Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg make for a very enjoyable pair of double-crossed undercover operatives in “2 Guns,” another fleet, unpretentious caper pic from Icelandic auteur Baltasar Kormakur, who previously teamed with Wahlberg on 2012’s sleeper hit “Contraband.” Here as there, Kormakur shows he knows his way around an action movie better than most, keeping the pace quick, the banter lively and the old-school, mostly CGI-free thrills delivering right on schedule. Independently financed (by Emmett/Furla Films and Mark Damon’s Foresight Intl.), the $84 million pic could be just what the doctor ordered to cure domestic distrib Universal’s post-“R.I.P.D.” box office blues, with offshore prospects equally solid.
Based on the 2008 BOOM! Studios comics series by writer Steven Grant and illustrator Mateus Santolouco, the hyper-convoluted plot of “2 Guns” bears more than a passing resemblance to Oliver Stone’s recent “Savages,” with its dense web of American military types and government agents battling each other — and the Mexican drug cartels — over a multimillion dollar jackpot. It also pays affectionate homage to Don Siegel’s marvelous 1973 “Charley Varrick,” beginning with a bank robbery in the fictional town of Tres Cruces, N.M. (also the setting of Siegel’s pic), where partners in crime Bobby Trench (Washington) and Stig Stigman (Wahlberg) attempt to steal $3 million in cash belonging to Mexican drug lord Papi Greco (a terrific Edward James Olmos).
But there’s more to this bank — and to these robbers — than meets the eye. Unbeknownst to each other, Trench is an undercover DEA agent and Stigman an undercover Navy intelligence officer, each on a mission to bring down Greco’s cartel. The bank heist is supposed to be the coup de grace that will land the cartel boss behind bars. Except, like Varrick before them, Trench and Stigman find more cash in the bank’s coffers — about $40 million more — than they anticipated, and before long they’re on the run from a whole slew of bad guys who have their designs on the loot. Among them: Stigman’s Navy superior (steely James Marsden), Greco’s henchmen, and an initially unidentified group of government heavies (led by a deliciously oily Bill Paxton) who employ Russian roulette as their preferred interrogation technique.
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It’s spy-versus-spy for a while, with Stig even shooting Bobby in the shoulder and leaving him for dead in the desert, until the two figure out they’re each other’s best hope for making it out of this mess alive. So they pool their resources and set about playing all other sides against an uncertain middle. This leads to a series of slam-bang setpieces in which the two wronged agents try to recover the now-missing loot, variously gaining and losing the upper hand as they travel back and forth across the U.S.-Mexico border. As in “Savages,” there’s a wry, underlying sense in “2 Guns” of the international drug trade as a giant, Monsanto-like corporation in which everybody — from the DEA to the CIA — is in for a piece of the action.
Kormakur, who cut his teeth on commercial Icelandic films that were released internationally as arthouse attractions (most notably, the adaptation of bestselling crime novel “Jar City”), has taken to the American action-movie form like a fish to water. He seems entirely at ease shooting a pickup truck and a Ford Bronco doggedly chasing each other through desert brush, or Washington and Wahlberg playing a very dangerous cat-and-mouse game with the entirety of a Texas Navy base. At their best, both “Contraband” and “2 Guns” recall the work of Walter Hill in their emphasis on teamwork and their energetic, unfussy action staged with a maximum of spatial clarity. (The superb widescreen cinematography, with rich, noir-like blacks and blazing desert browns and yellows, is by Oliver Wood.) Though he doubtless has his sights set on bigger and more outwardly respectable studio projects, one of these a year from Kormakur would hardly be an unwelcome thing.
Where “Contraband” had a built-in rooting interest because of the peril in which the Wahlberg character’s family members ultimately found themselves, “2 Guns” has lower emotional stakes, despite Kormakur and screenwriter Blake Masters’ efforts to insert some latent romantic tension between Bobby and his estranged ex (a fellow DEA agent played by Paula Patton). But a movie like this rises or falls by the chemistry of its leads, and Washington and Wahlberg, two of the most likable leading men in movies today to begin with, are especially likable here. The roles are hardly the most challenging of their respective careers, but they invest them with a lot of personality and charm, from the way Wahlberg delivers an ill-timed quip to Washington’s constant fussing with Bobby’s array of designer hats. Thanks to Masters (a Roger Corman alum who created Showtime’s “Brotherhood series), everyone has smarter-than-usual dialogue to spar with. (Washington’s melancholy lament to Patton, “I really meant to love you,” is a line Bogart might have said to Gloria Grahame in “In a Lonely Place.”)
Airtight editing by veteran Tony Scott collaborator Michael Tronick enhances an ace tech package.