The Guns of Sin City
While legendary author and artist Frank Miller made his reputation in saving the then moribund Superhero comic book industry, rescuing Daredevil from certain cancellation and turning Batman from kitschy camp into a gritty, tough, newly relevant story with his groundbreaking 1986 graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, his first love was the American hardboiled noir crime story. When he arrived in New York with a bundle of sample sketches under his arm, they weren’t of costumed crime fighters in tights but cynical detectives in trench coats driving old cars. Getting onto the Daredevil writing team allowed him to unite these worlds, but it wasn’t until leaving DC Comics over a proposed content ratings system and setting up shop at independent Dark Horse Comics that Miller was able to fully explore the subject. Originally a small “yarn” in the Dark Horse Presents anthology, Sin City was developed into its own trade paperback in 1995 to critical acclaim and huge sales. The artwork was starkly black and white with only rare flashes of color, drawing from the German Expressionist ethic of dramatic edges and shadows. The stories were the comic book exaggeration of the classic American hardboiled detective fiction serials and novels like those written by Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Robert Parker and Mickey Spillane.
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The Sin City comic series captured the imagination of genius filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, who hounded Miller for the better part of a decade to team up for a movie version. Burnt by his bad experience with the big screen adaptations of his Robocop 2 and 3 scripts, Miller finally relented when Rodriguez promised to make a “translation, not an adaptation.” Sin City was one of the first digital backlot films, using extensive computer generated effects in post-production to import the visuals from the comic page into moving pictures. Unlike other early CGI productions like Sky Captain and the Star Wars prequels that aimed for hyper-realism and yet failed to cross the uncanny valley and convince the human brain, Sin City’s stylized motif works perfectly with the technology, creating an experience that fuses the best parts of the language and style of comic books with the action and kinetics of a motion picture.
The guns in Sin City are straight out of the pages of pulp fiction, the revolvers and pistols that featured as prominently in the modern American mythology of the private eye story as the Single Action Army and lever action Winchesters did in the previous cowboy western mythos, but we also get some modern touches.
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Miller has stated that the inspiration for near-retirement police detective John Hartigan (Bruce Willis) in the episode That Yellow Bastard was Millers’ disappointment with the fifth Dirty Harry movie, The Dead Pool. A deliberate homage to Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan, and Miller’s interpretation of what the last Dirty Harry story should have been, Hartigan of course carries a Smith & Wesson Model 29 in .44 Remington Magnum. First available in 1955, the N-Frame .44 Magnum was a slow seller, mostly popular with handgun hunters and dangerous game hunters seeking a hard-hitting backup sidearm, but when it starred in 1971’s Dirty Harry, suddenly Smith & Wesson was unable to keep up with demand. Despite some early law enforcement interest, the large grip size and heavy recoil kept the big bore revolver a weapon of experts and enthusiasts, and never became as common a sight in police holsters as smaller framed revolvers and semi-automatic pistols.
Colt’s revolver family has always played second fiddle to Smith & Wesson’s market dominance, and Hartigan’s turncoat partner Bob (Michael Madsen) carries a six-shot Python. Ceding the entry and service revolver market to Smith & Wesson, Colt’s revolvers favored mechanical sophistication and precise machining and assembly at the cost of a high sticker price, heavier weight and more complicated internals. Colt never could overcome Smith & Wesson’s sales lead, but their revolvers continue to maintain a faithful following among wheelgun shooters.
Another Colt revolver appears in Hartigan’s ankle holster, his “spare rod,” a short-barreled Colt Detective Special. The Colt counterpart to Smith & Wesson’s J-Frame, the Detective Special was a touch larger than the J-Frame, but also featured a six shot cylinder to the Smith & Wesson’s five.
After meeting up with the adult Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba), and needing a gun, Callahan arms Hartigan with her personal Ruger Blackhawk single-action revolver from under the seat of her Chevy Nomad. “I’ve taken it to the range a couple times. It kicks like a mule,” she notes. Straight off Ruger’s success in marketing pint-sized imitations of the Luger semi-automatic pistol and Colt’s Single Action Army chambered in .22LR, a full bore centerfire SAA clone was a logical next step and the Blackhawk was an immediate success. Introduced in 1955 and initially chambered in .357 Magnum, the Blackhawk improved on the SAA with the use of coil springs instead of flat springs and was soon available in calibers from .32 H&R Magnum all the way to .44 Magnum and .45 Colt. Ruger Blackhawks are also seen on the hips of a few of the Old Town vigilante prostitutes and they’re props in Callahan’s strip show, but I had to watch the scenes a few times to notice.
Another Smith & Wesson competitor’s product shows up as several characters are seen with Taurus Model 85 compact revolvers. The Brazilian government had previously licensed Smith & Wesson revolvers and Beretta 92 series semi-automatics for domestic manufacture, and set up Miami-based importer Taurus USA to market them in the American market. Popular with budget-minded shooters, the 85 is a common carry piece for those looking to save a few dollars over a Smith & Wesson.
The Colt 1911 service pistol has always been a staple of American noir detective fiction, and several make their appearance in Sin City, most being Springfield Armory Inc. 1911A1 GI stainless models. After the closure of the Federal government’s Armory rifle production system in the 1960s, entrepreneur Elmer Balance registered the trademark name “Springfield Armory” and began building semi-automatic M14 variants as the M1A. In the early 1980s, Springfield Armory Inc. branched into building 1911 clones by importing raw slide and frame forgings from Brazil and performing the final machining and assembly in their U.S. factory. In a time when the only alternatives to Colt 1911s were cast guns of dubious quality, the Springfield 1911 was an immediate hit and spawned a variety of variants, sizes and finishes. The 1911s in the movie all appear to be the same “GI” model 1911A1, having a traditional spur hammer, low sights and short grip safety. The crossed cannon slide roll marks are quite visible in detail shots.
These GI 1911A1s are the weapons of choice for several of the characters in the movie. Grizzled bruiser Marv (Mickey Rourke) retrieves his Springfield 1911 named Gladys from the toy chest in his childhood bedroom. Crusading private eye Dwight McCarthy (Clive Owen) carries a pair fitted with ivory grip panels in a fancy leather double shoulder rig, shooting them in an akimbo fashion straight out of Hong Kong heroic bloodshed cinema. Hitman The Salesman (Josh Hartnett) uses one with a suppressor in his line of business. Corrupt and vile police Detective Jack Rafferty (Benicio del Toro) not only carries one with pearl grips, but meets his end when his 1911 suffers a most improbable slide separation induced by a blocked barrel. The 1911 is vulnerable to damage from a barrel obstruction, but the slide assembly leaping clear off the frame rails despite the presence of the slide stop pin and hammer is not a realistic failure mode. Whatever, pal. It’s the comics. Let it slide.
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In a deliberate callback to Miller’s work on the Robocop sequels, the famous Auto-9 Beretta 93R shows up in the hands of a thug and later in Hartigan’s use as he rescues Callahan from a horrible fate. Originally featured in the first Robocop, an extended barrel and slide cover, a dramatic six-port compensator and a set of raised sights gave the 93R an air of menace that its parent, the more familiar 92, lacked.
The leader of the Old Town vigilante prostitutes, Gail (Rosario Dawson) favors a full-sized IMI Uzi 9x19mm submachine gun as her gun of choice. The roots of the Uzi date back to the 1940s when the nascent Israeli Defense Forces sought to replace the hodgepodge of Second World War surplus submachine guns then used to equip commandos, support troops, and vehicle crews. Genius designer Uziel Gal designed a compact, reliable bullet hose around a telescoping bolt, double-stack magazine that fitted into the pistol grip, and a grip safety intended to solve the safety issues that plagued so many of the WWII era open bolt guns. The Uzi was an instant success and was hugely popular with troops. It racked up over 10 million sales on the worldwide arms market and became a common sight in action movies and TV shows. The Uzi has mostly been retired in front line use in favor of rifle caliber carbines and more modern designs, but the
Betrayed and set up, Dwight must contend with a band of ruthless Irish mercenaries, most of whom are seen armed with the Austrian Steyr AUG 5.56 NATO combat rifle. When it was first introduced in 1977, the AUG was a radically new clean sheet of paper design that combined several advanced features. The rifle itself was of bullpup configuration, with the trigger and pistol grip located ahead of the magazine well, allowing for a full-length rifle barrel in a more compact design that didn’t rely on a flimsy or uncomfortable folding stock. The gun also introduced an integral 1.5-power optical sight as the primary sighting option, instead of the scope being an afterthought to the iron sights. Not quite selling in sufficient numbers to displace the AR-15 / M16 family in sales supremacy, the AUG has been very popular in the military market, equipping the armies of Austria, Australia, New Zealand, The Netherlands, and of course, the Irish Defense Forces.
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Talk about a sequel to Sin City started circulating almost immediately after the movie’s release in 2005, and given the amount of source material to work from and the commercial and critical success of the film, it would seem to be a no-brainer. But Rodriguez and Miller bided their time until 2012 to begin work on what the sequel would look like. Slated for release about when you get to read this, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For draws from Miller’s second Sin City book and features entirely new stories written by Miller and Rodriguez. With most of the cast from the first movie returning and joined by a cast of talented newcomers, the sequel looks to be shaping up every bit as awesome as the first one, and I’ll be the first in line at the ticket counter.
By Peter Barrett. Originally published in the Septemeber 2014 issue of GunUp the Magazine.