August has come to be regarded as a celluloid dumping ground. It's where lesser summer movies are cast off and buried in a landfill of indifference. But it can also be a month of unexpected gems. With the big studios' orgy of superhero tentpoles and shock-and-awe action spectaculars now safely behind us, we can finally turn the page, take a deep breath, and, if we're lucky, be pleasantly surprised. I don't know if any movie starring two marquee heavyweights as consistently dependable as Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg can technically qualify as an under-the-radar stealth attack, but their new buddy crime caper, 2 Guns, caught me completely off guard in all the right ways.
Washington and Wahlberg, two actors who can take themselves a bit too seriously at times, cut loose and seem to be having a blast swapping below-the-belt insults as a pair of undercover agents posing as drug dealers. Their assignment: Nab a south-of-the-border cocaine kingpin played by Edward James Olmos. The catch: Each is working for a different government agency and thinks his partner is a real-deal trafficker. Washington plays Bobby Trench, a deep-cover DEA agent decked out with blingy gold incisors, a salt-and-pepper goatee, and an interchangeable array of ring-a-ding-ding Rat Pack hats. Wahlberg is Marcus ''Stig'' Stigman, a Navy Intelligence officer with a winking, cool-cat cockiness and a knack for cracking wise at exactly the wrong time. After a series of double crosses, the guys each still trying to stick to his cover story as a criminal plot to knock over a sleepy New Mexico bank. But the vault holds way more cash than it should. Without giving away too many of the film's byzantine plot twists, let's just say they soon figure out that neither one is who he says he is. So they're forced to team up (for real this time) to find out who framed them and why. Back and forth they go across the U.S.-Mexico border, squaring off with their bureaucratic superiors (Paula Patton and James Marsden), Olmos' posse of seedy henchmen, and, best of all, Bill Paxton, as a beady-eyed, bolo-tie-wearing sadist.
Goosed along by a pulpy Elmore Leonard vibe, 2 Guns is essentially a B movie classed up by its two A-list stars. Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur, who previously put Wahlberg through his underworld paces in last year's Contraband, seems to be out to turn 2 Guns into a sort of throwback to the sin-soaked Southwest noirs Sam Peckinpah made back in the early '70s, like The Getaway and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia only funnier and fleeter. Washington, flashing his signature frisky grin, is fast and loose in a way he hasn't been since Training Day. And Wahlberg gives as good as he gets (if not better) as a motormouthed smart-ass.
Ever since Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy first traded four-letter digs in 1982's 48 Hrs., the black-and-white buddy formula has been trotted out so many times that it's become a hack Hollywood screenwriting cliché. Thankfully, Blake Masters' rat-a-tat dialogue doesn't dwell on the leads' racial differences. Washington's Bobby and Wahlberg's Stig clash simply because one's a cynic who trusts no one and the other is as psyched as a puppy to have a playmate. Nothing more, nothing less.
Since so much of what happens in the second half of 2 Guns hinges on its bottomless grab bag of double and triple crosses, it would be cruel to reveal too much about the film's plot or the dirty motives of its arsenal of colorful heavies. All I will say is that after months of big-screen bloat and bombast, 2 Guns is a much-needed reminder that the best summer surprises can come when you least expect them. B+