There’s a trend in genre movies that doesn’t make sense to me: If the real selling point of your film is the interaction between its stars, why would you keep them apart for long stretches of screen time? If you’re Michael Mann and you’re working from a brilliant script with actors like Pacino and De Niro when they’re at the top of their game (Heat), then by all means, play all the games you want. We’ll wait, and we know it’ll be awesome when those guys finally share some the screen. But if your movie is as entertaining as watching a possum rot, what’s to gain from keeping your leads apart? Identity Thief immediately comes to mind, as the trauma of sitting through it is still relatively fresh in my mind. Jason Bateman and Melissa McCarthy are funny together, so what was the point of separating them for much of the movie?
2 Guns certainly isn’t the ocular and aural offense that was Identity Thief, but the two have more in common than you might think. Both are attempts to channel the R-rated charm of Walter Hill’s oft-copied ’80s output, most notably the violent and very funny buddy flick 48 Hrs. Neither hits the mark, but 2 Guns at least manages to land a few rounds in the vicinity of the bullseye.
True to its title, 2 Guns has exactly as many things going for it: a pair of charismatic leads in Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg. They’re fantastic together, and when the movie stays out of their way, it’s a lot of fun to watch them bicker, wrestle, fight, play chicken on dusty desert roads, and generally riff off one another. Unfortunately, the movie makes the same mistake that mucks up so many pretenders to Hill’s throne: It thinks the firepower lies in the bullets and not the banter.
Washington and Wahlberg star as Bobby Trench and Michael “Stig” Stigman, a pair of secret agents each convinced the other really is the bad guy he’s pretending to be. Each ignorant of the other’s true identity, the two are out to set each other up and, you know, take each other down. They finally end the charade when they pull off a bank heist that nets them $41 million instead of the $3 million they’re expecting. Both guys want to take the money to the agencies they represent: the DEA and Naval intelligence, respectively. Naturally, each agency has an agenda unknown to Bobby and Stig, and the guys are soon on the run, trying to restore their reputations and figure out who the Big Bad really is. It’s way more convoluted than that, but the numerous and increasingly ludicrous plot twists are just window dressing, and many of them take the film in the wrong direction, separating the leads rather than forcing them together.
If we don’t get enough interaction between Washington and Wahlberg, suspense in 2 Guns is even a rarer commodity. There are a few moments that tease greatness; an early standoff between Washington and a particularly nasty bad guy is tense and fantastic, but it’s also an anomaly that the film never manages to outdo, even in its explosive, bullet-riddled finale. We never doubt that both of the leads will survive, and everyone else is so plainly disposable that, at one point, I literally forgot one character was dead until I saw the bullet hole and remembered the execution that happened exactly one scene earlier. When viewers can’t tell if a character is deceased or just waiting for everyone else to finish their lines, it’s generally a sign that something is amiss. The numerous bad guys are fun—the standout is Bill Paxton, who chews more scenery than Godzilla as the film’s shadowy, bolo-wearing boss villain—but the rest of the supporting characters are lazily drawn and telegraph their dramatic purpose as clearly as if they were carrying blinking neon signs announcing their fates.
Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur, known in his home country for well-received genre fare such as Jar City and on these shores for the solid but less impressive Contraband, takes an increasingly rare low-key approach to putting 2 Guns’ confusing mess of a script on the screen. There’s hardly any noticeable CG, the camera work is clean and measured, and there’s none of the herky-jerky editing that mars so many contemporary action flicks. 2 Guns is a very nice-looking movie that layers a pretty, magic-hour haze atop a patina of Tex-Mex dust, manly sweat, and neo-noir grime. If only the script made better use of its real ammo, Kormákur could have moved to the front of the line of Hill wannabes. For now, though, he’s still just a hired gun.