Film review: THE COUNSELOR, from Built For Speed

Some films look amazing on paper but suck on the big screen.  The Counselor is one such film.  Helmed by one of Hollywood’s most artistically inspired directors in Ridley Scott, scripted by one of the most acclaimed authors of the last 50 years in Cormac McCarthy and featuring a dream team cast of Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz and Brad Pitt, all the pieces seemed to be in place for a modern masterpiece.  Instead we have an awkwardly-acted, sluggish, confusing, talk-fest that feels twice as long as its 117 minutes.

Michael Fassbender plays a crooked lawyer, simply known as the Counselor, who unwisely becomes involved in a huge drug deal in Juarez, Mexico with cartel-connected nutter Reiner (Javier Bardem) and his sinister lady friend Malkina (Cameron Diaz).  When the drug deal goes haywire, the Counselor suddenly finds his life and that of his girlfriend Laura (Penelope Cruz) and his buddy, the oily middle-man Westray (Brad Pitt), under serious threat.

This film is largely composed of long conversations between Fassbender and various sleazeballs.  As Tarantino has shown, extended conversations in film can be riveting as they often provide fascinating insights into the character’s psychology as well as agonisingly tense preludes to violent confrontations.  Despite some eloquent passages of dialogue that ruminate on sex, death and fate, the lengthy, obtuse conversations through which audiences have to wade in The Counselor, are mostly tedious.

With remarkable performances in Shame, A Dangerous Method and Hunger, Michael Fassbender has established himself as one of the finest film actors of his generation.   His performance in The Counselor, however, is dull, unconvincing and possibly the least charismatic of his career.  He, like the rest of the cast, doesn’t connect emotionally with the audience or provide any compelling reason to care about him.  Penelope Cruz, who usually commands the screen in every film in which she appears, is sidelined with what amounts to a bit part.  Her character is meant to be this film’s emotional core but as she’s only a fleeting presence, it’s difficult to feel anything for her.  Cameron Diaz’ Malkina is supposed to be the snake in the grass but with her permanent scowl, Cleopatra eye make-up and two-toned Cruella Deville hairdo, it’s comically obvious that she’s the resident femme fatale and not to be trusted.  Diaz seems uncomfortable in the role, often delivering her lines with forced conviction.  She does, however, make particularly interesting use of a car windscreen during one scene.  Javier Bardem is always a mesmerising screen presence but his loopy drug dealer with his ludicrous Sid Vicious hair style, garish clothes and pet cheetahs is more like a cartoonish parody of a crim rather than a convincingly menacing character.  Brad Pitt, who sports an appalling greasy mullet, draws on some of the mannerisms he displayed in earlier films like Kalifornia and True Romance and seems to be cruising through his role here.

Being a Ridley Scott film, The Counselor is often visually stunning with remarkable vistas of the Mexican deserts and ominous lonely roads that stretch to infinity.  The slick visual style he employs here, though, occasionally resembles the prestige car commercial extravagance of his brother Tony Scott rather than classic Ridley.

The action heats up toward the end of The Counselor, with some visceral and bloody violence that once again reveals scriptwriter McCarthy’s love of sinister killing devices, in this case a self-tightening garrotte that produces an extremely gruesome death.  The action and the more feverish drama of the later scenes has little impact, though, as the audience have spent the earlier part of the film emotionally detached from the characters and their world.

Nick’s rating: Two stars.

Classification: MA.

Director(s): Ridley Scott.

Release date: 14th Nov 2013.

Running time: 117 mins.


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