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'2 Guns' (R)

The phrase “casting is everything” has never felt truer than it does with 2 Guns, an unremarkable, standard-issue shoot-em-up that rests entirely on the charisma of its two stars. As a pair of secret agents — unaware of each other’s identity — who infiltrate a Mexican drug cartel, Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg make a hugely likable pair, exchanging one-liners with the same ease in which they trade gunfire with the enemy.

Sometimes, they even end up trying to shoot each other. Bobby (Washington), who works for the DEA, and Stig (Wahlberg), a naval intelligence officer, get along fine while pretending to be bad guys. But after they rob a bank hoping to relieve a crime kingpin (Edward James Olmos) of his $3 million fortune and come away with $41 million instead, their assignment is essentially over. Both men decide it’s time to get rid of their partner and turn in the loot to their respective bosses.

2 Guns was directed by Baltasar Kormakur in the same loose, laid-back style he brought to last year’s Contraband. But that film benefited from the relatively fresh backdrop of high-seas smuggling, and it also had an actual plot that slowly increased in tension before erupting into action-movie mayhem.

The new picture tries to pull off a similar trick, throwing in a bunch of baddies and traitors (including Bill Paxton as a murderous CIA agent and James Marsden as a corrupt Navy officer) who gradually come to play a part in the big blow-’em-up finale. 2 Guns argues that the international drug trade is so lucrative, even U.S. government agencies and the military want to carve out a piece for themselves while nobody’s looking. But there’s something flat and matter-of-fact about the way in which the movie presents this idea. Paula Patton, as Washington’s friend with benefits, comes off as a stock romantic interest even after we learn there’s a lot more to her than is initially apparent.

2 Guns is refreshingly light on the CGI effects, and the big setpieces are well done. But no matter how hard the movie tries, everything just kind of sits there. Maybe we’ve already seen this kind of stuff too many times. The comedy is the only thing that enlivens the film: Wahlberg, who swaggers through the picture in “Say hi to your mother for me” mode, has a running gag of mispronouncing words that never gets old, and he’s prone to making impetuous decisions that Washington must then race to correct. They’re a fine comic duo, and 2 Guns is at its best where they’re allowed to simply riff off each other. Too bad the gunfire always resumes, drowning them out.

Cast: Denzel Washington, Mark Wahlberg, Paula Patton, Bill Paxton, James Marsden, Edward James Olmos, Fred Ward.

Director: Baltasar Kormakur.

Screenwriter: Blake Masters. Based on the graphic novels by Steven Grant.

Producers: Andrew Cosby, Randall Emmett, George Furla.

A Universal Pictures release. Running time: 109 minutes. Vulgar language, violence, gore, sexual situations, adult themes. Opens Friday Aug. 2 at area theaters.