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RATING: 3 stars (out of 4)

The Counselor is a standard, predictable stuff, really. It’s got everything you’d typically expect, such as film-opening cunnilingus, motorcyclist beheadings and Cameron Diaz making dirty, disturbing love to a car with the sort of passion Miley Cyrus unleashed on Robin Thicke’s stunned pelvis. Oh, and Rosie Perez, whose appearance makes big winners out of those who made bar bets that she was still alive.

This is a “message movie,” with the message being “It’s hard to screw over Mexican drug cartels to make a quick buck.” Michael Fassbender plays the counselor in The Counselor. The character’s name is never mentioned, like Clint Eastwood in spaghetti westerns. In the counselor’s case, though, the anonymity is not because he’s a badass like Eastwood, but an artsy metaphor for a man who loses himself in a terrifying world and forgets who he is. Which is a pretentious way of saying he’s a dumbass.

The counselor starts things off well enough, in the enviable position of giving a grateful Penelope a thorough and lustful Cruz-ing. Things only go down for the counselor, though, after he goes down, because he finds himself entangled in a triple-crossed drug deal that will either make him rich or dead. Rather than stick with Penelope or backing out of the mess when he’s told by Brad Pitt that just about everyone in Mexico wants to behead him, he chooses to roll the dice and see what happens with the whole drug deal thing. Which is good, I guess, because his choice leads to action-flick road rage confrontations, deliciously nasty Cormac McCarthy dialogue to chew on and Diaz, or at least her convincing stunt double, proving the extent of her flexibility.

The only problem with an otherwise well-acted and well-crazified thriller is that the counselor never really knows what’s going on, and the audience isn’t much ahead of him. It’s not always clear who’s trying to kill who, why Diaz’s Latina accent comes and goes or why it is that Javier Bardem is so disturbingly great at playing manipulative, borderline evil psychos.

There’s blood, bullets and hard-boiled words flying all over the screen, but what could be a chaotic mess is somewhat manageable, thanks to the steady hand of director Ridley Scott, who has handled many a demolition derby of this magnitude in his day. As far as Scott-ish blood baths go, this ranks right up there with Alien, Gladiator and American Gangster. And even though the characters all fear for their lives at every moment, the actors are having almost too much fun doing their thing. The long-haired, cowboy hat-donning Pitt, in particular, chews up the desolate desert scenery like sweet, addictive chaw. And Bardem, who is every bit as unnerving as he was as charismatic villains in No Country for Old Men and Skyfall, is a force of nature dealmaker who you don’t so much watch as you wince at.

Disturbing, frenetic, confusing and ugly, The Counselor tries to toss out something that will mess with just about anyone’s head. You can’t un-see the sadistic violence, bizarre automobile sex or Bardem’s devlish, dead-eyed look of despair, but nor would you want to. Take it all in and enjoy. Worry about the counseling you’ll need later.

Starring Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz and Javier Bardem. Written by Cormac McCarthy. Directed by Ridley Scott. Rated R. 117 minutes.

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