The only thing simple and direct about "2 Guns" is its title. This self-consciously nihilistic action movie is one slick piece of business as well as something of a double-edged sword.
On one hand, it can be briefly diverting to see Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur and stars Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg use style and attitude to put a different spin on traditional genre plot dynamics in a story of misplaced drug money and mistaken identity.
But it's also true that the plot of "2 Guns" — filled as it is with multiple feints, dodges and mystifications — is so tricky that events all but evaporate as soon as they happen. Though individual set pieces are well done, the film inevitably leaves an empty taste behind it once it's done.
Written by Blake Masters and based on Steven Grant's series of five graphic novels, "2 Guns" throws us into the middle of a story, then almost immediately tells us that everything we think we know about that story is completely wrong.
We're introduced to Robert "Bobby" Trench (Washington) and Michael "Stig" Stigman (Wahlberg), a pair of wise-cracking hard guys whose glib patter is more irritating than amusing.
Seated in a diner in a small Texas town, they're directly across the street from the Tres Cruces Savings & Loan, a fiduciary establishment with ties to a Mexican drug cartel that they are fixing to rob.
Just a week earlier, however, both men were south of the border trying to do a deal with the cartel's leader, ruthless Manny "Papi" Greco (Edward James Olmos).
Nothing about Trench and Stigman, as it turns out, is as it seems, including Trench's strategically placed gold teeth. They are both undercover agents, Trench for the Drug Enforcement Agency, Stigman for U.S. naval intelligence. More than that, neither one knows that the other guy is an agent.
Even more baffling is the fact that this small-town savings & loan turns out to have more money in its vaults than either man anticipated. A whopping $40 million more, which scares the pants off everyone involved, including Trench's DEA boss Deb Rees (Paula Patton) and Stigman's superior officer Lt. Cmdr. Quince (James Marsden).
Not amused one little bit by the robbery is Earl (a nasty Bill Paxton), who shows up representing the owner of all that money, an entity whose identity the film keeps secret for as long as it can. A man so scary he is known as "God's S.O.B.," Earl is beside himself when it turns out that no one, including Trench and Stigman, seems to know where that money they stole has disappeared to.
Though they are both arrogant and antisocial, these two guns are forced to cooperate in the face of Earl's machinations if they want to stay alive in a world where you never know where you stand.
It can be fun initially to see how director Kormakur, who first came to international attention with expert Icelandic films such as "101 Reykjavik" and "Jar City," doles out this information to us with cinematic elan (helped by energetic, persuasive editing by Michael Tronick). But this is not enough for the long haul, particularly when Trench and Stigman's non-winning personalities and the film's exploitative attitude toward women and violence are added into the mix. Slickness can take you only so far.
MPAA rating: R for violence throughout, language and brief nudity
Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes
Playing: In general release