- - Thursday, August 1, 2013

There are more than a few explosions in “2 Guns,” but what really ignites this schlocky, good-natured action comedy are the easygoing performances from its charismatic lead actors.

As undercover operatives working different sides of a case who join forces after their mission goes sour, Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg bring a palpable sense of fun to this B-movie, which has all the narrative complexity of a Roadrunner-Coyote cartoon. This is in part by design — “2 Guns” is based on a series of graphic novels, and the direction and imagery are largely true to those roots. The action, set largely along the Mexican border, uses stark, dusty landscapes as the backdrop for car chases, gunfights, standoffs that unfold without too much regard for the limits of the physical universe.

The script by Blake Masters, who created the fine Showtime crime and politics series “Brotherhood,” feels a little worked over, punctuated by a stream of tacked-on wisecracks and catchphrases. It’s a grab bag of genres, blending the dark conspiratorial elements of an espionage thriller, the nihilistic violence of a Sam Peckinpah film, and the jangly back and forth of a buddy comedy. It feels like an off-brand Elmore Leonard project, but for all its structural problems “2 Guns” succeeds more than it fails because it is imbued with a spirit of reckless fun that matches perfectly with the story.

Bobby Trench (Denzel Washington) is a DEA agent working to bust up a sinister Mexican drug cartel, but his efforts seem to have hit a brick wall with the death of an informant. He decides to enlist his running buddy Stig Stigman (Mark Wahlberg) in a plan to rob a rural Texas bank where the cartel keeps its cash, in the hopes of laying the groundwork for a tax evasion case. What Bobby doesn’t know is that Stig is working undercover for naval intelligence, and he’s also been charged with extracting the cartel’s cash from the isolated bank, for use in special operations.

After the robbery, Stig wings Bobby in the shoulder and absconds with the cash. But he finds that his commanding officer Quince (James Marsden) considers him expendable as well. He goes on the run, eventually reuniting with Bobby to try to reclaim their reputations. The story darkens when it turns out that the bank they hit was a front for the CIA, where they stash piles of money paid out by the cartels in exchange for easy access to U.S. border.

Bill Paxton brings a sense of sleepy menace to the part of Earl, the sadistic, bolo tie-wearing spook charged with recovering the CIA’s dirty money. Earl’s interrogation techniques start with a game of Russian roulette, and only get meaner. But he’s not the only one chasing Stig and Bobby. Drug lord Papi Greco (Edward James Olmos) has a score to settle with the pair for infiltrating his organization. Mr. Olmos’ unvaryingly dignified bearing adds some needed gravity to the portrayal of the revenge-minded cartel head. These two understated performances provide a nice counterpoint to the breezy affability of Mr. Washington and Mr. Wahlberg, and go a long way to maintaining a modicum of tension in this otherwise comic affair.

★★ 1/2

TITLE: “2 Guns”

CREDITS: Directed by Baltasar Kormakur; screenplay by Blake Masters, based on graphic novels by Steven Grant

RATING: R for nudity, violence and profanity

RUNNING TIME: 109 Minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS