, there are “chapters” for years in which absolutely zilch happens, just there so the author could chalk say “1986” off of her list.

The plot is one thing, but the characters are another. They have nothing in common with the people we met in The Betsy. Other than their names, that is. Angelo Perrino, the star and occasional narrator of the previous novel, is here transformed into a Harlequin Romance-style cipher who literally sleeps with every female character in the goddamn book. (And by the way, the entirety of The Stallion is in third-person, so there too goes Robbins’s old penchant for arbitrarily jumping into first-person.)

The character to receive the biggest overhaul is Cindy, who as you’ll recall was a racing car groupie in The Betsy, a coke-snorting, Harold Robbins-type gal who orgasmed at the sound of roaring engines, which she’d blast on genuine quadraphonic speakers. Within the first several pages of The Stallion Cindy is transformed into a completely different character; turns out the “racing groupie” schtick was just a fad, and Cindy’s really a wealthy socialite who just wants to marry Angelo, bear him tons of children, and run an art studio!! Throughout the novel she acts nothing like her character in The Betsy, and it sure doesn’t come off as “character growth;” it just comes off like a totally different character. Which it is.

But (Jann) Robbins isn’t content to stop there. Number Three, aka Loren Hardeman the Third, Angelo’s nemesis, also transforms within the first several pages (which, remember, take place right after The Betsy) into a spineless fop who runs home every night to perform cunnilingus on his new wife Roberta, after which she whips him, Loren of course getting off on the whole bit! You won’t be surprised to know that Roberta is of course a wholly new character, one who manipulates Loren while also working with Angelo on the side, a domineering shrew who is intended as a Jackie Collins-type of character but just comes off as boring.

In fact, female characters take up the brunt of the narrative here, likely due to the female author; they make the decisions, do the deals, and of course, screw Angelo. Betsy, Loren III’s daughter and the inspiration for the previous novel’s titular car, is a case in point; in Harold Robbins’s original novel she appeared sporadically in the narrative, usually as a dope-smoking teen. Yep, she too is overhauled, this time into a determined young woman with an unfailing business acumen who is, guess what, completely in love with Angelo and also manages to have a child by him. (Angelo has a ton of kids in this damn novel; Cindy is also transformed into a veritable baby-machine, churning them out nearly by the dozen.)

Oh yeah, there’s sort of a plot here. Angelo grudgingly goes back to work for the Hardemans (who, remember, had him nearly beaten to friggin’ death in the previous novel), first designing for them a new sports car, and then later the first electric car. That Loren III ordered Angelo’s death in the previous novel is just sort of brushed under the narrative carpet. The storyline is just as flat and boring as the characters, complete with yearly recaps of what’s going on in the automotive world, board room meetings, business room squabblings, and backroom deals.

Here the novel does seem like a genuine Harold Robbins production, as you learn to endure this shit because you know it will get you to the good stuff. And there’s lots of sex in The Stallion, but it’s so boring, so juvenile. Mostly innuendo, with (Jann) Robbins having the characters talk dirty to one another and then fading to black before the action starts. Compare this to the real Robbins, were the sex scenes were so outrageous and unexpected. Because, that’s exactly what the sex is in The Stallion: predictable.

Funnily enough, there’s also a heavy focus, at least in the early chapters, on ass licking. I mean, literal ass licking. But the sadomasochistic stuff with Roberta and Loren III is just boring and cliched, and all of the other scenes are just the same damn thing: some woman, usually Betsy, will make a deal with Angelo, to be capped off by a little friendly screwing, after which the woman will of course tell Angelo that he’s the best she ever had, and from then on the woman will pine for Angelo and do anything to be with him. Betsy will even follow him around the globe, surprising him in his hotel room in the middle of the night, while Angelo’s wife Cindy is back in the States having their umpteenth kid.

And given the pedantic need to fill us in on every damn year, those kids eventually do enter the tale; one of Angelo’s sons for example becomes a model, and (Jann) Robbins wastes more of our time with his boring story. She also wheel-spins with some of the other Perrino brood, as well as bringing us up to date (as if we were expecting postcards) with the rest of the Hardeman clan offspring. It’s all just so tepid and boring and unrelated to anything in the earlier Harold Robbins novel.

So does any of the book have much to do with The Betsy? Sort of. The first quarter of the novel comes off like straight-up fan fiction, devotedly and obsessively filling in all the gaps from the previous book. Like, how long did that old bastard Loren I live? His fate is the only part of The Stallion that seems to come from a true Harold Robbins novel, with his revelation to Betsy on the night of his hundreth birthday that he’s been taping people having sex in his oceanside resort, culminating in his reveal of a tape featuring Betsy herself and Angelo. Betsy does us readers a favor by smothering the old bastard with a pillow, and Number One’s death is written off as a heart attack. But this murder bears hardly any repercussions on the narrative, and the novel never again rises to such trashy heights.

And man, what happened to the drugs??  There is absolutely zero drug use in The Stallion, very strange given that it bears the Harold Robbins by-line. We’re talking here about an author who would deliver characters that would snort coke, smoke dope, and pop amyl nitrate capsules under their noses during sex – and that would just be on a slow day! There’s none of that here, the drugs reduced to alcohol and the occasional cigarette, usually from a post-licked Roberta. As I say, the spark is gone, all the bizarre charm of a true Harold Robbins novel is missing, neutered into your average piece of PC ‘90s dreck.

The funniest thing is that “Harold” dedicates The Stallion to Jann – and if it’s true that she actually wrote this book herself, then that’s pretty damn hilarious. For in reality The Stallion is a total washout, a waste of your time. And it’s odd because it appears that none of the industry reviewers at the time of its publication seemed to realize that this was not the work of the man who’d given the world say The Adventurers; probably they did realize it, they just didn’t give a damn.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Doomsday Warrior #7: American Defiance

Doomsday Warrior #7: American Defiance, by Ryder Stacy
January, 1986  Zebra Books

The Doomsday Warrior series is becoming increasingly goofy; while the early volumes equally doled out goofiness and psychedelic New Agery, as the series has progressed the latter has been vastly outweighed by the former. In fact the books have become increasingly juvenile in their execution – still heavy in the sex and violence department, mind you, but delivered in a very clunky fashion.

I still appreciate the series for the fact alone that each volume picks up immediately after the preceding one, with little (if any) recap of what came before. This serves to invoke the feeling of an epic, and what with its heroic protagonists and barbaric setting the Doomsday Warrior has all the makings of a post-nuke myth. But damn it’s just the goofy writing that kills it…of the two authors who served as Ryder Stacy, it’s seeming more and more like the one who delivered the quality writing (like the Glowers stuff in #3: The Last American) has pretty much jumped ship and left the series to the other guy.

American Defiance lacks any of the vaguely psychedelic flourishes of previous volumes and dwells soley on goofy action scenes. But all is not lost; Stacy still provides humorous touches of the bizarre and lots of gore in the action scenes, not to mention corny sex scenes. There are also the obligatory nuke-spawned monsters, this volume seeing perhaps the most monstrous yet, these octopus-like behemoths that rise from beneath the earth and eat humans.

Anyway, Century City is still rebuilding itself after the cataclysmic events of #5: America's Last Declaration, and Ted “Doomsday Warrior/Ultimate American” Rockson has finally gotten back to fighting form after returning to his home base in the previous volume. After a bit of purple-prosed sex with his on-again, off-again girlfriend Rona, Rockson gets word that his true love Kim has been captured by the goddamn Reds. Kim as you’ll recall is the nubile young daughter of Langford, the newly-elected President of the (Re)United States. (That’s really how they refer to themselves.)

From here American Defiance becomes mostly a chase sequence, with Rockson and his team blazing out across the ruins of the midwest and then tracking back to Washington, DC, now the Red capitol of the US. Rona’s left pouting in Century City (and the authors finally have Rona getting a bit pissed that Rockson so casually sleeps with her yet still pines for another woman) as Rockson rushes off to save his true love – of course under the rationalization that Kim and her father would be veritable goldmines of information for the Reds, so they must be rescued before all of their Freefighter secrets can be discovered.

The Red-created mind breakers seen in the earliest volumes return here, with Rockson constantly worried that either Kim or her dad will be hooked up to one and their brains pumped dry. Rockson takes out his usual squad as customary from previous volumes, along with a handful of redshirts who meet the expected end. In some outright deus ex machina one of these guys turns out to be an older dude who happens to have experience in operating trains – not that Rockson brings him along for this reason – which turns out to be super-handy when they later have to commandeer a train!

About halfway through American Defiance I was getting a little bored with the same old nature of the plot…I mean, the stuff with insane KGB leader Killov plotting against depraved Russian US President Zhabnov was fun as always, with the authors taking special delight in making Killov into a total freakshow. But otherwise it was just the same old thing, with Rockson and his boys hauling ass on their “hyrbid” horses over the nuke-blasted ruins of the midwest.

But then the authors throw one of their customary curveballs, with yet another dash of deus ex machina; the surprise appearance of a squad of Australian commandos, who have friggin’ flown all the way over to the US just to help out, and coincidentally enough, just happen to parachute out of their plane right in time to drop them in the path of Rockson’s team! You see what I mean about the juvenile style here? But it’s just so damn goofy and unexpected that you have to go with it, and the Australians do bring a lot of life to the tale. (Unfortunately they aren’t decked out Road Warrior style, instead wearing khaki uniforms and big hats, and they ride about on camels instead of tricked-out muscle cars.)

Meanwhile Kim and her dad are themselves moved about the country, unbeknownst to Rockson. Captured near a Soviet base in the midwest, the father and daughter are then flown to DC under the orders of Zhabnov, who realizes that breaking these two will perhaps put him in the lead in his confrontation with Killov. But Killov himself has moved beyond plotting and launches an attack on the regular Russian army, thus initiating the civil war that has been building since Doomsday Warrior #1.

The attack on the Soviet base in the midwest is nonetheless entertaining, with all of the gore you expect from the series. Here too those monsters come into play, Rockson and the Australians luring them out of their homes in the crevices of the earth and leading them toward the fortifications, which the monsters plow right through. But then Rockson discovers that Kim and her dad aren’t even here, so they turn right back around and head for DC.

Here they commandeer that train, Rockson and his men attacking one Wild West style and taking control of it from the corpulent Red officers who are relaxing onboard. This sequence packs a quite unexpected emotional punch with the appearance of black porters who speak in Uncle Jim-style subservient tones to their Russian masters; when Detroit, the black member of Rock’s team, takes one of them aside to yell at him for his spinelessness, he finds out that there are more to these porters than meets the eye. The dialog the authors provide the head porter here is leagues above anything else in the novel and seems at odds from the narrative because of it.

As expected, it all ends with another action sequence, this time Rockson and team attacking the compound in DC in which Kim and her father are imprisoned. Here we have the first meeting between Rockson and Killov since #2: Red America, as Killov has now taken over DC, Zhabnov fleeing to parts unknown. This culminates though in one of those ultra-lame bits where Rockson could easily waste Killov, but instead just knocks him out and runs away. (True, Rockson later hurls a bomb into the room Killov’s inside, but of course the bastard’s able to get clear before it explodes.)

I almost forgot to mention the second goofy sex scene the authors provide here, almost a straight-up copy of the one back in the second volume, where Rockson is briefly captured in the building with Kim, and the KGB guards for absolutely no reason bring Kim in and fling her inside the cell with Rockson. The two of course immediately go at it, just a they did back in Red America. Kim also implies that she’s been “mistreated” by these Red soldiers, one definite difference from that second volume, where she’d remained untouched, giving herself to Rockson.

Maybe the most promising development of American Defiance is that it ends with Kim heading back to Century City with Rockson; she has never been there and thus has never met Rona, and I’m really looking forward to some sparks flying between these two characters. Meanwhile Langford has been reduced to a vegetable thanks to some mind breaker brain-frying, but then who cares? Everyone knows Ted Rockson’s the star of the show in post-nuke America.

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Fifth Angel

The Fifth Angel, by David Wiltse
January, 1986  Pocket Books

The cover of this mass market paperback edition references First Blood, but The Fifth Angel doesn’t hold a candle to Morrell’s classic novel (twelve years after reading First Blood I still find myself recalling scenes from it). But then, David Wiltse’s novel is more of a thriller/character study sort of thing, more given to dialog and introspection. What can’t be denied is that it has one hell of a premise:

It’s 1979 and Mark Stitzer, a ‘Nam-bred Special Forces badass, is part of a covert team which is being trained to sow terrorism in Moscow in the event of a nuclear assault on the US – in other words, a vengeance strike force. But while on a training mission Stitzer is buried alive for a few days and goes insane. Cut to 1984, and Stitzer has spent the past five years in an insane asylum. He escapes and heads for New York City, which he believes to be Moscow, ready to carry out his objective.

Given this description I envisioned scenes of a Rambo-type stalking around the inner-city streets of New York, blowing away mohawked punks who appeared in his blasted mind’s eye as Russian soldiers. But nothing of the sort occurs within the pages of The Fifth Angel. Unfortunately Wiltse is more concerned with delivering a “real” novel instead of the lurid aciton blitz I wanted. He’s also not concerned with delivering likable characters, either, particularly with our Rambo analogue Stitzer.

One thing that made Morrell’s novel great is that Rambo, despite being a killing machine, was still a character you cared and rooted for, even as he was blowing away redneck cops. Stitzer though is a homicidal maniac. This is of course Wiltse’s intent; his theme is that Stitzer has been trained to be a terrorist by the US military, and now he is loose upon the US itself. But Stitzer has none of the charisma of Rambo, none of his humanity. We never get a sense of who he was before he went insane, other than through the reflections of those he knew, and hence the novel loses the “fallen warrior” angle that could’ve made it so much stronger.

The other characters aren’t much better, mostly because they lack backbone or interest. Carl Thorne shoulders the brunt of the narrative, a young reporter who is Stitzer’s nephew. As the novel progresses we learn there is more to this; Stitzer basically raised Carl from the time he was twelve, after Carl’s parents were killed in a car wreck. Now Carl looks to Stitzer both as an uncle and a father, and still pays him monthly visits in the insane asylum.

I had a hard time figuring out Stitzer’s psychosis, and Wiltse leaves it vague. In fact, we don’t even learn what his training objective was until halfway through the novel. But Stitzer seems to think everyone he sees is a “copy,” and Wiltse infers that Stitzer is now so delusional that he thinks he is in Moscow, surrounded by duplicates of people he once knew and loved, who despite their perfect English and resemblance to his family and friends, are in fact Russians. And then later when he escapes, he clearly knows he’s in upstate New York and must get to New York City…yet somehow he still thinks of it as Moscow??

As I say, it really makes no sense, but I guess that’s a given when you’re dealing with the insane. At any rate this doesn’t stop Stitzer from coldblooded murder once he’s free, pulling stuff that firmly takes him out of the heroic realm. In the course of the narrative he kidnaps a guy, smashes out his teeth so as to fool CSI into thinking they’ve found Stitzer’s teeth, then kills the guy and feeds him to starving dogs. An even more unsettling moment comes when Stitzer, now living undercover in NYC with a lonely woman and her young son (why Stitzer’s doing this Wiltse doesn’t explain), murders both of them when the woman realizes that the man the police are searching for is Stitzer. As the novel progresses Stitzer murders more and more, even blowing up hundreds of people at a New York parade.

What’s frustrating is that throughout it all Carl Thorne can’t let go of his uncle/daddy issues and keeps wanting to stop the Feds from killing Stitzer. And to muddy the waters further, Carl is now sleeping with Stitzer’s ex-wife, aka Carl’s aunt. Not a blood relative, though; she’s only ten years or so older than Carl and married Stitzer long after Carl was being raised by his uncle. Still though this whole romantic triangle storyline is given too much focus in the narrative, Wiltse providing several sex scenes to take up more pages.

About the only interesting character is Stroup, the Trautman to Stitzer’s Rambo. Stroup was the major of Stitzer’s strike force and, to cue the old cliché, “taught him everything he knows.” Retired, Stroup comes in to help the Feds track Stitzer down, telling them they don’t have a chance in hell – they’ll never find him and he’ll kill hundreds, seeing his mission through. Stroup’s a mean bastard and is the only one who appears concerned with stopping the threat that Stitzer poses.

There are precious few action scenes; not until the end does Stitzer, launching an attack on a parade, get hold of a gun, which he uses to blast away a few cops and Feds. Most of his attacks occur “off-camera,” Stitzer planting bombs or poisoning water supplies. But all of this is generally relayed in backstory, and very rarely do we get to see Stitzer at work. The story is mostly told through Carl’s viewpoint, and hence is overlaid with his rampant introspection, doubts, and guilt.

A generally gripping story, with perhaps Stroup hunting after Stitzer, is therefore lost. Proof of this is given with the few scenes from Stroup’s point of view, in particular where he appropriates a shotgun, saws it down to lethal size, and goes out on the streets of NYC to hunt his prey. But again, there are precious few of these scenes, and the eventual Stitzer/Stroup confrontation loses power due to its being relayed from Carl’s wimpy point of view.

Wiltse’s writing is okay, good with the introspection and backstory and florid detail. He is however a wanton POV-hopper, sometimes jumping perspective between characters in the same damn paragraph. This always results in a demerit on my scorecard. He is however good at building tension and suspense; the scene where Stitzer kidnaps a poor security guard and slowly starves him is particularly nightmarish.

But still, I felt that a better novel lurked within this premise. Perhaps the biggest success of The Fifth Angel is that it made me want to re-read First Blood, which I plan to do posthaste.

Also worth noting is that the dust jacket of the original 1985 hardcover edition of The Fifth Angel features a blurb from none other than Burt Hirschfeld.