NRA: I love it when a plan comes together

Nicolae: The Rise of Antichrist; pp. 265-274

The final chunk of Chapter 13 will be familiar to anyone who grew up watching the TV shows of Stephen J. Cannell. These pages offer gunfire, explosions, and a mad scramble across the tarmac fleeing Bad Guys with bad aim. It’s almost like an episode of The A-Team, with Buck and Tsion as Face and Hannibal racing to the airport where Ken Ritz waits as Murdock, ready to fly them to safety. (What about Mr. T? you ask. B.A. Baracus is violently afraid to fly, so obviously Ritz/Murdock has already slipped him a tranquilizer and he’s sleeping quietly on board the plane.)

The main difference, though — and here’s a phrase I never expected to write — is that the writing was far, far better on The A-Team. Jerry Jenkins, alas, is no Stephen J. Cannell, and he’s in over his head with this kind of material.

dc1uvBuck Williams and Tsion Ben-Judah are racing across Egypt toward an airport in Arish. You’ll recall that they decided to go to Egypt because Buck had a dream in which he was Joseph having a dream-within-a-dream warning him to take Mary and Jesus and flee into Egypt. But they’re not so much fleeing into Egypt as fleeing through it. Now they’re just a few miles from the airport, but they’re being chased by an Egyptian border guard.

We were assured earlier that this border guard was a lazy rubber-stamping bureaucrat, but it turns out he’s an incredibly determined man — albeit one who doesn’t quite understand his job description as a border guard. After realizing that Buck had snuck into Egypt with a second, undocumented passenger, this man didn’t get on the phone or the radio to put out an APB on Buck and his school bus. Instead, he hopped in a car and headed off after them, despite their having a huge head-start.

But how did the guard know where to look for them? Well, apparently because Buck had told him he was heading to the airport in Arish. Sure, Buck had tricked the guards into believing he was traveling alone, but as far as they know he was otherwise perfectly trustworthy.

The geography here is all a bit wobbly. First the Egyptian border crossing was a half-hour drive west of the border crossing to exit Israel. What was all that space in between? Then there’s the odd question as to where, exactly, the border of Israel would be in the Greater Israel imagined by the Left Behind universe. (In the first book of the series we were told that Israel had vastly expanded its borders — peacefully, thanks to the agricultural prosperity of Dr. Rosenzweig’s miracle formula.) Since we can’t know whether or not Israel expanded westward, we’ll just follow the authors’ lead and pretend like they never said that, imagining this whole chase scenario unfolding with the exact same Egyptian/Israeli border that exists in the real world today. That’s still a problem, though, because Arish is only about 50 miles from where Buck crossed out of Israel, and he’s been driving for more than four hours already.

Oh, and did I mention that Egypt doesn’t exist anymore? The sovereign nation of Egypt, like every nation on the planet except for Israel, has been absorbed into the Antichrist’s Global Community — a borderless one-world government. So the Egyptian border guards and Egyptian soldiers in this chase scene should all be Global Community soldiers. But the only GC soldier we’ve seen in this whole episode was back in Israel — the one place that such soldiers shouldn’t be found.

Also too: The Antichrist’s GC air force just nuked Cairo like, two days ago. Maybe three days ago (the timeline is, as always, a bit fuzzy). So Buck should really be careful about heading west for four hours after leaving Israel because he’s probably getting close to the fallout zone.

Oh, and that sleepy little airstrip in Arish he’s heading for is probably overrun with refugees trying to escape the still-burning capital city of 7 million residents.

Wait, make that more like 3 million residents — since all the children disappeared 18 months ago, remember? I hope you do remember, because there’s no indication that Buck or Tsion or the Egyptian/GC soldiers or the authors or anyone else in this book remembers that even a little bit.

And but so anyway, Buck has a plan. When the border guard catches up, he’ll “holler” to the man that he can’t stop the school bus because he won’t be able to start it again. Then, after the guard agrees to follow him the rest of the way to the airport, they’ll just make a break for it — running onto Ken Ritz’s waiting Lear jet and taking off.

The guard, alas, is uncooperative:

Buck opened his window and hollered, “If I stop, this bus will stall! Follow me to Al Arish!”

“No!” came the reply. “You follow me back to the border!”

“We are much closer to the airport! I don’t think this bus can make it back to the border!”

“Then leave it! You can ride back with me!”

Buck misses this window of opportunity. The school bus really is in dire condition — liable to break down at any moment without delivering Buck and Tsion safely to the airport. The border guard’s car, on the other hand, is running just fine. The guard is also all alone and he’s unarmed. (The Antichrist, remember, instituted a planet-wide universal disarmament policy — no exceptions. The only people with guns in the OWG are his own GC soldiers, and this border guard is not GC.)

Plus, think again about why this border guard has driven four hours to chase down Buck instead of just getting on the radio and alerting the other authorities. Obviously, he doesn’t want those other authorities to know that he screwed up back at the border and let Tsion slip past. So that means he hasn’t told anybody where he’s going or who he’s after.

What all that adds up to is that this, again, is a scene that ought to have ended with the guard in his underwear, tied up with his own belt and sitting by the side of the highway as Buck and Tsion drive off in his spiffy little border-guard-mobile.

But instead Buck just keeps driving, devising a Plan B that involves a big bucket of gasoline and a cigarette lighter. And that, in turn, forces the border guard to do what he hadn’t done earlier: call for back-up. Now they’re setting up roadblocks ahead and massing at the airport to greet Buck and Tsion there if they should make it that far.

That means it’s time for a phone call. This one’s to charter pilot Ken Ritz:

“Ken, have you passed through customs there?”

“Yeah! I’m ready when you are.”

“You ready for some fun?”

“I thought you’d never ask! I haven’t had any real fun for ages.”

“You’re gonna risk your life and break the law,” Buck said.

“Is that all? I’ve been there before.”

This is some passable action-movie banter, with the proper tone mixing bravado and understatement. Buck tells Ritz to have the plane ready to take off as soon as they arrive, but Jenkins appropriately doesn’t have him let on exactly what it is he’s planning to do.

Ritz says he’ll have the engine running, and that taking off should be easy because “I’m the only plane going out of here tonight.” The airport at Arish is, apparently, as serenely unperturbed by the nuclear destruction of Cairo as the airport in Milwaukee was by the nuclear destruction of Chicago. (Thereby demonstrating that consistency is no substitute for continuity.)

The conversation gets interrupted as the border guard starts bumping his “squad car” into the back of the school bus to try to force Buck to pull over. And then:

“Ken, you still there?”

“Yeah, what in the world’s going on?”

“You wouldn’t believe it!”

“You bein’ chased or something?”

“That’s the understatement of the year, Ritz!”

And now the whole action-movie banter thing is ruined. Jenkins loses the proper tone and Buck loses his cool. The tone of action-movie banter should be inversely proportionate to the extremity of the derring-do it accompanies. Buck here exaggerates his situation — describing it as a bigger deal than it actually is. That makes the action of the scene seem less impressive and less dangerous.

Let’s replace Buck’s lines there with some C-grade action-movie banter as it might be delivered by any D-grade Bruce Willis wanna-be:

“What in the world’s going on?”

“Oh, you know, the usual.”

“You bein’ chased or something?”

“Well, just a minor difference of opinion with the Egyptian border patrol …”

That’s never going to win anybody any Oscars, but it works. Understatement makes the danger seem more impressive, whereas Buck’s overstatement makes it seem less so.

There’s a bit more car-chase type business in the final few miles approaching the airport, most of which kind of blurs into a single big muddle, and Tsion Ben-Judah deflates whatever tension there might otherwise be by reminding readers that the outcome of this car chase — like the outcome of all of history — has been preordained by God. “We need to strategize,” Buck tells him:

“Strategy? It is lunacy!”

“And what would you call what else we’ve been through?”

“The lunacy of the Lord! Just tell me what to do, Cameron, and I will do it. Nothing will be able to stop us tonight.”

The Lord, apparently, is feeling particularly loony. And he’s also a bit of a pyromaniac. Because here’s Buck’s divinely inspired plan for getting through the final big roadblock at the airport:

“I need you to pour all those gas containers into the one big water bucket, the one that’s wide open at the top. I’ll have the cigarette lighter hot and ready to go. If we come upon a roadblock I think I can smash through, I’ll just keep going and get as close to the runway as possible. The Lear is going to be off to our right about a hundred yards from the terminal. If the roadblock is not something we can smash through, I’ll try to go around it. If that’s impossible, I’m going to pull the wheel hard to the left and slam on the brakes. That will make the back end swing around into the roadblock and anything loose will slide to the back door. You must put that bucket of gasoline in the aisle about eight feet from the back door, and when I give you the signal, toss that cigarette lighter into it. It needs to be just enough ahead of the collision so it’s burning before we hit. …

“When that back door blows open and that burning gasoline flies out, we have to be hanging on up here with all our might so we don’t get thrown back into it. While they’re concentrating on the fire, we jump out the front and run toward the jet. Got it?”

You know, that old trick. The bit where you slam the brakes and swerve so that the flaming bucket of gasoline goes shooting out the back door of the school bus.

At the end of this long, mostly boilerplate “escape” subplot, it’s refreshing to finally encounter something that wasn’t a cliché I’d seen dozens of times before. This may be a stupid and unworkable stunt, but at least it’s an original stupid and unworkable stunt.

Sure enough, they get to the airport and find “a blockade of a half-dozen vehicles and several armed soldiers. Buck could see he would not be able to blast through it or go around.”

As Buck raced toward the open gate and the huge blockade, the patrol car still following close behind, the cigarette lighter popped out. Buck grabbed it and tossed it back to Tsion. It bounced and rolled under a seat. “Oh no!” Buck shouted. …

Partly the right idea there. It’s always good to introduce a late-developing little obstacle in the execution of the heroes’ plan. That can heighten tension and give that last little oomph to the suspense you’re trying to build.

But what you want from such things is the audience wondering how the heroes will manage to succeed despite this problem. You don’t want them wondering why the heroes were dumb enough to make their plan contingent on a rabbi successfully catching a red-hot cigarette lighter with his bare hands while standing on a moving bus next to a giant bucket of gasoline.

“I have got it!” Tsion said. Buck peeked in the rearview mirror as Tsion climbed out from under a seat, tossed the cigarette lighter into the bucket, and scrambled to the front.

The back of the bus burst into flames. “Hang on!” Buck shouted, pulling hard to the left and slamming on the brakes. The bus whirled so fast it nearly tipped over. The back smashed into the stockade of cars, and the back door burst open, flaming gasoline splashing everywhere.

The lunacy of the Lord!

Our heroes jump out of the front of the bus and, under cover of flame and smoke, make a run for the Lear jet.

Fifty feet from the plane, Buck heard shots and turned to see a half-dozen guards racing toward them, firing high-powered weapons.

Where did they get such weapons after the Antichrist imposed his universal disarmament plan? Apparently, they got them from the same Bad Guy arsenal that all the villains on The A-Team shopped at, because they all miss everything. (Well — almost everything. A bullet grazes Buck’s foot, giving him just exactly the sort of inconsequential injury he needs to accompany the sooty smears on his face that just happen to accentuate his cheek bones.)

They get safely on the plane and it takes off safely:

“Next stop,” Ritz announced, “Palwaukee Airport, State of Illinois, in the U.S. of A.”

Should we even bother mentioning that the U.S. of A. was, like Egypt, abolished 18 months ago?

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