Book and movie review: Invasion U.S.A.

In 1985, Cannon Films, the legendary studio behind a load of mostly bad but often fun low-budget films, released the Chuck Norris vehicle
Invasion U.S.A. The film was reviled by critics–Roger Ebert gave it a whopping 1.5 stars, while Leonard Maltin gave it the notorious BOMB rating and called it “Repellant in the extreme.”  In the shoot-’em-up ‘80s, though, who cares what critics thought? The film was a hit, doing especially well in the emerging home video market, and would have had a sequel had Chuck Norris been interested. (The script for the sequel eventually became Avenging Force, with Michael Dudikoff in what would have been the Chuck Norris role.)

The Book

I had never seen Invasion U.S.A., but remember when it came out and was aware of its reputation. So imagine my surprise when I came across a couple of articles that said, essentially, “The novelization of Invasion U.S.A. is actually pretty great.

That intrigued me, so I tracked down a copy and read it. And, yes, it’s actually pretty great.

The plot is rather ingenious. This isn’t a classic military invasion a la Red Dawn. Instead, the Soviets, in collaboration with a host of terrorists from America-hating countries and organizations, have launched a nationwide series of terrorist attacks to both destabilize the economy and turn Americans into tribes warring against each other. Terrorists dressed as Nazis shoot up a synagogue. A black terrorist dressed in the pimping-est clothes possible shoots up a country & western bar. Terrorists dressed as cops shoot up a dance of mostly Cuban teenagers. Other targets are churches, shopping malls, and schools.

Leading this effort is Mikhail Rostov, terrorist extraordinaire and evil genius. He has a key weakness, though–he is obsessed with killing Matt Hunter, a former Special Forces op who once humiliated Rostov and would have killed him had he not been under orders to keep him alive.

Hunter is now retired and living in the Miami area, catching alligators to provide to a local tourist trap for ‘gator wrestling shows. When the terror begins, his old boss attempts to recruit Hunter to fight his old nemesis. Hunter is not interested, but Rostov’s obsession causes him to seek Hunter out, and, in the process, kill Hunter’s best friend. Oops.

It is appropriate that Invasion U.S.A. was published by Pinnacle, because it is a stellar example of the men’s adventure genre. It’s got the usual tropes that men’s adventure readers expect and love–the violence (obviously), the feisty love-interest cum sidekick in newspaper reporter Dahlia McGuire, and some great twists along the way.

But what really makes it work is that author Jason Frost gives us characters. They are fleshed-out human beings, not just heroes, villains, and cannon fodder. The Cubans making a run for the promised land of America have stories, as do the teenage girls at the shopping mall, the kids at the dance, the guys at the bar. This is the best sort of men’s adventure novel, doing what makes my beloved Destroyer series so special when it is firing on all cylinders. It’s also the best kind of novelization–one that takes advantage of the printed word to add depth in a way that can’t be done on the screen, especially with this sort of material.

The ending hints at a possible sequel and series, and I wish Jason Frost (real name Raymond Obstfeld, who also wrote the Warlord series under the Frost moniker) would have found a way to spin off a series of Matt Hunter adventure novels, as was done with Dirty Harry and The Man With No Name. It could have been tremendous fun. Highly recommended to fans of the genre.

The Movie

…Aaand, then there’s the movie. Who says you can’t polish a turd? Jason Frost sure did.

Novelizations are typically based on earlier drafts of the script, as they need to be written before the film is complete in order to be released around the same time as the movie. Reading the book and comparing it to the movie suggests the following possibilities:

  • They wanted to make something a bit epic, like a smaller-scale Red Dawn, but lacked the budget and so didn’t film a lot of stuff that was originally planned.
  • They did film a lot more, but chopped it all out because the movie obviously stunk and they needed to reduce its already painful 1:47 running time.
  • Some combination of the above.

If any characterization or exposition was planned and/or filmed, it’s all gone from the released film, which is essentially just a nearly-incomprehensible bunch of strung-together action scenes and explosions. This renders the character of Dahlia McGuire, who served a real purpose in the book, entirely superfluous (perhaps a blessing, because Melissa Prophet is terrible in the few scenes she has). Why is she always there when the terrorists are striking her home turf? The book explains; in the movie, she’s just there. How does Hunter know where the terrorists are going to strike next? Sometimes they show him interrogating someone brutally to find out, other times he just shows up.

Really bad stuff. But don’t let that turn you off of a rollicking good read.