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You ever heard the saying, “Don’t rob the bank across from the diner that has the best donuts in three counties”?

Movie

2 Guns
(2013)

 

Denzel Washington is such a reliable performer, that it can get a bit boring. You end up knowing every gesture or inflection in advance, whether he’s playing a good guy or a bad guy. And his films are generally at least half decent, so you end up seeing them. Even in Flight (or perhaps especially in Flight; just watch him chugging down that vodka) where he’s giving it his Oscar-nominatable best, he seems too familiar. I think it may be because he’s an actor who is more effective the less he does. In 2 Guns he’s not doing less, but sometimes it seems like it. That’s because the last person I’d ever expect blows him off the screen; Mark Wahlberg.

It doesn’t compute, really. Wahlberg can be pretty forgettable if he’s cast against his strengths; put him in a Max Payne or We Own the Night (or The Italian Job or Shooter or Contraband – even though those are mildly agreeable diversions) and he barely leaves an impression. He fares even less well without the support of an action template; look at The Lovely Bones or The Happening. But ask him to play dumb, or stick him in a comedy, or just make him goofy, and he comes alive. He’s great in The Departed, a hoot in The Other Guys and is by far the best thing about Ted.  But I didn’t expect him to knock it out of the park here. He’s reteaming with his Contraband director Baltasar Kormákur, not obviously a recipe for chuckles. And Denzel tends to make short work of his younger co-stars (see also Unstoppable and Safe House).

But it’s Washington who’s left looking a bit tired; we’ve seen him do this too many times lately. The smartest guy, hip to the game, acting all tough but you know that he’s a nice family guy underneath (I even had this problem slightly with Training Day); for all his bag of tricks he doesn’t really disappear into his roles. The result is that Wahlberg seems more natural.  He’s playing an excited kid, eager to be pals with Denzel. While they both get good dialogue, it’s Marky Mark’s that really takes off; a succession of dumb-smart quips and unmannered innocence. Nevertheless, the pair has strong chemistry; even though the camaraderie is trying to a bit too hard in places.

The twosome play a couple of undercover guys, neither of whom realised the other was undercover. Wahlberg’s Stig is working for Naval Intelligence, Washington’s Bobby for DEA. Ostensibly to bring down drug baron Papi Greco. They rob a Mexican bank, only to end up with (a lot) more loot than they were counting on. And then they find themselves double-crossed. And then they find out each other’s identity. And then Wahlberg shoots Washington.

This is Blake Masters’ first produced movie script, based on Steve Grant’s graphic novel, and it’s clearly indebted to the profane, ultra-violent, densely plotted work of Shane Black (so much so that there’s even a somewhat suspect depiction of female characters – or in this case character). As mentioned, Masters is at times straining for the quick-fire buddy banter. To that extent, it’s not a complete success; there’s a nagging feeling that this is derivative of something better, content with an obvious line when he knows he could do better. Kormàkur’s direction is perfectly serviceable when it comes to the action, but he isn’t a particularly witty director (on this evidence). But it hits more than it misses, and the laughs that come thick and fast are entirely down to the performers (well, and the script). During the early stages, the movie struggles to hit a groove; the lines are there, the actors are heating their beats, but the director isn’t quite enabling it all.

That may be because there’s a slight floundering generally until the duo’s identities are exposed. They’re playing parts, but you don’t know how much, and Kormàkur (maybe it was there from the start, but it feels like an adjustment for little dramatic reason) throws in a flashback in the opening five minutes that pays off after twenty; it’s never clear why it was necessary, other than to mix things up a bit.

Nevertheless, as a storyline this is both consistently ridiculous and intriguing; it holds the attention with its disparate strands until the finale. And, when the climax arrives, the results don’t disappoint. There’s a conspiracy involved, and it’s always a pleasure to see the US government agencies, or the military, or both, depicted as fundamentally crooked (because, like, they are; right?) There’s a sop presented, as an attempt to balance it out for the average Joe (“You fight for the guy that’s fighting next to you”) who serves his country, but it’s pat and contrived. As if, amidst all this cynicism, someone thought they’d better throw in something aspirational.

This is, after all, a movie where one of the heroes suggests waterboarding as his next move in an interrogation and we’re presumably supposed to think it’s a good thing (actually, I’m not sure we are; the script is so self-consciously smart aleck that any apparent position may just be contrary for the sake of it). Maybe Wahlberg felt a little guilty about it all (he is a committed Christian, after all); his next picture is a slice of gung-ho jingoism from starch patriot and all-round War on Terror proponent Peter Berg. We can only hope it’s fractionally as good as Battleshit. Denzel, meanwhile, has remade The Equalizer. One wonders if it will play up the vigilantism or turn out more like a one-man A-Team. Certainly, the actor has been enjoying a spate of low-calorie anti-hero roles in the last couple of years; they’ve been consistently well made, but none of them have attained greatness.  2 Guns might be the best of this run, but it’s a movie you know you’ve seen before.

The picture has an expectedly flippant attitude to receiving and inflicting violence; everything is exaggerated and OTT – this is the other aspect that most reminds me of Shane Black’s work. When our heroes are imperilled, they are more likely to insult their abusers than kowtow to them.  Kormàkur’s eye for action is a keen one; he keeps the pace up and renders his spatial geometry coherent (always something to be celebrated in an age where shaking a camera is the go-to technique for any action sequence). The sharpshooting scene at Stig’s apartment is particularly effective, but the director’s work as a whole is confident enough that there’s little to single out. But I must mention that, as a keen observer of chicken carnage, this movie reaches a nadir of wanton devastation. The CGI chicken wrangler must have had his work cut out for him.

The guest cast are mostly very good, although Paula Patton’s poker face is abysmal, and Kormàkur singularly fails to limit the tells in this regard. It’s a consistent problem in murder mysteries where the cast of characters is very limited, that you are reduced to one or two suspects so the reveal isn’t really surprising (Sea of Love, anyone?) So too with double-cross plots.  Edward James Olmos Paxton is having a ball as the cartel boss, one with a penchant for urinating over his own hands. Fred Ward makes a welcome appearance (it’s not as if he’s stopped working, but his profile has been disappointingly low of late).

James Marsden is the weak link as Wahlberg’s superior; you need someone of equal presence to his co-stars, but Marsden only succeeds in getting worked up into a frightfully bad mood. He behaves more like a temperamental teenager than a naval officer. Pick of the supporting players is Bill Paxton, oozing malevolence and gifted with lines almost as funny as Wahlberg’s. It’s a treat to watch him, and he’s another actor who hasn’t been seen nearly enough on the big screen lately.

In a summer where spectacle has dictated content to repeatedly disappointing pay-offs, 2 Guns bucks the trend. It may be a little too reminiscent of the action movies of yesteryear, but it is also funny, well-staged and moves at a sufficient clip for you not to catch up with where its headed. Boring title, though.

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