Film Review: Amoral universe in '2 Guns' and 'Drug War'

In "2 Guns," Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg play a duo of low-level minions for drug lord Papi (Edward James Olmos). Or more accurately they play two guys playing low-level minions. That is, Bobby (Washington) and Stig (Wahlberg) both work for law enforcement: Bobby for the DEA, and Stig for Naval Intelligence. Unfortunately, neither knows about the other's affiliation. It's similar to the hook in "The Departed," but less complicated, largely because they figure this out well within the first act.

Before they know this, however, they set out to rob a small town bank of $3 million of Papi's money, in hopes of catching him in a sting. The robbery goes like clockwork, except for one small thing. The haul turns out to be $41 million, quite a bit more than Papi could have stashed there. Whose money is it? And what are they supposed to do next?

Well, Wahlberg's move is to shoot Bobby (not fatally, of course), which causes a slight rift in their relationship. Now they don't know whether to trust each other or their bosses, since clearly they have been set up by someone. And everyone is after them — various drug cartel factions, both of their agencies, and yet another mystery group, represented by a drawling, laid-back creep (Bill Paxton). The latter is so relaxed that he doesn't bat an eye as he orders his men to torture and/or kill one person after another. It goes without saying that our heroes are among his top targets.

"2 Guns" was directed by Icelandic actor/director Baltasar Kormakur, who also made last year's Wahlberg vehicle "Contraband," a moderate hit. "2 Guns" is just as effective and includes far more humor, much of which unfortunately veers toward the tone of the later Roger Moore 007 entries. There are a boatload of killings, some of them gruesome, and each has to be given its own frothy wisecrack. Is this practice a tongue-in-cheek put down of the standard "buddy cop" banter? Or simply a by-the-numbers example of a long-exhausted vein of shtick? Your guess is as good as mine.

Washington's Bobby is similar to his character in "Safe House," but with most of the moral ambiguity (and all of the downright nastiness) excised. What that leaves is the radiant charm that Washington mastered ages ago. Wahlberg largely reprises the character he played in the way underappreciated "The Other Guys," necessarily toning things down a little to match the more realistic setting. (Not to say that the tone could be called "realistic" in anything other than this comparative construction: "2 Guns" simply doesn't violate the laws of physics and psychology as freely as "The Other Guys," which took place in an almost "Airplane!"-like world.)

It's all a bundle of forgettable fun, mostly because of the buddy chemistry. The action moves reasonably fast, and the filmmakers play fair: Even at the twisty plot's most convoluted moments, nothing materializes out of nowhere; all the surprises are properly set up and hinted at.

Another cops-and-crooks action film opens this week, without the benefit of major studio hype. Johnny To's "Drug War" deals with some of the same elements as "2 Guns": drug dealers, most obviously, but also sting operations, cops playing crooks, and an apparently shifting matrix of loyalties.

"Drug War" is set in mainland China, where (we are told) manufacturing 50 grams of meth is punishable by death. Timmy Choi (Louis Koo) is a middle level player in a huge drug operation. When his illicit factory explodes — incidentally killing his wife and sisters — he ends up the prisoner of Capt. Zhang (Sun Honglei), an all-business cop who has his sights set on top-level gangster Uncle Bill (Li Zhenqi). Choi quickly agrees to cooperate in nabbing Uncle Bill if it will save him from execution. To pull off the sting, Zhang and others must pretend to be bad guys, with Choi their guide and intermediary.

As a result, they have to take off Choi's handcuffs whenever he is introducing them to the real bad guys. Letting him loose this way always raises their suspicions that he's just playing along until he can figure out an escape or, worse yet, that he's secretly signaling the other side to sabotage them. Choi appears sincere, but Zhang never drops his guard: The cop is a steely, absolutely expressionless presence. Amazingly, when he has to impersonate the loudest, always-laughing member of the gang, he instantly shifts his affect with utter precision.

Johnny To ("Triad Election," "Exiled," and more than 40 other features) ascended to the top ranks of Hong Kong directors after John Woo and others decamped for Hollywood in the '90s. His early films included the terrific "Heroic Trio," and he has long since surpassed that. "Drug War" feels like a hybrid of mainland and Hong Kong movies. It maintains the dizzying pace of HK action: once Choi and Zhang get together, the tension never lets up. It also has some of the straight-laced quality of mainland films: There is no romance, almost no humor, a generally stern attitude, and definitely no sex (unless you want to count the brief glimpse of a midsection when a policewoman changes her clothes).

It also has a pretty clear moral framework: cops good, crooks bad. "2 Guns," despite its all-for-fun tone, actually has a far grimmer moral outlook: Don't trust anyone; they're all out to betray you.


ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).

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