The acerbic buddy cop action movie being one of the most formulaic of all stock genres, it would seem like there'd be no real chance of a movie seriously fucking it up. But damn it all if the genre's latest entry, 2 Guns, didn't go out and found a way. Historically, there's only one thing this kind of movie needs to do in order to succeed at the basic level of flashy, superficial entertainment: find two actors who have good chemistry and banter well with each other, and set them loose on tolerably clever dialogue as they shoot guns at the bad guys and only barely manage to avoid shooting each other along the way. 2 Guns gets as far as putting Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg into the well-worn roles of the crusty, short-tempered pro, and the fast-talking, lovable goofball, respectively, and lo! their banter is spritely! and their chemistry cheerful if not timeless. But instead of throwing out one contrivance after another to keep the two bickering lawmen joined at the hip as they fight their way to justice, 2 Guns does very nearly the opposite, coming up with every opportunity it can to separate the leads, with leaves us with plenty of time to focus on the plot and the action and all the things that buddy cop pictures tend to gloss over, and let us not mince words: the actual movie part of 2 Guns is pretty goddamn bad.

The film opens with that laziest crutch of the modern filmmaker, the unmotivated in medias res scene that introduces us to super-cool Bobby (Washington) and enthusiastically moronic Stig (Wahlberg), a pair of criminals making ready to rob a bank Texas, but not before they torch a diner where they can find "the best doughnuts in three counties", which Bobby considers to be an ill omen and magnet for the cops. Before any of this happens, the two men exchange all sorts of frilly, comic chatter, spouting out one sub-Tarantinoism after another, and the hell of it is, it pretty much works: Washington and Wahlberg really do have a nice rhythm and the tones they've adopted for these pairs balance out nicely. It's leagues away from Lethal Weapon or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, of course, but it's fun enough as these things go.

It is not an achievement the film sustains. There's the problem that the whole "drag a scene out from the middle and put it in the beginning" routing has long since used up all its novelty value, but it's particularly obnoxious in this case, being as the scene in question isn't really a lynchpin moment in the story, and it comes far too early for there to be any "how did they come to such a pass?" tension - indeed, the main plot of the film doesn't even kick in until after the plot returns to this point, and passes it.

Anyway, we find out shortly after the film rewinds a week that Bobby is actually Agent Robert Trench of the DEA, and Stig is Michael Stigman of U.S. Naval Intelligence, and that both of them are trying to take down the empire of Mexican druglord Papi Greco (Edward James Olmos, who I think at one point in his career deliberately avoided roles like "Mexican druglord", but apparently something the chance to film a scene where he pukes over himself in the trunk of a car was too much to resist). The gimmick is that neither of them realises the other is also a government agent: as far as they each know, they've hooked up with a lowlife in the drug trade who'll be tossed aside as soon as the job has been done of bankrupting Greco's outfit by robbing the bank where he stashes his money. That turns out to be far too simple a plan, of course, and when the undercover agents find that there was more than ten times the sum they were tipped off to in that bank, it becomes clear that somebody in the U.S. government has set them up, and it has something to do with the psychotic CIA agent Earl (Bill Paxton) presently hounding them.

That's an awfully cleaned-up version of a plot that includes too many asides and spirals to bother counting; 2 Guns wants very much to be anything at all besides a story of two cops fighting a drug cartel and a demonic CIA agent, and damned if it doesn't manage to be through sheer accumulation of go-nowhere plot elements and largely spurious characters (none more spurious, or depressing, than Bobby's handler in the DEA, played by the way-overqualified Paula Patton, who is crammed in all sorts of places without actually having a function). It's all needlessly convoluted, kicking various plot reveals farther along than makes any sense (it takes ages before Bobby learns that Stig is a Navy officer) just to keep the film's twists going, as though the twists are what actually matters. What matters is the sense of fun, and the sense of cool, glimpsed in the interaction between the stars, and in a handful of scenes which were spoiled in the ad campaign. If these were firmly in place, the plot holes would not matter, nor would the clichés, nor would the, let's be non-judgmental and call it the "utilitarian" depiction of women and Mexicans throughout the movie. Though the depiction of American men is hardly any better; 2 Guns is one of those movies that mistakes shallow nihilism for style, and everything is mostly nasty in a not-terribly-inventive, not-terribly-brutal way, much in the way that an aggressive but unfocused teenage punk acts snotty without motive. The only thing that leavens it is the awfully fun interplay between the leads, which as I've said, simply doesn't take up nearly as much of the film's running time as you undoubtedly suppose it does.

Which is too bad, because that part of 2 Guns really is solid: director Baltasar Kormákur having already worked with Wahlberg on Contraband, he understand intuitively how to use that actor, and the loutish puppy dog sense of humor that Wahlberg has developed over the years is in fine flower in this movie, serving as excellent counterfoil to the utterly above-it-all tough guy routine that Washington has honed here and there, and could do in his sleep. It's all trash, but it's totally entertaining.

And it's simply not what 2 Guns is. This is a movie of unbelievable ancient cop movie clichés not even perked up by slick visuals (you have seen this contrast-boosted depiction of Texas and Mexico a dozen times, even if all you ever watch are TV commercials), with a plot that, boiled to its essence, was lazy by the end of the '80s, and left with all the padding intact, is simply a flailing mess of dead ends and inorganic flow. All in all it's tedious, unimaginative, and confused, and the worst thing is that it probably took more work to make this movie than to make a version that was a whole lot better.