NEW YORK — Mark Wahlberg and Denzel Washington were at a corner table celebrating the start of production on their western action-comedy “2 Guns” last year when they spotted an odd sight. On the dance floor, sweatily busting moves while surrounded by a gaggle of women, was their director: the rugged, bearded Icelander Baltasar Kormakur.
“Denzel looked at me and said, ‘What’s up with your boy?’” Wahlberg recalled as he sipped bottled water at a midtown restaurant last week, trotting out a not-bad Washington impersonation. “And I said, ‘I don’t know. I’ve never seen him do this before.’”
Kormakur’s momentary burst of samba may have temporarily puzzled Wahlberg. But his overall exuberance has, improbably, delighted the actor.
When the pair unveil “2 Guns” on Friday, they will offer the latest product — after last year’s surprise hit “Contraband” and the recently shot HBO pilot “Missionary,” which Kormakur directed and Wahlberg produced — of what is fast becoming one of Hollywood’s most odd-couple relationships.
There’s Wahlberg, the Dorchester kid who did time in jail before remaking himself first as the pop performer Marky Mark and later as an action star. And there’s Kormakur, a theater and film geek who started out making low-budget eccentricities such as “101 Reykjavik” and “Jar City” and who currently lives in a northern Iceland town where sheep outnumber Homo sapiens by an unofficial count of 5:1.
“We’re not that different,” continued Wahlberg, 42, at the restaurant.
“We’re a little different,” said the director, 47, sitting next to the actor, his soulful mien contrasting with Wahlberg’s brash exterior. “But not really that different.”
Based on Blake Masters’ screenplay adaptation of a graphic-novel series, “2 Guns” centers on Wahlberg’s undercover Naval officer Stig Stigman and Washington’s undercover DEA agent Bobby Trench. Their identities concealed from each other for much of the film, Stig and Bobby pretend to be criminals in the hope of nabbing a drug kingpin and his money — at least, until they run afoul of Earl (Bill Paxton), a coolly vicious killer who may or may not be a CIA operative.
Universal releases “2 Guns,” set in dusty towns on both sides of the Texas-Mexico border, in a summer season when mid-budget genre movies have fared well. With plenty of comic improvisation between Washington and Wahlberg (Wahlberg says he read the entire script aloud every day for over a month so he knew when and how to deviate), “2 Guns” is the kind of glorified B-movie in which, when the characters are not trying to outshoot various bad guys, they’re trying to outfox each other.
“‘Western’ is a dangerous word,” said Kormakur, a former actor who looks a bit like Viggo Mortensen if Mortensen were a pirate. “I just wanted to play with the western idea while having two alpha males go at each other.”
The director said he used “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” as a reference point. Filmgoers will likely be reminded of a host of buddy pictures that have come since, with Kormakur slipping in the occasional Tarantino-esque sense of humor or cinematic homage (a Sergio Leone reference via the extended barrel of a gun, for example). It’s a Hollywood movie through-and-through, but also one not totally devoid of foreign-filmmaker touches.
The project has a long history. Wahlberg was attached to the film when it was being developed by David O. Russell. But when the director fell off after disagreements with Universal and producer Marc Platt over the script, Wahlberg suggested Kormakur, with whom he was in the middle of postproduction work for “Contraband,” a remake of an Icelandic film starring and produced by Kormakur. (The two first got acquainted when they agreed to remake that movie, the director impressing Wahlberg with his can-do attitude.).
Kormakur, who on his water-bound 2012 Icelandic-language feature “The Deep” often jumped in the ocean himself to shoot his main actor, has a certain roll-up-his-sleeves attitude on set. Paxton--who to land his role dressed up in tough-guy western garb even though he was meeting Kormakur in a Beverly Hills hotel--said the director “had reserves of stamina even in the heat of August, just running and going everywhere when many of us could barely move.”
Wahlberg was similarly taken by Kormakur’s salt-of-the-earth brio.
“On the first day of shooting I said to him during a long break, ‘Why don’t you go back to your trailer?’” Wahlberg recounted. “And Balt said, ‘I have a trailer?’
Still, it’s an odd fit. Wahlberg said it works because, as a former actor, Kormakur understands what someone like Wahlberg needs. But mostly, he said, it’s about the masculinity.
“He’s a guy’s guy,” Wahlberg said, frequently slapping Kormakur on the back or nudging him with his elbow as they talked. “So you’re not going to get any weird [stuff],” without elaborating on just what other directors asked him to do. The actor added that Kormakur often “wants to know if he could beat me in a fight. So we got all that [stuff] going on.”
Kormakur said his own kinship with Wahlberg came from a more mystical place: When he watched “Boogie Nights” in the late 1990s, long before he contemplated a Hollywood career, he “just knew” he would one day work with Wahlberg, not least because the actor looked like a childhood friend (his face, that is).
It’s worth noting that Wahlberg previously had a Felix-and-Oscar thing going with another director in Russell. Wahlberg made three movies with the upscale, mercurial filmmaker between 1999 and 2010, swearing by him in interviews. But after two potential further collaborations with Russell stalled — in addition to “2 Guns,” there was the video-game adaptation “Drake’s Fortune” that fell apart — Wahlberg began leaning on Kormakur. (Russell, meanwhile, appears to have a new go-to in Bradley Cooper, returning to make “American Hustle” with the actor just a year after making “Silver Linings Playbook,” even as Wahlberg works with Kormakur. Sometimes filmmaking can be like an Us Weekly gossip item.)
Despite their partnership, the differences between Wahlberg and Kormakur aren’t lost on the pair.
Wahlberg spends summers doing things such as shooting a new “Transformers,” in Detroit, as he has been this summer, or taking his children on vacation. Kormakur has a different tack. He likes to take a group of men on a two-week excursion into the Icelandic wilderness with nothing but horses, flashlights and bare-bones supplies — “no one packed sandwiches and you can’t go home to Mommy and you just have to deal with the loneliness,” he told The Times of the trip last year.
But the two have developed a bro-ish simpatico. Kormakur notes that he also got in trouble for acting out as a young man — not “jail trouble like Mark, but I could be a wild one.”
Indeed, when the director wanted Wahlberg and Washington to hang upside down in a scene, he had a canny streetwise strategy. “I knew Mark would do it. He wasn’t happy about it, but he’d do it. So I asked Mark to do it and asked him to ask Denzel if he would do it,” Kormakur said.
Wahlberg: “And I said, ‘No way, you ask him.’”
Meanwhile, Wahlberg said that he found a way to harness Kormakur’s foreign-ness to his advantage, particularly during pickup basketball.
“Balt had never played before, so I put him down low, set him up for the rebound and told him how to hack the ... out of the best ... on the other team,” Wahlberg said saltily of their frequent on-set games.
Kormakur recalled the experience. “Like Mark, I’m very competitive. I love sports; I love competition. If I hadn’t been in film I might have been a dancer or a musician. I was in a band but I couldn’t sing.”
Quipped Wahlberg: “We have that in common too.”