Review: “2 Guns”

Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg star in "2 Guns," here reviewed by film critic James Frazier.In “2 Guns,” a pair of mismatched lawmen find themselves trading bullets with bad guys and banter with each other, moving methodically towards a climax that sees nearly every character torn apart by gunfire. Does this sound interesting to you?

I don’t ask ironically. This kind of plot holds an ample degree of appeal not only to myself, but a significant swath of the public, who are often amped to see these sorts of movies. But “2 Guns” just takes advantage of that appeal, giving us something straight from the Hollywood cookie cutter, a once fine instrument distorted by decades of careless abuse.

“2 Guns” is technically well-made, as long as your definition of “well-made” means that the imagery is clear, the editing is somewhat coherent, and that none of the actors utterly humiliate themselves. But there’s no artistry or pizzazz to it, nothing that even makes it worth being called a movie other than that it runs two hours, plays in theaters, and has a handful of stars.

Those stars, all of whom give competent performances, really are “2 Guns”’s great asset. They include Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg, who play the protagonists, a D.E.A. and an N.C.I.S. agent, respectively. Through the course of the film we find out virtually nothing about either of them, except what they like to eat. When movies like “48 Hrs.” and “Lethal Weapon” gave birth to the buddy movie, they took great care to flesh out their characters and play off said characters’ strengths and weaknesses. Washington and Wahlberg have both proven capable of carrying a film on their own, but together here, they’ve a chemistry as explosive as gunpowder and ice water.

There are more actors, which, unfortunately in this film’s case, means there are more characters (two bland archetypes are bad enough). There’s Edward James Olmos as a Mexican cartel kingpin, Bill Paxton as a C.I.A. agent, Paula Patton as a D.E.A. boss (ha!), and James Marsden as a crooked Navy officer. I earlier said they give “competent” performances, because even though they are all capable of good-to-great work, there’s nothing for them to do here. Often, when discussing a great screen thespian, critics will comment on the actor’s ability to elevate the material. What they often don’t mention is that the material, good or bad, must be open to elevation. This film is so banal that Laurence Olivier would be unable to imbue a single scene with even modest interest.

Take the opening sequence. These movies normally start with an action scene, something to please the audience out of the gate. Here, we have a scene that sees Washington and Wahlberg arguing with each other and a hapless waitress about what to order for breakfast. They feud and fuss in a brisk manner that suggests the filmmakers thought they were replicating a Tarantino-esque cachet, when really they’ve captured all the magic of watching a pair of loudmouthed, self-satisfied jerks talking about pancakes. The movie repeats this scene endlessly, sometimes substituting the subject with that of the convoluted story, sometimes about friendship, but never anything worth hearing.

Roger Ebert often referenced a maxim of Gene Siskel’s: That a film should at least be as interesting as a documentary of the actors having lunch. “2 Guns” basically leaves us feeling like we’ve seen a documentary about Washington and Wahlberg ordering at a diner, and man, I now realize that few things in the world could be more boring than watching two movie stars discussing food.

The film sports one of those harebrained stories that don’t usually work when we give a shit, and feel like navigating a hedge-maze blindfolded when we don’t. There’s a lot of plot here, featuring the two leads as undercover agents from different agencies, initially unaware the other man isn’t a criminal, both of whom are compelled by nonsensical orders to rob small-town banks. There are so many names dropped, organizations and events referenced, that most scenes are stuck in a morass of expository dialogue. This is narrative sludge, featuring a gooey plot that serves to transport us from one idiotic set piece to the next, with the endlessly inane plot points, including a few grisly torture scenes, slowing us down.

There’s a big finale, with thousands of shots fired and a few dozen dead bodies or so, as well as perhaps the most improbable pistol shot in cinema history (don’t Army helicopters have bulletproof glass capable of stopping a handgun round?). But the violence isn’t exciting, because the movie itself doesn’t care who lives or dies, nor does any character seemed concerned about their mortality, even as the wealthy and important players stride casually into a certain kill zone. Most of all, “2 Guns” lacks aesthetic flair. A great action film like John Woo’s “Hard Boiled” takes punishing violence and makes it interesting through visual poetry. Here, in a movie without an artistic soul, the dead are just meat fed into a grinder. But hey, better to be dead meat than to watch these characters talk about it.