Review: ‘2 Guns’ succeeds largely on the chemistry between Denzel and Wahlberg

Sometimes, when you order a hamburger, all you want is a hamburger.

No one is going to accuse “2 Guns” of being some bold reinvention of the action genre, but it’s a big jump forward for director Baltasar Kormakur. His previous American action film was “Contraband,” also starring Mark Wahlberg, and honestly, it did nothing for me. I didn’t hate it, but I also didn’t care for it. The whole thing felt inert to me, which happens sometimes with studio films. You can tell that people threw all the resources in the world at something, but it just doesn’t come to life. Those films are, in some ways, more frustrating than flat-out bad films, because it’s hard to pinpoint where things went wrong.

“2 Guns” begins with Bobby (Denzel Washington) and Stig (Mark Wahlberg) preparing to rob a bank, and there’s an immediate easy chemistry between the two of them. Wahlberg has become such a great comedy partner for actors, and whether it’s someone like Will Ferrell or someone like Denzel, Wahlberg seems able to establish a great comic rhythm with them. There’s a lot of legwork at the start of the film establishing who these two guys are and how they gradually ended up as a team. They’re both dealing with Papi Greco (Edward James Olmos), a Mexican drug lord with a penchant for violence, and the bank that they’re about to rob as the film begins is where they believe Greco has his drug money stored. We see that both men are undercover, working for different bosses. Denzel is DEA, and Wahlberg works for Naval Intelligence, and they each plan to reveal their identities as soon as the bank’s been robbed, thinking they’ll have the other guy dead to rights.

And of course, none of it is that easy. There are a number of other people in orbit around that money, including Paula Patton, James Marsden, and Bill Paxton as a total piece of trash CIA agent who has a particularly strong reason to want to catch up with Bobby and Stig. The script by Blake Masters is brisk, cleanly built, and does a nice job of setting up what the stakes are for each of these guys and for the other players in the mix. Olmos has several very good scenes, Fred Ward makes a nice appearance mid-film, and Patton and Marsden both play key roles in the fates of Bobby and Stig.

Oliver Wood and Michael Tronick play key roles in the effectiveness of the action as cinematographer and editor, but I have to give credit to Kormakur for going against the grain. Instead of leaning heavily on shaky-cam and visual overload, the action here is handled in a matter-of-fact old-school manner. You can see what’s happening. You can tell what the gags are. There were stuntmen in harm’s way. It’s small scale in the sense that whatever happens at the end of this film, whether the good guys or the bad guys win, it really won’t matter to anyone else. The world will go on being the world and no one else will ever know about any of this. So often today, it’s like studios think you won’t engage with an action film unless the stakes involve the very existence of civilization, and that’s simply not the case. What’s really at stake here are the lives and reputations of these two men, who both started out trying to do some good and who found themselves doing a lot of bad in the process. I like that, and both Washington and Wahlberg manage to ground the emotional stuff in a way that buys them permission to push the laughs in a big way.

Bottom line: I walked out of “2 Guns” with a big smile on my face, and that’s all I could have asked from it. If you like these guys, and if you’re a fan of solid, smartly constructed action comedy fare like “The Rundown” or “Midnight Run,” this film might not hit quite the same heights as those, but it’s a genuine pleasure.

“2 Guns” opens everywhere tomorrow.