Long before Harris invented Hannibal Lecter, he invented Michael Lander, an embittered Vietnam vet who has been mentally unraveling due to the torture he went through at a North Vietnamese POW camp and the failure of his marriage as a result of his resultant problems reintegrating in society after the war. He is finally driven psychotic when he catches his wife riding her lover during woman-on-top sex, and the lover runs out of the house after beating Lander senseless.
Lander approaches a Palestinian terrorist group and offers to use his job as a dirigible pilot for the Aldrich Rubber Company to crash its blimp into the Super Bowl at New Orleans, and fire a bomb carrying hundreds of thousands of rifle darts into the stadium, which will kill in excess of 50,000 people in one stroke.
The only person who can stop him is a Mossad agent, Major Kabakov. Kabakov only knows that a man who may be American has met with a Black September-affiliated terrorist group (which they discovered from a tape made in advance, captured during a raid by the Israelis on one of the group's safehouses), and that the terrorists will "begin the year with violence." So, working with FBI agent Corley, Kabakov tries to figure out just where, when, and how said violence is to occur, hopefully before it's too late.
We watch in fascination as Lander's plan goes through with inexorable precision toward its deadly outcome, assisted by Dahlia Iyad, a woman who has a rare position of authority in the Black September organization. Some events become known to Kabakov, who eventually comes to the conclusion that the target will be the Super Bowl, in view of the statement in the terrorist announcement that was captured early.
The novel and the movie have several differences. Kabakov dies in the novel, while Moshevsky dies in the film. In the movie, Muslim terrorist Faisal dies about halfway through, but in the book he lives and is taken to Israel to stand trial. The novel has the Super Bowl in New Orleans; the movie has it in Miami, as the film shot footage at Super Bowl X. The novel has Kabakov and his doctor Rachel Bauman entering into a love affair; the latter character doesn't appear in the movie. Finally, the novel used "Aldrich" for the company Lander worked for; in the movie, Goodyear actually approved use of their name and their blimp in the movie.
Not related to the 1960 Mario Bava horror classic.
- Ace Pilot: Lander was a highly decorated helicopter pilot before his capture, and is considered an expert blimp pilot by the rest of his Goodyear team.
- An Offer You Can't Refuse: When an Egyptian colonel who unofficially works with Black September balks at providing information about Dahlia, Kabakov says that if he doesn't and a successful terrorist attack on US soil takes place, he'll make sure the world (and by implication the American government) knows about their conversation, and that he could have done something about it but didn't. The colonel comes up with the information soon afterwards, but he also warns Dahlia and Fasil that Western authorities are onto them.
- Anti-Hero - Kabakov. In the book, Corley mentions to Kabakov how it's clear to him that Kabakov wouldn't care what he had to do to stop Fasil: "Warn me in advance? Warn me, my ass! You'd have sent me a postcard from fucking Tel Aviv, saying 'sorry about the crater and the tidal wave!'"
- Corley finds out that Kabakov had a hand in an incident that drove Dahlia into becoming a Palestinian terrorist.
- Anyone Can Die - Significant characters die in the book and the movie.
- As Himself - Miami Dolphins football team owner Joe Robbie has a small part in the film, as do CBS commentators Pat Summerall and Tom Brookshier.
- Badass Bystander: Kabakov and Corey use a Flashed-Badge Hijack to commandeer a helicopter to chase the blimp. Despite being shot at, and in danger of being blown up, the pilot does an excellent job of holding his nerve and is vital in saving the day.
- Badass Israeli - Major Kabakov.
- The Baroness: Dahlia Iyad as the sexpot version: foreign, sexy, sadistic, and fanatically devoted to Black September's cause.
- Bavarian Fire Drill - Lander uses the confusion caused by smoke from one of the blimp's engines (which he induced) to get the Goodyear ground crew to mount the bomb (disguised as "new camera equipment") onto the base of the blimp's gondola.
- Bland-Name Product:Averted, twice.
- The Goodyear blimp and actual NFL team names and logos are the two best examples.
- When Lander is posing as a telephone company lineman, one of the things he is wearing is a white hardhat with a blue (1970s) Bell System logo.
- Boxed Crook: In the book, Faisal, has a problem with Lander's mental instability, so Faisal sends a message to his handlers that he needs a pilot on short notice, who must be expendable. As it turns out, the Libyans have one who was convicted of drug dealing and is awaiting sentence: having both his hands amputated. The man is recruited by telling him he will be pardoned if he goes on a mission for his country. He is not, however, told that he will not live to see that pardon
- Chekhov's Crosswind - At the start of the film, Lander has trouble holding the blimp steady in high winds, and the network complains about his performance. Later on, just before the Super Bowl, he finds out he's been replaced by another pilot because of this. However, Dahlia is able to rectify the situation and save Stage One.
- Crazy-Prepared - Lander set up a secondary fuse to set off the bomb if the primary igniter didn't work.
- Dark Action Girl: Dahlia is a highly skilled killer, most notably taking out a squad of cops with a submachine gun in the climax.
- Deadpan Snarker: Kabakov, Moshevsky, and Lander all lay out some pretty dry snark in the book.
- Determinator - Lander. At times he seems more intent on proving himself than his terrorist allies.
- Also, Kabakov.
- Disposable Pilot: Kabakov and Corley's driver winds up being one of the casualties at the airfield in the climax, forcing the two agents to find a helicopter.
- The Dreaded: Kabakov, by every Arab in the book.
- Emergency Cargo Dump: After hijacking the blimp, Lander and Dahlia need to dump the TV equipment and the crew's bodies so the blimp can take off along with the bomb.
- Erotic Eating / Evil Tastes Good - In the book, Fasil is sitting in a place waiting, eating a piece of rich Swiss chocolate, then sensuously licking the melted chocolate off his fingers, and realizing if the Israelis ever found out his passionate love of high-quality chocolate they might be able to discover where he is.
- The Film of the Book
- Flashed-Badge Hijack: Corey flashes his FBI badge to commandeer a helicopter to chase the blimp.
- Flechette Storm - How Lander's bomb would work hundred of thousands of rifle darts propelled at the Super Bowl crowd by a half-ton of plastic explosive.
- Gadgeteer Genius - Lander builds a highly sophisticated WMD in his basement and sets up a remotely detonated bomb inside a phone to take out a potential security leak.
- Hero Antagonist - Kabakov again.
- Hollywood Silencer: At several points in the film version, characters use silenced revolvers. Most noticeable when Kabakov interrogates Muzi.
- Infraction Distraction: Lander gets the blimp crew to cover for him piloting the blimp, by pretending it's to spare Farley any embarrassment.
- Ironic Nickname - According to Moshevsky, some of Kabakov's co-workers in the Mossad call him "The Final Solution".
- Israelis with Infrared Missiles: Kabakov, Moshevsky, and (in the book) Rachel Bauman are all veterans of the Arab-Israeli wars, and Kabakov, Moshevsky, and their Mossad hit squad are still technically IDF soldiers.
- Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique - In the book Major Kabakov says to his assistant Moshevsky, when a man they are questioning won't talk, "I'm going to step outside for a moment. Perhaps the Captain would like some refreshments. Call me when he has finished eating his testicles."
- He actually goes through with it later against Jerry Sapp (the owner of a boat the terrorists used), though Sapp folds completely and quickly.
- Middle Eastern Terrorists: Black September, including Dahlia and Fasil.
- Moe Greene Special - Lander is going to be replaced as pilot of the blimp by co-pilot Farley. In both the book and the movie, Dahlia goes into the other pilot's room and kills him, leaving the "Do Not Disturb" sign on the door. Michael shows up to replace him, telling the crew that Farley called him at 2 in the morning and asked him to go in his place, claiming Farley had to go to a doctor because "some drunk broad stuck her finger in his eye."
- Mythology Gag - In the film adaptation, "When The Saints Go Marching In" (a song heavily associated with New Orleans) plays in the background during a pre-Super Bowl party. The big game in the novel takes place in New Orleans; in the film it was moved to Miami to take advantage of the real-life Super Bowl X.
- Oh, Crap!: Corley when Kabakov gives him the brochure on the Super Bowl.
- Once for Yes, Twice for No: Kabakov is interrogating another man where he has put a gun in the man's mouth, and tells him, "I'm going to ask you some questions and I want answers. Blink for yes, die for no."
- Pacifism Backfire: Kabakov avoids the opportunity to kill Dahlia at the beginning, thinking she's just a random girl who was in Najeer's room. He comes to regret it later.
- Product Placement: Goodyear gave permission and allowed its blimp to be used in the movie, and as a result there are lots of shots of the Goodyear Blimp. Especially when Lander and Dahlia are trying to land it in the stadium in order to kill everyone.
- Properly Paranoid: At the Super Bowl, Kabakov and Corley theorize that there might be a bomb in the Orange Bowl's stadium lights set to go off when they warm up; given Lander's skill with setting up bombs, it's not impossible, just wrong.
- Relocating the Explosion: At the film's climax, Kabakov and Corley chase down the stolen blimp in a commandeered helicopter. Kabakov kills Dahlia, mortally wounds Lander, and damages the bomb's detonator with an SMG. Unfortunately, the blimp is still on course for the stadium, and Lander is able to light the backup fuse (an old-fashioned slow-burning type) before he dies. With minutes to spare, Kabakov jumps onto the top of the blimp and attaches a cable onto it, and they're able to tow it over the Atlantic before it detonates.
- Room Disservice: Poor Farley.
- Sacrificial Lion: Moshevsky in the film.
- Sadist: Dahlia is described as becoming visibly aroused as she records the claim for responsibility for the bombing.
- The '70s: When both the book and movie are set.
- Shell-Shocked Veteran - Lander is a veteran of The Vietnam War, and already unhinged by the beginning of the bombing plot.
- Notably averted with Kabakov, whose backstory is that he was a child Holocaust survivor who had been fighting constantly for Israel since the age of ten, yet remains level-headed, determined, and (in the book) capable of enjoying happy company and a relationship.
- Sickbed Slaying: After Kabakov is wounded by a bomb intended to silence the ship captain who smuggled in the plastic explosives for the plot, Dahlia disguises herself as a nurse and tried to kill him in his hospital room with an injection of potassium chloride. Moshevsky catches her in time, but gets killed instead. Quentin Tarantino said this scene inspired the similar one with Daryl Hannah in Kill Bill.
- Sniping the Cockpit: This Major Kobakov's plan for stopping the blimp. He succeeds, but Lander turns out to be Not Quite Dead, and sets his backup plan in motion.
- The Stoic: Kabakov. He's described as defining courage as "doing what was necessary, regardless."
- Suicide Attack: Lander and Dahlia know the bomb explosion will kill them as well.
- Surprisingly Sudden Death: Captain Ogawa getting blown up by a bomb Lander rigged.
- Take Me Out At The Ballgame
- Tested on Humans / Too Dumb to Live: The rural hick who lets Lander "take a picture of him" with the prototype rifle-dart bomb.
- The Vamp: Dahlia to Lander, averted to the extent that he wants to mount a suicide attack and she's keeping him level enough to succeed.
- Villain Protagonist - Fasil and Dahlia, who are working to make Lander's plan work.
- Wham Line: "What exactly is this 'Super Bowl'?"
- Wouldn't Shoot A Girl: Kabakov is sent to kill a terrorist leader, but doesn't kill Dahlia, assuming she's just his lover. Turns out she's a terrorist as well, and is now more motivated than ever to carry out her mission.
- Your Head Asplode: Captain Ogawa's head explodes when he answers the telephone, thanks to a bomb placed by Lander.