Every time I crack the spine to another Gunsmith Cats omnibus collection (this is #3 out of 4), I end up with the same lopsided smile. Female bounty hunters, prostitutes turned explosives experts, drivers-for-hire, criminals, cops, and assorted underworld scum — it’s the best of every Hollywood action movie rolled into one, and it’s all in a manga. Heck, if all four Lethal Weapon movies had ended up being this good, I might never have gotten disenchanted with Mel Gibson.
Volume 3 opens with Rally Vincent, everyone’s favorite bounty hunter and girl gunslinger, still trying to live down the mess from the end of the last book. After being dosed with a powerful hallucinogen, Rally’s had her gun license pulled in the interest of public safety — and Rally without a gun is like a fish in an empty swimming pool. Worse, everyone around her makes the ghastly mistake of rubbing her nose in it (again, and again), and gun license or not, she’s determined to catch up to the man who screwed things up so badly: Bean Bandit, the man you hire to drive cargo from A to B , no questions asked. Rally goes after Bean and discovers, to her fury, he’s about to cut a deal to run another batch of the same drug that messed her up. Never one to pass up a challenge, Bean cuts her a deal: if she can prevent the whole thing from going down without firing a single bullet or calling in the cavalry, he’ll swear off dealing with the drug gangs for good.
Promises like that are made to be broken, though, especially when they come out of the mouths of hard-boiled goons like Bean. And we spend most of this first story (about half the book) finding out just how hard-boiled Bean is — he’s got a bulletproof bandanna, which he uses on more than one occasion as an offensive weapon, as well as protection against being shot in the face at pointblank range. He’s also a demon behind the wheel of a car — but Rally’s no slouch in that department either, and without a gun she has to fall back on her much-abused Shelby GT 500 as the only weapon she has. This leads to one of the book’s staple story elements — a car chase — but I love how Kenichi Sonoda takes something as stock and tired as a car chase sequence and invests it with the crazy improvisational energy you’d see in, say, the best Hong Kong movies. These sequences are also used to make points about character, even if at the most unlikely moments: at one point Rally and Bean are neck-and-neck, with an innocent bystander sprawled out on the road in front of them. With nowhere to go, they both manage to think of the same thing, a move that I cannot describe here because it is far, far better seen than described in any number of words.
The second half of the book kicks off with a wholly different flavor of plotline — instead of Rally tailing a gangster or drug kingpin, she’s been sent to nail a professional stage magician who’s lost custody of his daughter over after allegedly molesting her. Apparently the guy’s been stalking his wife — but after some digging, Rally realizes the guy may have been unfairly accused and the wife has a major hidden agenda or three of her own. “You were a daddy’s girl, weren’t you?” Rally’s sidekick Minnie May intuits — quite correctly, as we can see from a flashback where Dad doted on Rally and taught her the way of the gun against the wishes of her long-suffering mother.
As you can imagine, the custody battle is simply the lead-in for a much larger and more complicated plot — one involving the wife’s lawyer and a savage little blackmail plan that involves fitting the daughter with one of those Battle Royale-style explosive collars. Minnie May calls in her own bomb-tinkering boyfriend to help out, and at one point she makes herself over and stands in for the girl (something which leads to a very funny and very wrong backseat conversation with one of the girl’s pre-teenage friends). What ends up saving the day is not just Rally’s remarkable accuracy with her gun, but the way she and her friends work in concert to make the mother realize she was not the betrayer but one of the betrayed as well.
Under all the spent shell casings and bullet wounds, Gunsmith Cats is about loyalty and the ties that people forge between each other — that a lot of what you reap in life comes from the company you choose to keep, and not just where you came from. It’s also about how you can use the fuse pin from a grenade to ignite a pool of gasoline under a car. Mustn’t forget that part. And where else are you going to get 450-plus pages of this kind of rollicking fun for $17?