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Set along the Texas/Mexico border but photographed largely in Spain, “The Counselor” is novelist Cormac McCarthy’s first original screenplay to make it before the cameras. It concerns a self-deluding and financially challenged Texan who takes a chance involving some cocaine cartel money to dig himself out of a financial hole. Drugs; greed; malice; ridiculous lifestyle excess, signified by the chief sociopath’s pet cheetahs: “The Counselor” offers all sorts of pulpy theoretical interest. As a bonus, the violence showcases not one but two really nasty ways to die via beheading, which is one more exotic method of killing than we got with the cattle stun-gun as deployed in the Oscar-winning “No Country for Old Men,” taken from a McCarthy novel.

“The Counselor” is packed with cartel goons with bad teeth (just like the unsavory Mexicans of Hollywood’s ethnically sensitive past), surrounding a cast directed by Ridley Scott including Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem and Brad Pitt. All that — and yet, dull. Why?

For one thing, McCarthy’s story zigs and zags but in slow motion. The character relationships lack the spark and juice of enjoyable trash. McCarthy’s dialogue suffers from an excess of capital-W Writing that doesn’t sound like speakable human expression, even flamboyant, proudly artificial human expression. When someone accuses the Diaz character of being “cold,” she fixes her opponent with a glare and replies: “Truth has no temperature.” There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who will admire that line, quite apart from the leaden way Diaz delivers it, and those who won’t.

Fassbender’s character, whose twang carries a touch of the Old Sod, needs dough to finance, among other commodities, a monster engagement ring for his intended (Cruz). She does not know about her man’s deal with the cartel devils. Reiner, Bardem’s character, dominated by fright-wig hair in a permanent state of excitation, is the sometime associate of the counselor and has brought the lawyer (Fassbender) in on a new nightclub project. Diaz portrays Reiner’s inhumanly tough mistress, the cheetah wrangler, resident sexual fuh-REAK and apparent string-puller of half the globe’s nefarious business interests.

The narrative twists itself into pretzels trying to stay ahead of the audience. Fassbender’s reactive patsy of a character exists to express shock at what his newfound colleagues will do in the name of frontier justice. Director Scott lends “The Counselor” a solid, shiny level of craftsmanship. But even if we’ve never personally done these sorts of deals ourselves, at least lately, we’ve all been here before.



The Counselor
R; 117 minutes Cast: Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Cameron DiazDirected by Ridley Scott