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What Mark Wahlberg Can Learn From Denzel Washington's Decline

Lessons from the action flick '2 Guns'

Courtesy of Universal Studios

The new Denzel Washington–Mark Wahlberg action comedy, lamely titled 2 Guns, feels like a throwback to an earlier era. The fight and chase scenes don’t have much CGI, the villains are drug-dealers and corrupt government officials rather than megalomaniacs or cyber-criminals, and most of the fun comes from the banter between the two leads. It’s hard to remember the last time two big movie stars joined up for a project like this one, which is why it’s interesting that the movie is best seen as an unintentional warning signal from Washington to Wahlberg about what not to do in the middle stage of your career.

The plot of the film is convoluted but ultimately simple: Washington and Wahlberg are law enforcement officials from different agencies/branches who are each out to take down drug dealers operating on both sides of the Mexican border. (For the first part of the movie, each man thinks the other one is a criminal.) When they are (separately) betrayed, and when the government—led by a corrupt CIA psychopath played in amusing, over-the-top fashion by Bill Paxton—sets out to kill them, they join forces. Unfortunately, the second half of the movie devolves into poorly directed action scenes and tiresome showdowns, making the whole thing feel like a waste.

For the first hour, however, 2 Guns is enjoyable, if unexceptional. The story moves along well, and the atmosphere of the southwest comes off the screen. But what holds it together is Wahlberg, who plays his character as good-natured and even goofy. He talks fast, spouts off strange and funny lines in a vaguely Vince Vaughn-ish manner, flirts with every woman onscreen, and teases Washington to good effect.

Washington, however, is part of the problem. Over the past ten years, he has alternated between giving serious (and superb) performances in films like Flight and giving lazy ones in mediocre action dramas. Generally these lesser roles break into two categories: a version of his excellent Training Day performance, where he is all swagger and attitude (Déjà Vu, American Gangster, The Book of Eli, Safe House); and the slightly more restrained hero who nonetheless has very Denzel Washington-y characteristics (Man on Fire, Inside Man, The Taking of Pelham 123, Unstoppable). 2 Guns is somewhat of a mixture, but the shtick feels tiresome.

Just look at his career over the past decade and compare it to the 1990s, when he made Mo' Better Blues, Mississippi Masala, Malcolm X, Philadelphia, Crimson Tide, Devil in a Blue Dress, Courage Under Fire, The Siege, and The Hurricane. All of these movies are either serious dramas with excellent lead performances or above-average Hollywood thrillers. It’s true that by the second half of the decade he fell into some of the same rhythms and tics as an actor—this Huffington Post montage of him saying the same line over and over is pretty darn good—but he was still almost always convincing.

Is there a lesson here for Wahlberg? So far he has been canny to mix his comedy skills (seen to good effect in Ted, and displayed brilliantly in The Departed) with drama. His performances in Boogie Nights, Three Kings, and The Fighter were all restrained and effective. He may not be Daniel Day-Lewis, but he manages to give his characters a little something different each time, and 2 Guns is no exception. The movie feels familiar but his character doesn’t. He should keep exploring different types of roles if he doesn’t want to fall into Washington’s rut.

Isaac Chotiner is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow him @IChotiner.