By Melissa Agar
2 Guns (Universal, 2013) – Director: Baltasar Kormakur. Cast: Denzel Washington, Mark Wahlberg, Paula Patton, Bill Paxton, Edward James Olmos, & Fred Ward. Color, 109 minutes.
I am a sucker for a good caper film. Give me a movie where there’s a heist afoot, throw in some double and triple crosses, and I am right there with my bucket of popcorn. I took that attitude into 2 Guns, hoping for a good caper movie even though I was fearing the sort of bland action film that Washington and Wahlberg tend to make at least once a year. Imagine my surprise when I ended up seeing what may be one of the stronger new releases to hit theatres in recent weeks.
Washington and Wahlberg play Bobby and Stig. When we first meet the duo, they are arguing over breakfast orders before torching a diner across the street from a bank. Through a brief series of flashbacks, we find out that Bobby and Stig are out to rob a bank to get back at a drug lord (Olmos) who keeps a sizable amount of money in said bank. We also learn that Bobby is an undercover DEA agent and Stig is an undercover Naval Intelligence officer – and neither knows the other’s true identity. The duo robs the bank only to learn that the money belongs not to the drug lord but to someone far more powerful and sinister and played with malevolent glee by Paxton. Bobby and Stig suddenly find themselves being hunted, unsure of who they can trust, and bonding together to take down the powers that seek to destroy them.
The film is essentially a sort of potpourri – blending buddy action flicks with a heist movie and throwing in a little bit of mystery. The beginning of the film felt evocative of John Travolta/Samuel L. Jackson scenes in Pulp Fiction – two bickering crooks arguing over what to order from the breakfast menu is not that far removed from discussing a Royale with Cheese on the way to a heist. Washington and Wahlberg create a tentative, reluctant partnership and compliment each other well with Washington as the jaded cool customer and Wahlberg as the excitable hair trigger. The journey these two take in learning to trust each other is the heart of the film as they form the nucleus around which danger swirls.
They are surrounded by a terrific supporting cast; particularly Paxton as the villainous Earl who seems to relish the fear he instills in others. When we meet Earl, he is interrogating a terrified bank manager, slowly poking thumbtacks into an index card with a sort of malevolent glee. (Said index card eventually finds its way into the hand of the bank manager in one of several squirm-inducing moments of violence the film offers.) His Earl is a sweaty, cold hearted customer who will do anything to get his $43.125 million back. At times, he is reminiscent of Javier Bardem’s terrifying Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men although Earl has moments of a sort of violent whimsy that create a whole different level of chilling.
Patton, too, is quite good as Debbie, Washington’s DEA supervisor and romantic interest. For much of the film, Patton seems wasted in a relatively thankless role, but as the film enters its third act and Debbie finds herself pulled more deeply into what is going on, Patton gives us a complicated, conflicted character. When Debbie is held hostage by Olmos’s Papi, Patton is handed a gorgeous scene that is filled with so many different levels of emotion and character motivation that it was breathtaking to watch.
Of course, none of this would work if the core of the film – Washington and Wahlberg – weren’t working. Once again, Washington and Wahlberg are treading into territory with which they seem familiar, playing ethically ambiguous but ultimately likable characters. Wahlberg, in particular, manages to bring a cheeky energy to Stig who becomes almost puppy dog-like at times in his eagerness to bond with Washington’s Bobby.
The two are also serviced by a relatively strong script: The twists and turns that the script takes can be a bit hairpin in nature, but the script never careens off the tracks the way that many action films often do when they try to pile on too much action. The script is tightly paced, coming in at under two hours. There isn’t a wasted moment in the film; the plot is moving from the opening frame. The opening scene is the torching of the diner, a scene filled with quippy dialogue that establishes the dynamic of the relationship between Bobby and Stig as well as intrigue as the audience tries to figure out what is going on. Placing a flashback after that scene provides needed exposition that could have weighed down the film had those scenes come first. Instead, they provide context and explanation before launching us back to the diner and the subsequent bank robbery. To be fair, the film is not particularly original. More than once, I found myself thinking of other films – whether it was comparing Paxton’s Earl to Bardem’s Chigurh or seeing shades of No Way Out as Stig begins to realize that he’s being sold out by the Navy. The film, though, doesn’t suffer under the weight of such comparisons and manages to stake out its own place in the action genre.
The film is also pretty exquisitely shot, utilizing heavy earth tones and a sort of washed out cinematography that creates a sense of heat as the characters trudge through desert landscapes. The sepia color schemes make the occasional pops of color that do appear all the more jarring and provide hints to changing stakes or shift in direction.
To be honest, this summer hasn’t been a stellar season for the movies. I’ve left the theater disappointed more often than not this season, so to go into a movie like 2 Guns quite honestly prepared for yet another disappointment, it was a nice surprise to find a film that was smart, funny, and action-packed without being lazy or bloated. 2 Guns is not a perfect film, but it is a welcome relief from the star-driven train wrecks that have been crashing onto screens this summer.