November 06, 2023
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America has an oddly bipolar relationship with automatic weapons. On one hand, we feel that these guns are so extra special deadly that normal folks will often never even touch one. On the other, they are so cool that we flock to the local cineplex to see them exercised in their natural habitat. That’s honestly pretty weird if you think about it. Regardless, little gets my blood pumping faster than seeing my favorite action star unlimber something cool, select-fire and noisy on the big screen. While there are countless laudable examples, here are my five favorites.
Steve McQueen’s The Hunter is an underappreciated gem. This 1980 biographical depiction of real-world bounty hunter Ralph “Papa” Thorsen is funny, poignant, exciting, and cool. It was also McQueen’s last film before he succumbed to pleural mesothelioma at age 50. The narrative orbits around an incongruously soft-hearted bounty hunter. The sequence wherein Papa Thorsen flees a pair of enraged rednecks throwing dynamite from a combine harvester while behind the wheel of a black 1970’s-vintage Trans Am tearing through a cornfield is just hilarious. The story follows Thorsen’s exploits as he tracks down sundry bail jumpers. However, there is a dark thread throughout wherein a lunatic psychopath named Rocco Mason hunts Papa and his girlfriend over some unexplained slight.
Eventually Rocco stalks them both in a dark high school armed with an M-16A1 rifle equipped with an AN/PVS-2 night vision sight. Papa eventually rescues his girlfriend Dotty and flees the chemistry lab, turning on the gas taps as he leaves. Rocco unlimbers his M-16 from the hip on rock and roll, ignites the gas, and subsequently blows himself to smithereens. The classic star-shaped muzzle flash from the M-16 in dim light was adequate to illuminate the dark room. I’ve run that sequence back and forth a dozen times. This scene was shot with good old-fashioned blanks in the days before digital effects. Also, the real Papa Thorsen has a cameo as a bartender.
There aren’t but about ten people in the world who have seen the low-budget 1981 comedy heist film High Risk. That’s the real crime. High Risk rocks. It’s available for free on YouTube. Four buddies, none of whom have any serious military experience, are trapped in low-paying loser jobs. On a whim they pool their meager resources and travel to Colombia with the intention of robbing a drug lord and getting filthy rich. They score weapons from a shifty gun runner and arrange for a couple of hippies with a beat-up old DC-3 to exfil them from a jungle airstrip once the mission is complete. The flight service is cryptically called Adios Airlines. Their logo is a giant marijuana leaf painted on the side of the airplane. The nail-biting climax has our heroes trying to hold the drug lord’s henchmen at bay with some simply epic full auto MAC-10 action. At one point James Brolin runs his MAC sideways while stabilizing the gun by gripping the extended buttstock with his left hand. I’ve actually tried that myself. It doesn’t work well. When all seems hopeless the derelict DC-3 arrives just in the nick of time. The pilot then pops in a cassette tape of the Rolling Stones belting out Satisfaction as his crew chief unlimbers a belt-fed M-60 from the cargo door. Just describing that scene made me go back and watch the movie again. Trust me, it’ll change your life.
The 1983 crime classic Scarface had some fascinating origins. Loosely derived from a 1929-vintage novel of the same name, Scarface took the Depression-era tale of Al Capone and transported it into the 1980’s Miami drug wars. The end result helped define an era. The story was written by Oliver Stone. The movie was directed by Brian De Palma. Al Pacino’s depiction of Cuban refugee-turned-drug lord Tony Montana helped cement his position as one of the most accomplished actors of the modern era. Like most De Palma films, Scarface was violent, profane, and messy. However, it was the final shootout that really anchored the film. The trajectory of the narrative follows Pacino’s character as he rises from abject poverty to unimaginable opulence. Along the way, Tony Montana also loses his soul. At the climax, now stoked on his own dope and bereft of both friends and family, Montana has to face down a veritable army of drug cartel sicarios. Hopelessly outnumbered and lyrically outgunned, he retrieves an M-16A1 rifle equipped with an M-203 grenade launcher. His timeless line, “Say hello to my little friend!” became cinematic legend. Forget that his 40mm HEDP (High Explosive Dual Purpose) rounds seemed to arm as soon as they left the launcher and nobody paid much attention to friendlies that might be behind their targets, the final gorefest was pretty epic. As Tony’s lifeless body topples off the balcony into the pool below, a garish globe sports the neon slogan, “The World is Yours.” Brian De Palma was never known for his subtlety. The host rifle was a full auto M-16A1. The M-203 was a fairly cheesy theatrical prop. I’ve actually held that gun, and it wasn’t terribly impressive up close. The double magazines were held together with gaffer’s tape, and the front ladder sight was actually installed backwards. Regardless, in the right hands that rifle helped create one of the most iconic gun scenes in Hollywood history.
No list of this sort is complete without a nod to the M-134 minigun in the pioneering Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi action flick Predator. While the movie was awesome in its own right, watching Jesse Ventura and Bill Duke run that minigun from the hip set a new standard for Hollywood gun work. I saw the film in the theater back in 1987 when I was a soldier, and it changed my life. The hulking alien Predator hunting humans has become a theme throughout seven full-length movies, but that was not the original vision for the film makers. The original Predator was to be played by martial artist Jean-Claude Van Damme. Van Damme even suited up for some of the early scenes shot on location in Mexico. However, at 5’ 9” tall, his screen presence seemed insufficiently compelling alongside physical specimens like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Carl Weathers. Van Damme was ultimately replaced by 7’2” Kevin Peter Hall who dominated the screen. Incidentally, Hall also plays the helicopter pilot in the film. The M-134 used in the movie sported a custom mount built from, among other things, the handguard from an M-60 machine gun turned around backwards.
The trigger on the weapon was non-functional. The gun was operated off-scene by an armorer with an electrical switch. The power cable was snaked through the actor’s trouser leg. The weapon was down-regulated to 1,250 rounds per minute so the viewer could see the barrels spin clearly. The ammo pack carried 550 blank rounds which were good for about 25 seconds of continuous fire. However, to preserve the actors’ mobility, they usually only packed enough ammunition for about four seconds’ worth of mayhem. We have seen the M-134 used in a variety of movies since Predator, but nobody has ever quite captured lightning in a bottle the way director John McTiernan did here. I am proud to say that I have actually held the original Predator minigun myself. I thought I might never wash my hands again afterwards, but that eventually got kind of gross.
There are lots of cool gun movies out there, but one film easily eclipses them all. When James Cameron was making his studio pitch for his sci-fi magnum opus Aliens, he supposedly just stood up in front of the movie executives with a white board, took up a dry erase marker, and wrote “Alien$.” What resulted set an unassailable standard. Aliens came along at the end of the era of analog movie effects. That meant that Stan Winston’s aliens were monsters in the real world, and the weapons wielded by the U.S. Colonial Marines were made from the real steel. Cameron himself designed the small arms used in the film. They were built in England by Simon Atherton and his team at Bapty, the same guys who brought us the guns used in the Indiana Jones movies and Star Wars. The original M41A pulse rifles were to be built around HK MP5s. You can actually see an MP5 example on the “Peace Through Superior Firepower” t-shirt worn by Marine Ricco Frost if you look closely in the movie.
However, Cameron needed more muzzle flash than could be afforded by the 9mm Parabellum and subsequently opted for a World War II vintage M1A1 Thompson submachine gun as a starting point instead. The M41A pulse rifle in the movie narrative famously fires 10mm caseless light armor-piercing rounds and includes a 30mm over-and-under pump-action grenade launcher. The prop furniture came from a Franchi SPAS-12 shotgun, while the grenade launcher was a seriously chopped Remington 870 12-gauge shotgun. I would gladly give my 401k to own a screen-used original. The other paradigm-shattering gun in Aliens was the M-56 smart gun. This massive gyro-stabilized support weapon was built from a German MG42 belt-fed machine gun mounted on a Steadicam mount originally designed to support a movie camera. When I saw Vasquez yell, “Let’s rock!” and unlimber that puppy in the theater back in 1986, I very nearly wet my pants. Also, if you haven’t yet seen it, surf on over to YouTube and type in “Aliens Sentry Guns Deleted Scenes.” You’ll thank me later.
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