What’s the old expression about putting lipstick on a pig? “2 Guns,” a busy and bullet-riddled new action movie, has some mighty fine lipstick, but it’s still a porker and it wallows in the same old dirty water.
It takes a while to notice, though. Based on a graphic novel by Steven Grant and shuttling between both sides of the US-Mexican border, “2 Guns” stars Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg as Bobby and Stig, a raffish pair of drug dealers who, unbeknownst to each other at first, are both undercover cops, Bobby for the Drug Enforcement Administration and Stig for Navy Intelligence. Trust me, it gets more complicated, and quickly.
Screenwriter Blake Masters’s dialogue is cynical, deceptively lazy, and often very funny, and the two stars bat it back and forth with charm. Bobby is the levelheaded brains of the outfit and Stig is the wisecracking ladies’ man — in a way, they’re a breezy update of the old “Lethal Weapon” Danny Glover/Mel Gibson dynamic. Because Washington and Wahlberg are pros and because they appear to genuinely enjoy each other’s company, “2 Guns” rollicks along nicely for a half-hour or so.
But there are secondary characters and plot lines to torture, cars to blow up, faceless minions to kill. After the two rob a sleepy New Mexico bank of what they think is $3 million belonging to drug baron Papi Greco (Edward James Olmos), they double-cross each other, then get double-crossed by their respective superiors, then join forces again to double-cross the double-crossers. I think we’re up to octuple-crosses by now, but never mind.
The haul turns out to be $43 million, and whomever it belongs to sends out a collector named Earl, played by Bill Paxton with lethal Texas charisma. Paxton seems to have gone AWOL since HBO’s “Big Love,” and it’s good to have him and his slippery line-readings back.
Also pursuing the heroes are Stig’s commanding officer (James Marsden, who’s just too likable to make a convincing villain), plus all manner of Navy sharpshooters, Mexican drug goons, and mysterious thugs in black. “2 Guns” turns top-heavy with story lines, and director Baltasar Kormákur — a talent from Iceland (2000’s “101 Reykjavik”) who with this film and last year’s “Contraband” is trying to go Hollywood in the worst way — tries to compensate with manic chase scenes, pummelings, and shoot-outs. The movie has style but increasingly little sense.
It also has an underlying meanness that curdles the stars’ high spirits. If you took all the scenes in “2 Guns” where Washington and Wahlberg — sounds like a law firm, doesn’t it? — just sit there and mouth off at each other, you’d have a dandy 30-minute character comedy. Even the pair’s more physical moments have a rambunctious edge, such as when the two trade punches from adjoining cars and the exasperated Stig smacks Bobby with a side-view mirror.
But that means you’d have to cut out the bit where Stig shoots the heads off a bunch of chickens buried up to their necks, or all the scenes involving Paula Patton as Bobby’s lover, a fellow DEA agent who’s here mostly to sit around in a thong and get trussed up by the villains. Or the nonsensical quadruple-Mexican standoff finale. Or the torture sequence where the heroes are hung upside down, beaten with an ax handle, and stroll away as if they’d had a pleasant nap.
Maybe it’s best to think of “2 Guns” as an Elmore Leonard-style crime caper minus some of Leonard’s wit and all of his brains. In other words: Oink.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.