2 Guns first gives off the impression of an antidotal, barebones throwback—a good ol’ shoot ’em up in contrast to the multiplex’s surplus of caped- and masked-man sagas. But, alas, this short-tempered, law-straddling riff on the likes of Lethal Weapon, with Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg playing bickering allies, is itself based on Steven Grant’s Boom! Studios graphic-novel series, a source that, however seemingly inane, is Exhibit Z in the disheartening case against Hollywood, and its pants-pissing fear of funding anything without a preexisting fanbase.
It surely helps that the movie is the rare, mainstream action product unhindered by a mess of CGI, but, then, Icelandic filmmaker Baltasar Kormákur, who last directed Wahlberg in Contraband, isn’t exactly serving up formal panache either. Apart from a select few bone- and metal-crunching set pieces, like a vehicular standoff that ends with two driver’s-side doors smashing together and inciting a through-the-windows fistfight, there’s nary a memorable image in this film. Moreover, no matter how much visual restraint is exercised here, it’s wildly overshadowed by enough plot for an entire season of a TV series, further suggesting that, these days, studio flicks will force in the excess come hell or a hail of bullets.
Ostensible partners in crime, Bobby Trench (Washington) and Marcus Stigman (Wahlberg) are two quick-drawing and even quicker-talking toughs, and they’re merely the leads in a cast of characters who are all duping others while being duped. Marcus doesn’t know that Bobby is DEA, Bobby doesn’t know that Marcus is NCIS, and neither know that Papi (Edward James Olmos), their Mexican drug-lord nemesis, is in bed with the C.I.A.. Also in the mix is Bobby’s partner and pseudo-lover Deb (Paula Patton), Marcus’s crooked naval superior Quince (James Marsden), and depraved Southerner Earl (Bill Paxton), a high-ranking C.I.A. scumbag whose predatorial taunts of “You ever play Russian Roo-lette?” become the twangy B-side to Jack Nicholson’s famous Joker inquiry: “Ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?” For a while, the narrative’s frantic convolution works, as Bobby and Marcus try to decode what the hell’s going on right along with the audience (everyone wants a piece of the $43 million the duo stole from a New Mexico bank, but no one knows the whole story). But viewer/character solidarity only holds up for so long, and 2 Guns falls hard into twisty, nonsense territory, skipping over its stronger themes in the process.
If the script by Blake Masters, creator of Showtime’s Brotherhood, were smarter, it might dig a bit deeper into the topical issue of government entities having layers of cloak-and-dagger deception, rather than shaping it into an easily dismissable, cartoonishly cinematic slice of boogeyman villainy (“Without soldiers like me, that uniform you wear is just a costume!” Marcus hollers at his admiral, who denies a request to expose in-house corruption in order to save face). It’s noticeably odd that 2 Guns has the desire to make offhanded socio-political statements, but not the will to take them anywhere truly provocative. Marcus makes a joke of buying a sniper rifle at K-Mart, and in how it’s tossed away, the crack becomes a borderline-offensive, half-assed acknowledgment of firearm accessibility in America. And when it comes to race, the film’s agenda is even more murky and precarious than its Jenga-towered plot.
2 Guns seems to mostly like black people, opening with a diner scene that gifts Bobby with the screw-you assertion that he wants pumpernickel bread, not white, wheat, or rye. And as matters progress, the film doesn’t just penalize Marcus for archaically dubbing the pair “ebony and ivory,” it flips the script on him when his naval ex-friends show up at a safe house armed and dangerous. “Are those your people?” Bobby asks. “Why do you have to say it like that?” Marcus whines. In a separate scene, wherein Bobby is left for dead in the desert, he steals a dune buggie from a pair of ignorant fools who say they’re self-appointed border patrol, and want to make sure the stranded dark man “isn’t a Muslim.”
But while blacks and Muslims are somewhat off the hook, Latinos are most certainly not, as Marcus is a ceaseless wellspring of Mexican-targeted slurs, which 2 Guns apparently thinks are harmless just because Wahlberg’s so dexterous with the dialogue. The “puta”-laced lines, however, are as misguided as the dated bromantic elements, which never quite succeed in supporting the movie’s genital-obsessed machismo. “I hope you guys like the taste of balls,” Papi barks at Bobby and Marcus, “’cuz I’m gonna chop yours off, and stuff his balls into your mouth and your balls into his.” Now there’s a memorable image.