Writer Cormac McCarthy and director Ridley Scott have placed the people of “The Counselor” in the steamy stretch of land that straddles Mexico and Texas. Early on, a view of Ciudad Juarez is shot from up high, seemingly millions of people and houses jammed into the brown plot of earth.
The plot visits El Paso, too, and eventually winds its way to less exotic locales and international icons. Howdy, Boise, Idaho. Cheerio, London. There are slightly dirty people, morality-wise. There are bad people. There are really bad people. And there are evil people
We get to see the talented Michael Fassbender turn from a smug lawyer who knows he deserves the sultry beauty played with plenty of salt by Penelope Cruz as his fiancee to a bedraggled, ruined mess pleading with those really bad people from taking his punishment out on her.
There’s plenty of quiet dialogue between staccato bursts of mind-bending violence — too much tame talk for a thriller with so much darkness up its sleeve, really. The counselor socializes and negotiates with drug kingpins. Javier Bardem is wild and wily as Reiner. Brad Pitt is distant and stoic as Westray. Cameron Diaz is devious and daring as Malkina.
As the counselor’s world caves in on him, the drug cartel kingpin tries to explain that it was all the bad choices of the past that left this lawyer in his new world of hurt and trouble, a place that’s worse than anything he ever imagined.
It turns out, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger can be quite believable as the two smartest guys in the room.
Or, in the case of “Escape Plan,” the action mystery from writers Miles Chapman and Jason Keller, Stallone’s Ray Breslin and Schwarzenegger’s Emil Rottmayer are the most wily thinkers in am underworld maximum security prison. It’s a tight-as-a-drum, dark-as-night lock-up dreamed up by a consortium of governments who want to throw their baddest guys in there and not even have any keys to throw away.
Of course, Warden Hobbes, portrayed with equal great depths of vigilance and confidence by Jim Caviezel, is damn certain that he’s got enough over both of them to keep them in place. Director Mikael Hafstrom makes sure that Hobbes’ complicated compliance measures in the depths of the prison are interesting to the eye and integral to the mind, too.
That storyline keeps you guessing, like a good mystery should, as the good-guy line is filled with bad guys, and vice versa. Breslin is a freelancer whose specialty is showing the U.S. leaders the weakness of their jails by being inserted into the population and then breaking out of them. Rottmayer is a guy who’s already there when Breslin, under the fake name of Portos, is dropped inside with a big thump and plenty of surprises.
Supporting parts are extemely well played by Vincent D’Onofrio (best known as the odd-angles detective on TV’s “Law and Order: Criminal Intent), Amy Ryan (Steve Carell’s best and lasting love interest on “The Office”), rapper 50 Cent, Sam Neill and Faran Tahir. They choose sides and make you wonder about their loyalty.
Yet the biggest moments, action and plot-wise, still belong to Stallone and Schwarzenegger. Breslin and Rottmayer have to pull out all the stops for there to be any chance at all for the escape plan for which the movie is named to work. And the man who made Rocky and Rambo franchises and the former governor of California prove that their on-screen star power can still make a movie work.