Director Baltasar Kormakur, left, is working with Mark Wahlberg, right,… (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)
NEW YORK — Mark Wahlberg and Denzel Washington were at a corner table celebrating the start of production on their western action-comedy "2 Guns" last year when they spotted an odd sight. On the dance floor, sweatily busting moves while surrounded by a gaggle of women, was their director: the rugged, bearded Icelander Baltasar Kormakur.
"Denzel looked at me and said, 'What's up with your boy?'" Wahlberg recalled as he sipped bottled water at a midtown restaurant last week, trotting out a not-bad Washington impersonation. "And I said, 'I don't know. I've never seen him do this before.'"
Kormakur's momentary burst of samba may have temporarily puzzled Wahlberg. But his overall exuberance has, improbably, delighted the actor.
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When the pair unveil "2 Guns" on Friday, they will offer the latest product — after last year's surprise hit "Contraband" and the recently shot HBO pilot "Missionary," which Kormakur directed and Wahlberg produced — of what is fast becoming one of Hollywood's most odd-couple relationships.
There's Wahlberg, the Dorchester kid who did time in jail before remaking himself first as the pop performer Marky Mark and later as an action star. And there's Kormakur, a theater and film geek who started out making low-budget eccentricities such as "101 Reykjavik" and "Jar City" and who currently lives in a northern Iceland town where sheep outnumber Homo sapiens by an unofficial count of 5:1.
"We're not that different," continued Wahlberg, 42, at the restaurant.
"We're a little different," said the director, 47, sitting next to the actor, his soulful mien contrasting with Wahlberg's brash exterior. "But not really that different."
Based on Blake Masters' screenplay adaptation of a graphic-novel series, "2 Guns" centers on Wahlberg's undercover Naval officer Stig Stigman and Washington's undercover DEA agent Bobby Trench. Their identities concealed from each other for much of the film, Stig and Bobby pretend to be criminals in the hope of nabbing a drug kingpin and his money — at least, until they run afoul of Earl (Bill Paxton), a coolly vicious killer who may or may not be a CIA operative.
Universal releases "2 Guns," set in dusty towns on both sides of the Texas-Mexico border, in a summer season when mid-budget genre movies have fared well. With plenty of comic improvisation between Washington and Wahlberg (Wahlberg says he read the entire script aloud every day for over a month so he knew when and how to deviate), "2 Guns" is the kind of glorified B-movie in which, when the characters are not trying to outshoot various bad guys, they're trying to outfox each other.
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"'Western' is a dangerous word," said Kormakur, a former actor who looks a bit like Viggo Mortensen if Mortensen were a pirate. "I just wanted to play with the western idea while having two alpha males go at each other."
The director said he used "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" as a reference point. Filmgoers will likely be reminded of a host of buddy pictures that have come since, with Kormakur slipping in the occasional Tarantino-esque sense of humor or cinematic homage (a Sergio Leone reference via the extended barrel of a gun, for example). It's a Hollywood movie through-and-through, but also one not totally devoid of foreign-filmmaker touches.
The project has a long history. Wahlberg was attached to the film when it was being developed by David O. Russell. But when the director fell off after disagreements with Universal and producer Marc Platt over the script, Wahlberg suggested Kormakur, with whom he was in the middle of postproduction work for "Contraband," a remake of an Icelandic film starring and produced by Kormakur. (The two first got acquainted when they agreed to remake that movie, the director impressing Wahlberg with his can-do attitude.).
Kormakur, who on his water-bound 2012 Icelandic-language feature "The Deep" often jumped in the ocean himself to shoot his main actor, has a certain roll-up-his-sleeves attitude on set. Paxton--who to land his role dressed up in tough-guy western garb even though he was meeting Kormakur in a Beverly Hills hotel--said the director "had reserves of stamina even in the heat of August, just running and going everywhere when many of us could barely move."
Wahlberg was similarly taken by Kormakur's salt-of-the-earth brio.
"On the first day of shooting I said to him during a long break, 'Why don't you go back to your trailer?'" Wahlberg recounted. "And Balt said, 'I have a trailer?'
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Still, it's an odd fit. Wahlberg said it works because, as a former actor, Kormakur understands what someone like Wahlberg needs. But mostly, he said, it's about the masculinity.