Wednesday, October 30, 2013


Watching the star-studded Ridley Scott drug smuggling caper “The Counselor” (**** OUT OF ****) is like paying to be a participant in a “Scared Straight” program.  “Scared Straight” is that fear-inducing program where juveniles are given a taste of what to expect if they pursue the path of evil.  Hopefully, the convicts who intimidate the juveniles in “Scared Straight” frighten them out of a notorious life of criminal endeavor.  In “The Counselor,” a well-to-do Texas attorney gets himself caught up in a narcotics smuggling scheme and learns first-hand the meaning of Murphy’s Law.  Everything that can go wrong for our ill-fated protagonist does go wrong, and the hardened hellions who surround him warn him at every turn to back out before it is too late.  Michael Fassbender top-lines a stellar cast of familiar faces that include Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Oscar-winner Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Rosie Perez, Rubén Blades, and Goran Visnjic.  In most Hollywood crime melodramas, the good guys win in the end, but “The Counselor” has no winners except its toxic felons.  If you abhor movies were evil triumphs over virtue, “The Counselor” is definitely not for you.  You aren’t tempted to sympathize for anybody.  “Alien” director Ridley Scott and Pulitzer Prize winner author Cormac McCarthy have combined their considerable talents to craft a movie that is incredibly chilling.  For the record, Cormac McCarthy is the same fellow who wrote the novel that the Coen brothers turned into the movie “No Country for Old Men".   Brad Pitt’s death scene in “The Counselor” alone is worth the price of admission if you can keep your hands away from your eyes.  

The hero in “The Counselor” (Michael Fassbender of “The Centurion”) is known only as ‘the Counselor.’  Nobody ever addresses him by either his first or last name.  This El Paso attorney has wind in his sails.  Successful and savvy, he cruises around in a convertible Bentley and appears to want for nothing.  Happily, he has landed the lady of his dreams, Laura (Penélope Cruz of “All the Pretty Horses”), and he dotes so dearly on her that he flies to Amsterdam personally to choose the diamond for her wedding ring.  Little does Laura know is that her handsome fiancé has gone into business with a couple of low-class dastards living high off the hog.  A shady night club owner named Reiner (Javier Bardem of “No Country for Old Men”) who has snorted one line too many and a smooth-talking cowboy, Westray (Brad Pitt of “Thelma & Louise”), both warn ‘the Counselor’ repeatedly that he should turn tail and light out.  Indeed, “The Counselor” amounts to a Biblical caveat to flee evil.  Our naive hero has bought himself a piece of a $20-million cocaine caper with the shipment of smack destined to be delivered to Chicago.  Meanwhile, beneath the border in old Mexico, the cartel seals up their product in large, air-tight barrels and conceals them in squat, heavy, septic truck that looks like it could go bumper-to- bumper with an armored car in a demolition derby and win.  The in-joke is that one of those barrels contains the pickled body of a Colombian who has endlessly been shipped back-and-forth like a joker in a deck of cards for whoever finds him.  When he is found, he is resealed and shipped off with a qualm.  The bad guys get the vehicle across the border safely without a hassle, but another bunch of thieves later hijack the truck.  Not only do they steal the truck, but they also decapitate one of their motorcycle adversaries called “The Green Hornet” with a wire strung across the highway!  Death is as horrifically gruesome here as it was in any “Saw” sagas.  These guys and their cronies don’t fare any better.  They are waylaid by another pair of cartel gunsels masquerading as Texas Rangers and die in a fierce gunfight.  An innocent motorist driving up to the scene of the shoot-out by accident desperately struggles to elude lead, but he doesn’t stand a chance of making a clean getaway.  The surviving cartel gunman calmly reloads his machine-pistol and riddles the poor slob’s truck.  Not even the innocent bystanders have a chance in “The Counselor!”
“The Counselor” boasts an array of vicious but memorable villains.  Cameron Diaz of the “Charlie’s Angels” epics stands out more prominently than either Javier Bardem or Brad Pitt.  The femme fatale that she plays crossed the moral line between good and evil so far back that even if she looked back, she would never see that line.  We are told the only thing that she remembers about her parents was the sight of seeing them hurled from a helicopter at age three.  Vulgar wench that she is, her idea of sport involves turning her pair of pet cheetahs loose on jack rabbits in the desert at dawn.  Malkina, as she is called, has cheetah spots tattooed all over her back, loves to masturbate on her boyfriend’s Ferrari windshield, and goes to confession as a joke to regale the priest with her tawdry tales.  As it turns out, she is the evil mastermind behind the thief of the smack.  Who says women cannot be bad girls?  When scenarist Cormac McCarthy isn’t creating devilishly, overwrought villains, he conjures up some of the most poetic dialogue that you will ever hear.  Meanwhile, Scott and “Crimson Tide” lenser Dariusz Wolski have created a movie that on the basis of its elegant cinematography will take your breath away when the hair on your back isn’t standing up.  Altogether, “The Counselor” qualifies as a superb but corrosive crime thriller with harrowing death scenes that you won’t forget after the rest of the action has faded from your memory.  There are no happy endings here for anybody.  Spectators who love to challenge themselves to see how much offensive material they can swallow before losing their cookies will probably be the only ones that will truly appreciate Scott’s masterpiece of amoral horror.


Action superstars Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger co-star in “1408” director Mikael Hafstrom’s “Escape Plan” (*** OUT OF ****), an audacious but improbable prison break epic that delivers brawny thrills and chills galore.  Unlike the last two “Expendables” outings, Stallone and Schwarzenegger appear here on equal footing in more than rather than a couple of scenes.  Basically, we’ve got “Rocky” and “The Terminator” tangling with Mr. Reese from the provocative, CBS-TV thriller “Person of Interest.”  If you’re expecting another wise-cracking yarn with our heroes spouting clever one-liners, you’re going to be disappointed.  Indeed, little of the dialogue in “Escape Plan” deserves to be immortalized on bumper stickers.  Refreshingly, neither do our stars make any references to their previous Hollywood blockbusters.  Everybody plays it straight-forward in this survival-of-the-fittest saga.  Meanwhile, most of the testosterone-laden action consists of men either beating or shooting the living daylights out of each other in examples of outlandish, over-the-top violence.  Stallone is cast against type as a mature, serious-minded, MacGyver-like hero with a Houdini talent for crashing out of prisons, while Schwarzenegger plays one of the most dangerous men alive behind bars.  Jim Caviezel is cast against type, too, as a villain so dastardly that you will squeal with glee when he gets his comeuppance.  Former British soccer star Vinnie Jones chews the scenery with relish as Caviezel’s second-in-command.  Jones’ evil  prison guard shows no qualms about smashing inmates to a pulp as if they were drums.  

Scenarists Miles Chapman of “Road House 2: Last Call” and Jason Keller of “Machine Gun Preacher” generate plenty of suspense about the mysterious setting of the prison.  After an exciting introductory sequence at a Colorado prison where our hero demonstrates his masterly escape artist credentials, the remainder of “Escape Plan” occurs in an imposing penitentiary designed for the worst of the worst.  Essentially, the convicts occupy cells that resemble glass cages stacked atop each other and framed with steel beams.  “Source Code” production designer Barry Chusid has surpassed himself with this visually intriguing setting.  Well-armed, incorruptible, prison guards decked out from head to foot in black uniforms with sinister Guy Fawkes masks reminiscent of the police in director George Lucas’ dystopian sci-fi chiller “THX-1138” patrol the premises.  An around-the-clock surveillance system denies the inmates any privacy.  Hafstrom and his writers will keep you guessing for about an hour into the action where this impressive pen could be situated.  When Stallone finally figures out its whereabouts, the revelation is comparable to the lair of a James Bond villain.  While “Escape Plan” recycles some of the usual prison movie shenanigans, the imaginative setting sets this movie apart. 

Ray Breslin (Sylvester Stallone of “First Blood”) has broken out of 14 prisons over the last eight years.  He has formed his one-of-kind company with Lester Clark (Vincent D'Onofrio of “Full Metal Jacket”) along with Abigail (Amy Ryan of “Green Zone”) and computer wizard Hush (Curtis '50 Cent' Jackson of “Get Rich Or Die Tryin’”).  Out of the blue, the Central Intelligence Agency makes Ray an offer that he cannot refuse.  They challenge Ray to break out of their super-max slammer, and they are prepared to pay him twice his usual million dollar fee.  Initially, Ray doesn’t like the set-up.  Abigail and Hush share his dread.  Lester thinks it will be a picnic.  Reluctantly Ray accepts their dare against his better judgment.  Predictably, things go badly from the outset.  Our hero is abducted, drugged, and the homing device embedded in his body that enables Abigail and Hush to track him is removed.  The moment Ray awakens in his exotic prison cell, he wants out of the proposition.  Unfortunately, he learns that he is going nowhere.  It seems treacherous Lester has double-crossed him, and Warden Hobbes (Jim Caviezel of “The Thin Red Line”) has orders to keep him permanently on ice.  Ironically, Ray discovers Hobbes has designed his prison security measures based on Ray’s book about the most common structural flaws in prison security!

Ray finds himself surrounded by a formidable population of inmates that want to kill him.  Initially, one of these brutes is Emil Rottmayer (Arnold Schwarzenegger of “The Last Stand”), and they don’t cotton to each other.  When Ray clobbers Emil with his first blow, Emil observes with a smirk, “You hit like a vegetarian!”  When the Muslim brotherhood decides to gang up on Ray, Emil changes his mind and comes to our hero’s rescue.  Eventually, Ray and Emil become friends.  Ray explains that he has been paid to break out.  He suffers a number of set-backs, but he recovers from Hobbes’ savage treatment with Emil’s help.  Ray reveals his formula for success.  He must study the layout of the prison, and this means he must incite a riot so Hobbes can throw him in solitary confinement.  Solitary confinement is the equivalent of Hell where inmates are caged up and subjected to a blazing battery of search lights that turn the cage into an oven.  Ray notices the screws that in the floor plates are steel rather than aluminum.  He suspects the prison may be located in a vast underground cavern.  Next, he scrutinizes the rotation of the guards and their routines while they watch the inmates.  The most important part of Ray’s plan is finding somebody on the inside who will help them since he is cut off from Abigail and Hush.  The most likely candidate is the prison doctor, Dr. Kyrie (Sam Neill of “Jurassic Park”), but he displays considerable reluctance.

Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger should have teamed up long before “Escape Plan” because they radiate convincing camaraderie.  Director Mikael Hafstrom never lets the momentum lag, and he minimizes the clichés that crop up in most prison flicks.  For example, the Muslim inmates are rehabilitated as heroes after they join Ray and Emil.  Our heroes suffer considerably at the hands of the sadistic warden and his lieutenant before they triumph.  The worst thing about “Escape Plan” is that its exterior computer-generated imagery appears less than spectacular.