The new thriller The Counselor features an all-star cast, both in front of and behind the camera. Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Cormac McCarthy (All the Pretty Horses, No Country for Old Men) and directed by Oscar-nominee Ridley Scott (Alien, Gladiator), The Counselor stars Michael Fassbender (Shame, X-Men: First Class) as a greedy lawyer trying to protect his fiancee while up to his neck in dirty deals with a hard-partying drug dealer and his psychotic girlfriend.
The film starts with stunning images of the Arizona high desert from the camera of Dariusz Wolski (Prometheus, Pirates of the Caribbean series). A motorcycle zooms down a road near the Mexican border. Malkina (Cameron Diaz) rides her horse through the desert while her pet cheetah streaks past them. In contrast to all this speed, The Counselor and his bride-to-be Laura (Penelope Cruz) enjoy a leisurely afternoon in bed.
“You’ve ruined me,” Laura tells the Counselor. “I hope so,” he responds.
The first half of the film establishes the offbeat cast of characters that surround the Counselor. Cocaine kingpin Reiner (Javier Bardem) shows off a wild, spiky hairdo that would not look out of place in a Japanese manga comic book. Malkina wears her fetish for speed on her skin with her cheetah-spot tattoos. Westray (Brad Pitt), whose cowboy wardrobe and philosophical soliloquies read like excerpts from McCarthy’s “Border Trilogy”, works with the Counselor as Reiner’s middleman with a Mexican drug cartel.
While the film unfolds slowly, the action picks up in the second half. A young motorcycle courier for the cartel is murdered and a $20 million cocaine shipment, hidden inside a sewage truck, is stolen. The cartel pins the blame on the Counselor, since he bailed the courier out of jail as a favor to the young man’s mother (Rosie Perez), one of the Counselor’s clients. The cartel pursues the Counselor and those closest to him for their roles in the stolen shipment. When the cartel kidnaps Laura, the Counselor seeks help from his fellow conspirators.
“If your definition of a friend is someone who’s willing to die for you,” Westray tells the Counselor, “then you have no friends.”
The cartel and the mastermind behind the stolen shipment bring down the members of the conspiracy one by one. In one brutal and graphic instance, a motorized noose tightens around one of them on a crowded street. Assassins gun down another in broad daylight, after which young boys steal the wallet, watch and shoes from the corpse. The sole survivor receives an unmarked package, confirming his worst fears.
Each of these skilled actors deals with the challenge of how to portray such unsympathetic characters while finding ways for the audience to relate to them. Fassbender does an excellent job as the avaricious but naive Counselor who quickly gets in over his head. Bardem brings a hedonistic glee to Reiner. His spiky hair, tinted glasses and colorful shirts show off a startling contrast to the buttoned-up Counselor. Pitt gives Westray a world-weariness to go with his cowboy Zen attitude. The biggest disappointment is the waste of Cruz’s talents as a standard “damsel in distress”.
On the other side of the coin, the biggest acting kudos go to Diaz as the pansexual Malkina.
Unlike many of Diaz’s “good girl” characters, Malkina has no boundaries and no inhibitions. She casually swats the Counselor’s rear end in a meeting, makes a pass at Laura in a spa, attempts to seduce a priest at confession and displays her love for Reiner’s convertible Ferrari in a memorable display of flexibility.
Ridley Scott attempts to bring a tight, taut crime drama to the screen. He gives the actors memorable characters and tries to keep the tension going throughout most of the two-hour running time, but McCarthy’s script bogs down the action in drawn-out monologues.
The major problem is that McCarthy’s script gives too many characters too many long speeches.
A diamond dealer (Bruno Ganz) rambles about “cautionary diamonds” as the Counselor shops for an engagement ring for Laura. Westray soliloquizes on the lack of a moral center to their lives. A cartel leader (Ruben Blades) tells a story about Spanish poet Antonio Machado. Malkina delivers a speech about her admiration for cheetahs as predators.
The Counselor displays beautiful people, spectacular images and extended dialogue, but often at the expense of maintaining the tension throughout the story. The film feels less of a substantial meal than a rich dessert. It looks good and feels great, but it doesn’t stick with the viewer and a little goes a long way.
The Counselor arrives in theaters October 25.
CORRECTION: Antonio Machado was from Spain, not Mexico. The review has been corrected to reflect the correct information.