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MOVIE REVIEW: '2 Guns' smarter than expected

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Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg star in "2 Guns." (Special Photo)

2 Guns

(R)

3 out of 4 stars

As a general rule, all movies being released in the wasteland of August in any year will be sub-par. Not big, loud or sexy enough to snare an early season, tent-pole weekend slot, they’re almost always low-visibility, lower-budgeted, third tier affairs.

Perhaps realizing that going up against aliens, super-heroes, massive amounts of CGI and marathon running lengths was a lose-lose proposition, the studio and producers of “2 Guns” took a huge chance on August and it paid off; at least from a quality/entertainment perspective.

On the surface it’s a mismatched buddy action flick along the lines of “48 Hrs.” or “Lethal Weapon” but thanks to an Elmore Leonard-flavored story and a non-linear presentation, it’s way smarter than anyone could have possibly expected.

Based on the graphic novel series of the same name, “2 Guns” takes a another big gamble by assuming its audience has above-average smarts and will favor plot and character development over pyrotechnics although they’ll get plenty of the latter as well. It’s supremely well-acted, chock-full of twists and best of all — it doesn’t go on for days and days.

With a sturdy screenplay by Blake Masters (the cable TV series “Brotherhood”) serving as the foundation, Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur then populates the film with nearly a dozen lead, supporting and incidental performers one doesn’t normally associate with this kind of film. The lone exception is Mark Wahlberg who worked with Kormakur on the less-impressive and dour “Contraband” who plays co-lead Stig, a motor-mouthed, wise-cracking, military-trained marksman and serial flirt.

The movie opens at the halfway point in the narrative where Stig and Bobby (Denzel Washington) are casing a Texas bank near the Mexican border where they’re pretty sure they’ll find $3 million in a couple of safety deposit boxes.

It wouldn’t be giving anything away to mention Stig and Bobby aren’t robbing the bank for their own personal gain. They’re not professional bank robbers. It would however be giving a lot away to let on what the studio has already revealed in the trailer regarding Stig and Bobby’s true identities — one of the biggest plot twists. If you are lucky enough not to have seen the trailer yet, do your best to avoid watching it.

It is after the filmmakers’ double back to the opening scene when the story becomes clearer but not yet crystal. Finding more than they were looking for during the robbery Stig and Bobby quickly surmise they’ve been set up and probably by more than one person or entity. Far from friends and barely tolerant of each others’ divergent personalities, Stig and Bobby make the best of a horrible situation by depending on their wits and considerable past experiences.

The pairing of Washington and Wahlberg is beyond ideal. Each equally capable of projecting humor, charm, menace and intelligence, they do so with radically different styles that complement each other with effortless crack timing. Because they are so good together and their respective characters are so well written, they could be in a sequel (or two) and still not fully mine possible future story lines.

While more than adept at carrying the movie, the co-leads don’t have to do so thanks to a handful of supporting players, all of whom have been leads multiple times in others films. Showing up late is Fred Ward who only gets one scene but it is highly crucial to the plot. James Marsden appears as a naval intelligence officer who is deft at using endless government resources for his own gain. Sporting a hideous haircut, Bill Paxton plays an equally hideous man who is hot on Stig and Bobby’s trail.

Appearing as a Mexican drug lord, Edward James Olmos wisely avoids the nagging stereotypes that usually come with that type of role. Providing some much welcomed estrogen to the overflowing testosterone is Paula Patton as Deb, Bobby’s love interest and the one character with the most secrets.

Sadly, “2 Guns” concludes with a final scene that far too resembles those found in other generic, B-grade shoot-em-ups and erodes much of the good will it cleverly amassed along the way. It’s a disappointing ending to an otherwise refreshing production that is among the very few worthwhile summer 2013 films. (Universal)