A great action buddy cop flick about two undercover agents who stumble upon corruption in the CIA, the Navy, and the DEA, and pretty much everywhere. I have not seen such a rewarding and funny action film like this in a long time.
Denzel is Bobby, an undercover DEA agent working on a sting to get a cartel head, and Mark Wahlberg is Stig, an undercover Navy op trying to redeem his own bad past so he can get accepted back into the military, by stealing drug money stored in a bank. The only problem is, they don’t know who each other really is. So when they pull off a bank heist, they get into real hot water when they discover it’s the CIA’s dirty money. So now, they have the drug cartel, and dirty DEA agents, and dirty CIA after them. Don’t worry, I haven’t told you anything that isn’t in the trailer.
Which is kinda too bad cause it does spoil the movie somewhat. On the other hand, it’s no surprise because it is standard Hollywood cop action stuff that shows two good guys with moral flaws who are forced to realize those flaws and overcome them to become righteous peace officers.
The chemisty between Washington and Wahlberg is phenomenal. Bill Paxton kicks A with a brutal performance as the CIA heavy. Washington plays the straight guy who is a good guy turned cynic and Wahlberg the squirrely jokester idealist. Their playful banter, in the midst of gun fights, fist fights with each other, and torture by the bad guys, is standard action movie fare, but rings with much more authenticity than the cardboard Schwarzenneger type lines because it is character driven, not merely “trailer moment” soundbites.
What I found most interesting was the personal redemption of the characters. Bobby is a cynical older DEA agent who has been working so close for so long to the scum underworld of drug cartels that is starting to affect him. He has a Nietzschean philosophy of “whatever it takes” to take down the bad guys. This is the sort of belief that results in an “ends justifies the means” approach to justice. It reduces justice to power. You have to do whatever it takes to achieve your goal or you won’t get it because the world is so corrupt or evil. And the corruption in all the government agencies in this story seem to support that notion. The problem is that it makes him willing to discard Stig in his effort to catch the bigger fish, AND it spoils his ability to trust anyone enough to love them, such as his love interest, Deb, when he says, “I want to love you” as a way of saying he can’t bring himself to trust enough to do so. Of course, there are moments where we see that Bobby does have a soft spot for good that he cannot escape, such as when he kisses a little baby in the midst of a bank robbery (a unique hilarious moment) and when he saves a Mexican coyote from drowning as they cross illegally into the US. But to find his redemption he has to face his lack of morality as embodied in Stig.
Stig, on the other hand is an upbeat idealist who wants to serve his country by being an honorable member of the military, the Navy. His problem is that his idealism blinds him to the corruption that he is serving, in the form of his superior who is using him for criminal purposes and his Admiral who throws Stig under the bus for the sake of protecting a good image of the Navy. Okay, when you’re surrounded by this much corruption it’s hard not to go solo to clear your name from being a panzy for a conspiracy theory. But he maintains his commitment to a military ethos as he fights the bad guys. There is a significant moment in the film where Bobby confronts Stig looking for a righteous solution with, “You think there is a code. There is no code.” The implication is that there is just the nihilist struggle for power by self interested persons. Everyone is corrupt. But Stig replies, “My code saved your life,” as indeed it did because of his willingness to do what is right even if it harms himself. And in the end, Stig’s morality changes Bobby and brings him back in the family of man.
This is the argument between teleological ethics and deontological ethics. Teleological ethics uses morals as a means to an end of achieving one’s purposes. Which means there is no ultimate right and wrong, only what we create for our use. It results in relativism and the ends justifying the means. If we accomplish what we want (which we define as “good”), then how we achieved it is right and acceptable. But deontological ethics say that there is a moral code that transcends our self interest to which we are accountable. Something is right or wrong regardless of what we want.
So for example, in our current climate, those who believe in teleological ethics or the ends justify the means believe that it is okay for the government to use the IRS to persecute political enemies if they can consolidate their political power, or for the NSA to violate individual liberties if we can catch more terrorists. But those who believe in deontological ethics believe that the high office of the president of the United States (and the head of the DOJ and IRS) does not give justification to violate the Constitution, our transcendent political ethical standard, no matter how much good you think you will achieve according to your politics.
Or in the current George Zimmerman trial, the race hustlers and grievance peddlers denied all the evidence of Trayvon Martin’s criminal guilt and all the evidence of George Zimmerman’s innocence and right to self defense, and even encouraged through their code words and dog whistles in the media to destroy Zimmerman. And they created a false picture of Zimmerman as being white, so that it would be a case of white racism against a black (see here). Why? Because they believe their cause of crying racism and black victimhood is so right, that it doesn’t matter if they destroy or kill an innocent man as long as their “higher cause” is achieved. That is teleological ethics. The ends justify the means. Whereas, those who believe in deontological ethics believe that even though it was a tragedy for Martin to die, we must follow the rule of law and evidence which exonerated Zimmerman, and justice should not be denied anyone just because their race is Hispanic or half-white.