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Ebiri on 2 Guns: The Guy-iest of This Summer’s Guy Movies

In case you were worried, there are a lot more than two guns in 2 Guns. There are many, many guns, and also bombs, and a beautiful red vintage convertible that blows up, and even a helicopter that crashes into a stampeding herd of cattle. It actually feels like a bit of a throwback to the testosterone-laced guy movies that used to dominate movie screens years ago. Oh, don’t get me wrong, there have been lots of “guy movies” this summer — in that there haven’t been many movies for women — but this one feels guy-ier than most. It has no four-quadrant ambitions, no crossover-hungry bloat. If guys didn’t exist, 2 Guns would have to invent them.

The film is based on a comic book series, about which I have little prior knowledge, so I don’t know how much it hews to that template. As movie setups go, though, it’s a pretty cute one, rife with possibility even when it doesn’t always make sense. We open on cool, patient Bobby Trench (Denzel Washington) and younger, scrappier Marcus Stigman (Mark Wahlberg) preparing to rob a sleepy rural bank near the U.S.-Mexico border. (We know these guys are well-prepared because they set fire to the diner across the street a few days prior — it has good doughnuts, see, which means it draws cops.) The movie then flashes back and reveals that these guys are both working undercover, unbeknownst to each other: Bobby is a DEA agent, and Marcus is U.S. Navy intel. They think the $3 million in the bank belongs to a Mexican drug lord named Papi Greco (Edward James Olmos). But after they rob the place, they discover that the amount is actually $43 million, and that it’s a secret stash belonging to the CIA. Not only that, but our heroes appear to have been double-crossed by their superiors. So now they’ve got drug lords, the DEA, a rogue group of Navy Seals, and the CIA after them, and they have to play everybody off one another in order to save their lives, get revenge, kill the bad guys, and/or maybe keep some of the cash.

A movie founded on a double-cross eventually has to ramp things up, and as it builds to the inevitable triple- and quadruple-crosses, 2 Guns stays on target by keeping things focused on the two leads. We know Washington is great at withered rectitude: He can do the broken good guy with a past thing in his sleep by now. As the DEA agent who’s been “walking through a Mexican sewer” for three years to get close to his man, he makes Bobby’s simmering determination very tangible, even touching. For Wahlberg, this is his second outing with Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur, a partnership that has proven surprisingly strong: Kormakur’s previous movies have been on the grim, dark side, and in their earlier team-up, last year’s admirably grungy Contraband, the director had the good sense to bring Wahlberg down to his level. The actor has never really made for a big, brash hero type, and in that film he stayed understated and soft-spoken — which made sense because he was playing a smuggler, a character who lives in the shadows.

As you might expect, in terms of both color palette and tone, 2 Guns is a lot brighter and bolder. And so is Wahlberg, playing a wise-cracking loose cannon. On his own, he might have been adrift, but here he’s playing off Washington’s sturdy patience, and the matchup works. The leads’ banter, even the way they move around one another, creates a little ecosystem all its own. You never want to see them apart, and whenever they’re separated, the movie loses energy.

The supporting cast is filled in nicely, too. As the agent sent to track everybody down and get the CIA’s money back, Bill Paxton has a grand old time playing a character with basically one setting. (Sample line: “Because it’s our money, because it’s a blatant act of disrespect, and because it’s our money.”) He’s a classic imperialist type, an old boy sleazebag whose sadistic glee becomes palpable whenever he gets to torture a captive. On the page, the character is nothing special — an ironic platitude-spouting psycho — but you see the kind of flamboyance a great character actor can bring to a one-dimensional role.

Olmos, for his part, lends credibility to another archetype, the grizzled south-of-the-border criminal patriarch who beheads those who cross him and whose men like to blow hapless chickens away for target practice (in just one of the film’s many nods to Sam Peckinpah). He gets cliché lines, but he sells them well with his jaded delivery: “You like my country weak and corrupt, don’t you? So you can buy cheap crap at the mall,” he tells the Evil CIA Guy at one point. (The response: “It’s a free market … Not a free world.” Like I said, this script isn’t winning any awards anytime soon.)

2 Guns gets more and more ridiculous as it goes along, but it’s also the kind of movie that likes to privilege little moments over big ones — where a running, jokey dialogue about one’s “people” can result in offhand bits of tenderness, and where big revelations about different characters’ true intentions can be buried in just a couple of glances or an indirect line of dialogue. As such, it never loses its ambling, ground-level quality. Even when major characters get killed, with maybe one exception, they get killed with a minimum of fuss. Indeed, for a movie with so many twists in it, 2 Guns never really jerks us around. This is what some summer movies should be like — clever in a stupid way, and stupid in a clever way.

Photo: Universal Pictures