When a buddy movie requires packing heat, bring 2 Guns.

Look of Surprise: Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg start strong and finish predicatably; Wahlberg outshines.

In the opening moments of 2 Guns, Stig (Mark Wahlberg) and Bobby (Denzel Washington) sit in a diner across the street from the bank they’re about to rob. They bicker. They argue over pancakes, French toast and hash, and Stig gives the waitress a charming little wink as she walks away. We immediately like them. They have chemistry and their banter is amusing. It’s like watching Vincent and Jules in Pulp Fiction all over again, except these two aren’t nearly as full of themselves. This early moment in 2 Guns is important because for the next 45 minutes the timeline jumps around to one week earlier, the day of the robbery and the day before the robbery. Aside from keeping the viewer on his toes, the non-linear structure also provides an interesting puzzle to figure out, as you know plot twists are coming and you’re eager to see if they’ll manifest the way you expect them to.

Stig and Bobby are robbing the small town bank because a drug lord (Edward James Olmos) stiffed them on a transaction and the bank is where he keeps his money. They expect to take $3 million. They get $43 million. Stig, an undercover Naval intelligence officer, wants to take the money to his commander (James Marsden) and be anointed a hero. Bobby, who’s undercover for the DEA, wants to take the money to his boss (Robert John Burke) and co-worker/mistress (Paula Patton). Neither knows the other is undercover, so they double cross one another, not knowing the real owner of the cash (played by Bill Paxton) is hot on their trail.

This opening hour is dynamic and entertaining, with double crosses on top of double crosses keeping us guessing. But once Stig and Bobby decide to work together again (as the trailers have already ruined) the movie falls flat. It becomes a typical buddy cop venture with standard car chases and shootouts, offering nothing fresh as it ambles toward the ending you predicted an hour earlier. This is one of those times that you hate being right, because it means the second hour isn’t as clever as director Baltasar Kormakur (Contraband) thinks it is.

And yet, thanks to Wahlberg, there’s still a modicum of enjoyment to be had throughout (in 13 years as a film critic I never imagined championing a Mark Wahlberg performance over one from Denzel Washington, but so it is). Stig is an easygoing wise guy with funny one-liners and a good heart, making this Wahlberg’s most likable characters in years. Yes his range is limited, and he may have maxed out in terms of a quality performance with his Oscar-nominated turn in The Departed, but Stig represents everything the Wahlberg screen persona can and should be for years to come.

In many ways, 2 Guns is as standard a movie as you’ll find. The script is flawed, the action scenes are mediocre and most performances are pedestrian. But then there’s Wahlberg, who makes every scene he’s in and everyone around him better. His performance is what being a movie star and carrying a project is all about.

2 GUNS (2½) Directed by Baltasar Kormakur • Starring Denzel Washington, Mark Wahlberg, Edward James Olmos, Bill Paxton • Rated R • 109 mins. • At Century Cinemas Del Monte, Maya Cinemas, Northridge Cinemas, Lighthouse Cinemas.

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