If only the story in the Denzel Washington/Mark Wahlberg buddy actioner 2 Guns were as strong as the banter, then perhaps prolific Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur's second foray into Hollywood shoot-'em-up cinema would feel like something more than an instantly forgettable pastiche of action clichés. Just last year, Kormákur displayed a keen eye for character and style with Contraband, an exciting crime thriller that spread out the action across the U.S. and Panama. Here, the story not only feels more constrained (it all takes place within a few miles north and south of the Mexico border), but more convoluted as well, aimlessly jumping back and forth in time early on, and rapidly unraveling as a result of Blake Masters' jumbled mess of a screenplay (lazily based on Steven Grant's graphic novel).
For the past year, U.S. Naval Intelligence officer "Stig" Stigman (Mark Wahlberg) and DEA agent Bobby "I know a guy" Trench (Denzel Washington) have been on a covert mission involving a powerful narcotics syndicate. In the criminal underworld, trust comes in short supply, and neither realizes at first that the other is an undercover agent. Working as partners, Stigman and Trench continue to eye one another with an air of suspicion. Both men discover that their only hope for survival is to stick together, however, after a sensitive mission involving Mexican drug boss Papi Greco (Edward James Olmos) goes horribly awry. Their identities compromised and their lives in danger, Stigman and Trench must now dodge bullets while using their acute criminal know-how to strike back at the ruthless gangsters and CIA thugs who would sooner see them six feet underground rather than rotting away behind bars.
In the opening scene of 2 Guns, Wahlberg and Washington's characters take a booth in a small-town diner, casing out the bank across the street that they intend to rob. Their playful bickering over their breakfast order displays an instantly likable chemistry that shows great promise. As soon as the film's title fills the screen during a hyper-stylized freeze-frame, however, the trouble begins. Virtually every element of 2 Guns feels recycled, borrowed, or stolen outright: the lame nonlinear storytelling that's quickly jettisoned, the incompetent Navy snipers who have never passed basic training, the veteran who reluctantly specializes in bullet removal, the tangled double crosses. In the hands of a skilled repurposer such as Quentin Tarantino, perhaps they could have added up to something more than the sum of their parts, but through Kormákur's lens they simply feel like a cinematic Frankenstein in search of a lightning bolt.
Of course, it doesn't help that Paula Patton is downright laughable as Trench's DEA field contact, and James Marsden looks at least a decade too young to be playing Stigman's decorated superior. Meanwhile, the story is so confused that veteran cinematographer Oliver Wood (Die Hard 2, Face/Off, the Bourne trilogy) doesn't even seem sure where to focus his shots, though that last nitpick may simply be the result of working with shaky-cam auteur Paul Greengrass too many times.
Perhaps the least surprising revelation in 2 Guns is that, as "God's son of a bitch" (aka the movie's sadistic heavy), stalwart supporting player Bill Paxton runs away with some of the film's best lines. As such, this relentlessly generic piece of multiplex fodder is strictly for die-hard fans of the two stars and those bereft souls who bide their time hoping to catch a rare glimpse of Paxton (these days cinema's Sasquatch) on the big screen. Come back to the movies, Bill -- we miss you!