As the long cinematic slog of Summer 2013 crawls to a close, the summer of the comic book movie, one last battle of comics-based films is ready to play out this Friday: Smurfs 2 vs 2 Guns. Now I can’t say too much about the Smurfs movie because it is terrifying and I run away in fear every time it comes near; but I got to see 2 Guns last week, and it was a lot of fun. Based on the Steven Grant/Mateus Santolouco comic published by Boom!, it’s a buddy caper/heist set against the Mexican drugs wars and undercover agencies activities. A little Breaking Bad, a little Savages, a lot of Charley Varrick.
Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg play two undercover cops—Denzel is Bobby “Beans” Trench from the DEA and Wahlberg is Marcus “Stig” Stigman from NCIS (Naval intelligence.) As the film opens neither they nor we know they are both undercover cops trying to get the goods on Mexican drug lord Papi Greco (Edward James Olmos) but a bank heist that goes wrong gets everyone wondering who is who. Both think the robbery will set the other up and lead to evidence on Papi but when they net $43 million instead of the $4 million they were expecting, the shenanigans and squabbling that partners must go through before they team up begins. (Here the squabbling includes Sitgman shooting Trench in the shoulder and leaving him in the desert, so let’s call it extreme squabbling.) Soon, Bill Paxton is involved as a creepy CIA kingpin who uses Russian Roulette as an interrogation technique. Throw in James Marsden as Quince, a Navy guy who has ulterior motives, and Paula Patton as a DEA agent who is involved with Trench and maybe more of the cast and you’ve got the brew. (I gotta mention that Patton’s character—the only woman in the film—is horribly underwritten, and seems to be around just to take her top off and get into jeopardy.)
Okay that’s the set-up—DEA vs CIA vs NCIS vs Mexican drug lord and for about two hours people run around shooting and driving and asking questions and getting answers that confuse things even more. There’s also a bull. A lot of the goings on don’t withstand too much logic—if I were doing a “7 things I wondered…” about this movie there would be a lot more than seven, including how two guys who just got hit in the stomach repeatedly with a baseball bat are able to do sit ups while hanging upside down a few minutes later…
….but why bother. It’s Denzel and Mark Wahlberg, two of the most innately likable stars around. With Blake Masters‘ sharp script and Baltasar Kormákur’s brisk direction, asking too many questions spoils whatever fun is there to be had. Henchmen are meant to be mocked and then shot, cars are meant to be driven very fast and then wrecked. It would be hard to imagine a universe where Washington and Wahlberg don’t have amazing chemistry and this isn’t that universe. Like many of Washingon’s signature characters—Training Day and Flight—Trench is a man of ambiguous morals, and some of his actions here would make him the villain in another story. With Paxton’s psycho Earl delightfully chewing scenery, however, you keep rooting for the least bad guy on the screen, and Washington has fun wearing various hats and acting disgusted with Stigman. Wahlberg’s character is more pat, a do gooder whose flirting sometimes gets him into trouble. Also, seriously, how many times has Wahlberg played a military man or a cop? As in Shooter, he’s a crack shot here. I’d love to know if he’s really a marksman.
Like Red before it, 2 Guns is an unexpected comic book movie that plays in the real world and involves somewhat plausible characters and actions in a fluffy caper. It’s also a nice palette cleanser from a summer of giant robots, aliens, spaceships and CGI armies. Most important of all, New York City doesn’t get blown up—that rates an extra half star for me from now on.
At a recent press event for the film, the two stars came off as having quite different preparation and motivation. Wahlberg got attached to the project early and helped get it developed with Masters and Kormákur—he worked with the same director on last year’s Contraband. He also did a ton of research into NCIS and studied up for his role. Even though he’s become a top box office draw, Wahlberg is still working hard.
None of that for Denzel—he’s Denzel! He said he watched DEA Detroit as research and that’s it. A film like this is practically a vacation for the man who was voted the most reliable box office star last year. He and Wahlberg stayed loose and improved a lot on set. “I’m not a comedian but I am quick,” Washington allowed.
2 Guns is a throwback to the 70s movies that obviously influenced Grant—names like Peckinpah and films like The Getaway were mentioned frequently by the filmmakers—even if the amount of action (and the Willis-level invulnerability evinced by the leads) would have been excessive for an actual 70s film. Screenwriters Masters got it immediately, when asked to adapt the comic. ““This all started when the graphic novel came to me and I instantly realized that it was actually pulling from old movies that I love,” he said in an interview. “If you’ve ever seen ‘Charlie Varrick,’ Steven Grant obviously was in love with it.”
Masters was careful to respect the source material. “I realized the graphic novel was the spine of a great plot, and then it really was a matter of figuring out how the characters fit in and finding the voices for those characters. Adam Siegel, one of the producers, said to me after I handed in my script, ‘I didn’t think the plot worked this well in the graphic novel,’ and I said, ‘No, it works great. It’s perfect.’ It was like somebody gave me a lattice to decorate. So Steven Grant did a terrific job. And then when I gave it to Baltasar, they took it to a whole other level.”
After the last two comics movies bombed—Red 2 underperformed and the costly R.I.P.D. was deemed one of the summers biggest flops—and The Wolverine was a disappointment, it’s unknown whether 2 Guns is tracking to be a hit or not. It was economical to make—$90 million—so earning out when the after market is thrown in won’t be too difficult.
Is this summer of comics flops going to sour Hollywood on comics? I doubt it. Tinsel Town is still scrambling for material and comics are turning out material at a furious pace, unfettered by commercial concerns. It would be nice to see 2 Guns do well; I’m rooting for Boom! and Steven Grant, and if it’s a surprise hit, comics that don’t involve capes or zombies might get another look and pump some more cash into the comics industry. It’s also one of those exceedingly rare examples of a movie comic book that actually got made into a movie. Even if it flops, there will be lots more of those—i can think of a dozen already on the stands off the top of my head.
Speaking of Boom!, publisher Ross Richie is posting an entertaining production diary for The Hollywood Reporter that has more on the Hollywood sausage factory. ‘Here’s part 1 and Part 2. In Part 3 he has lots of Hollywood gossip, like how the movie was rejected at Fox Atomic, only to have the exec who did the rejecting ending up producing it after she went to Universal. Typical showbiz. Richie also gives a good idea of the hustle and flow:
A lot of people suspect that Hollywood is the devil and that anyone they’re talking to from the business is Satan. They’re not. Hollywood is full of hustlers. Sometimes you have to hustle to get stuff done. And other times hustlers are just that putting the hustle on you. Agents, managers, producers, studio executives… most are one phone call away from career-changing glory. They’re one degree of separation from that next great director, or the screenwriter who can change their life.
Is there more to come? Wahlberg says he’s looking at more material from Boom! to possibly develop; and Richie’s piece pushes hard for a 3 Guns movie adding a female agent. Let’s face it, it couldn’t be any worse than Smurfs 3.