Alfred Hitchcock once noted that if you show a gun in the first act, it will have to be fired in the third. Thus when “The Counselor” has Javier Bardem’s sleazy, mob-connected nightclub owner explain to his lawyer what a bolito is — a small battery-powered garrotte that locks around a victim’s neck and rapidly slices through — we know that heads will eventually roll. The only question is: whose?
Director Ridley Scott clearly knows his Hitch, and perhaps another of the director’s dictums inspired him here as well: “Always make the audience suffer as much as possible.” Scott has been all over the place stylistically in the past decade — from mythic science fiction (“Prometheus”) to a tearjerker set on a French vineyard (“A Good Year”) — but “The Counselor,” based on an original screenplay by noted author Cormac McCarthy, sees him getting all dark and nasty in a sordid Southwestern film noir.
If I was feeling cynical I’d say this is Scott’s Coen Bros. movie; McCarthy’s script seems to have been written with the idea of reworking his “No Country For Old Men” template, and the presence of Bardem in the cast — with crazy hair — only reinforces that feeling of déjà vu. The portrayal of Mexican drug gang brutality and its inescapable reach is also of a piece with Oliver Stone’s “Savages.”
Michael Fassbender plays a slightly dodgy Californian attorney — everybody calls him “Counselor” — who uses his criminal client connections to make an investment in a shipment of drugs coming across the border from Mexico. It’s quite a modern American parable: The lawyer doesn’t exactly need the money, he just wants more.
Like “No Country For Old Men,” “The Counselor” is a karmic allegory in making a bad decision and reaping the consequences. But McCarthy’s storyline is surprisingly unengaging, as Fassbender’s smarmy attorney — desiring a whopping diamond ring for his fiancée Laura (Penélope Cruz) — blithely decides to get involved with a major drug deal, ignoring the warnings from everyone around him of the potential downside of dealing with a Juárez cartel. “You may think there are things these people are incapable of, Counselor,” says professional dealer Westray (Brad Pitt). “But you’d be wrong.” Predictably enough, the deal does go bad, and the Counselor is woefully unprepared to handle it.
The basic problem here is that the Counselor himself is a blank, passive and unengrossing character; Fassbender is usually a compelling actor, but he’s given little to work with here, mostly serving as a sounding board for the more colorful supporting cast of Pitt, Bardem and Cameron Diaz, playing a femme fatale who struts about with two cheetahs on a leash. Fassbender and Cruz manage little chemistry; their steamy opening under-the-sheets scene is ruined by some strained “raw” dialogue that sounds more like prostitute and john than a couple engaged to be married.
All of which reminds me of something else Hitchcock said, about the three most important things when making a movie: “Script, script, script.”