Starring: Denzel Washington, Mark Wahlberg, Bill Paxton, Edward James Olmos, Paula Patton, James Marsden, Fred Ward
Rating: R, for violence, profanity and brief nudity
By Derrick Bang
Enterprise film critic
This summer could be subtitled The Revenge of the Comic Book.
Or, perhaps, yet another reminder that imitation isn’t always the sincerest form of flattery.
I don’t refer merely to obvious candidates such as “Iron Man 3,” “Wolverine” or “Man of Steel.” “RED 2” and “R.I.P.D.” also are based on graphic novels, and the latter demonstrates the folly of believing that folks will queue up simply because something is a big-screen adaptation of such a property.
Clever ideas are a great start, but they’re no substitute for a sharp screenplay that understands the need to sustain our involvement for the next few hours. Many of today’s one-shot graphic novels suffer from the same malady that infects numerous movies: a slick one-sentence concept that doesn’t know where to go from Page 3.
Happily, “2 Guns” — derived from Steven Grant’s five-issue miniseries of the same title — rises above that level of mediocrity. Blake Masters’ screenplay is quite witty, and stars Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg get plenty of mileage from their snarky frenemy dynamic. If the core plot doesn’t always stand up to scrutiny, that probably wasn’t high on director Baltasar Kormákur’s goals anyway; he obviously set out to make a pleasurable popcorn flick, with enjoyable results. He achieves a tone that evokes pleasant memories of 1987’s “Lethal Weapon.”
As was true with “RED 2,” we’re not that bothered by whatever propels our central characters, as long as they keep entertaining us.
And, credit where due, this film’s twisty first act definitely keeps us guessing. If my next few paragraphs seem unduly vague or misleading, blame a desire to preserve at least some of the early surprises.
We meet Bobby Trench (Washington) and Michael “Stig” Stigman (Wahlberg) as they case the Tres Cruces Savings & Loan from a diner across the street in a small Texas border town. Their goal seems decidedly larcenous, but they can’t really be bad guys, because they flirt so coyly with the waitress, and because they’re our stars, fercryinoutloud.
One flashback later, it appears that Stig and Bobby are trying to set up Papi Greco (Edward James Olmos), a drug kingpin who does his dirty work in Mexico, while leading what seems an ordinary life as husband and father in an upscale Texas community. At least, it seems like this is what’s going down, but the edges quickly get fuzzy; far too many additional players pop up at the fringes of this undercover sting … if indeed that’s the game in the first place.
Frustrated by an unconsummated drug deal that would have concluded the case, Stig and Bobby invade the aforementioned Savings & Loan, where they believe Papi Greco has stashed $3 million in a safe deposit box. One quick escape later, our astonished buddies realize they’ve snatched somewhere north of $40 million: a crazy amount of money that rings all sorts of alarm bells.
And, in the blink of an eye, our heroes are targeted by not just one, nor two, but four sets of adversaries: Papi Greco’s goons; DEA agents led by Jessup (Robert John Burke) and Deb (Paula Patton), the latter having “serious history” with Bobby; U.S. Navy investigators led by Quince (James Marsden); and a seriously nasty group of guys fronted by the psychopathic Earl (Bill Paxton).
With so many gun-toting thugs on their tail — some of them wearing crisp Navy uniforms — Bobby and Stig begin to wonder if they can even trust each other. This rising paranoia adds plenty of amusing edge to their banter, which grows increasingly wary as each becomes more reluctant to turn his back during a firefight.
Kormákur and Masters keep us guessing for quite some time; even when some alliances appear to be resolved, others remain uncertain. The result is a combustible brew that is fueled, throughout, by the well-timed quips traded by Washington and Wahlberg.
Washington remains a fascinating presence in every respect, down to the most innocuous moments; he moves like a panther and adds engaging body language to a simple walk across a room. His tough-guy blankness melts into mocking challenge or amused disbelief, as a scene demands; his guileless sincerity brings more credibility to this nonsense than you’d believe possible.
Point being: Unlike many actors, who would sleepwalk through such fluff, Washington always brings his A-game. And we admire him for it.
Washington’s acutely focused Bobby contrasts nicely with Wahlberg’s amiable, language-mangling Stig. Wahlberg plays a guy who looks and acts dumber than he is: a misleading attitude that grants him an advantage more than once. Stig also is chatterbox, his relentless patter yet another means of distracting those around him. Trouble is, Bobby’s never sure if he’s one of the people Stig intends to distract.
Paxton is memorably chilling as the über-nasty Earl, the sort of smiling, bland-faced killer that movies of this stripe love to serve up. Earl’s affectation involves forcing captured rivals to endure a few rounds of Russian roulette: a gimmick that comes with a speech that hearkens back to Clint Eastwood’s “I know what you’re thinking” monologue, in “Dirty Harry.”
Marsden proves equally lethal, in a spit-and-polish manner, as Quince; Fred Ward makes the most of his brief appearance as a Navy admiral with a rather distressing means of “settling” some of the issues at hand. Olmos is quite persuasive as the sort of very bad fellow who knows that he never needs to raise his voice, because he’s the most powerful — and deadly — guy in the room.
Patton, so aggressively capable in 2011’s “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol,” does well with one of this story’s most complex roles. At first she seems little more than exploitative eye-candy, but Deb proves to have hidden depths.
The action dances from one side of the border to the other, and back again. Some of the plot sidebars are needlessly contrived, most notably a pointless detour while Bobby and Stig join a group of Papi Greco’s coyotes, as they herd some illegal immigrants into the United States. This seems a rather blatant — and gratuitous — political statement on Masters’ part.
Kormákur burst on the scene with 2000’s “101 Reykjavík,” made in his native Iceland; more recently, he worked with Wahlberg on last year’s “Contraband,” a slick but otherwise average crime thriller. Although Kormákur has a gift for well-staged mayhem, he occasionally succumbs to irritating “artistic” tendencies, such as the aforementioned flashbacks that interfere with the flow of this film’s first act.
Editor Michael Tronick cuts deftly but not intrusively, and keeps the pace lively; cinematographer Oliver Wood adds some grit with occasionally grainy film stock, but wisely doesn’t overuse the effect. I’m also grateful for the fact that, copious gunfire notwithstanding, the results are neither gory nor particularly bloody … unless, that is, we include the chickens.
That notwithstanding, “2 Guns” is ideal summer entertainment: easy on the eyes and brain, with plenty of empty calories to keep us engaged for 109 minutes.
— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at http://derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at www.davisenterprise.com