Some studio execs must have thought they'd died and gone to Hollywood heaven.
Heavy-hitter cast. Check.
Famous director. Check.
Big-name writer. Check.
Box-office ka-ching. Not so fast.
The minds behind the would-be thriller "The Counselor" -- including writer Cormac McCarthy and director Ridley Scott -- forgot one thing: a script that anyone would care about or, heck, even one that makes much sense. Rarely has so much effort and star power been expended with so little result.
The ubiquitous Michael Fassbender is an El Paso lawyer who is always simply addressed as Counselor. This Man With No Name seems to lead a charmed life with a sexy fiancee, Laura (an underutilized Penelope Cruz), sharp clothes, cool car, and presumably a bedroom full of high-thread-count sheets under which he and Laura make gloriously passionate love, which is how the movie opens.
For some reason -- financial concerns are vaguely referred to -- Counselor decides to get involved in the illicit cross-border drug trade through his club-owner friend Reiner (an oddly coiffed Javier Bardem) and one of Reiner's contacts, Westray (Brad Pitt). Of course, this decision backfires after the murder of a courier -- in a totally improbable way that seems lifted from the game of Mouse Trap -- for which the cartels blame Counselor.
Now, neither Counselor nor any of his associates are safe. Meanwhile, Reiner's latest girlfriend, the stridently sexual Malkina (a woefully miscast Cameron Diaz) -- who's so vixen-like and dangerous that she keeps cheetahs as pets -- is more than just arm candy and has secret motives of her own. She loses cool points, though, with her supposedly arousing acrobatics on the windshield of Reiner's car. The display ranks as one of the most unintentionally comic scenes of the year. Cameron, for the love of all that is ("Showgirls," please stop.)
The only intriguing thing about "The Counselor" is the border setting, though it has nothing new to say about the culture or the politics of the region. And, as with the West Texas-set FX series "The Bridge," it was mostly filmed elsewhere, so even that's a cheat.
There's little suspense or any sense of tension, even though Fassbinder gives it his all as a man pushed to breakdown, and actors like Panamanian singer Ruben Blades try to elevate McCarthy's banalities to poetry.
"The Counselor" is ultimate proof that just because an important writer ("No Country for Old Men," "The Road") and a vaunted director ("Alien," "Black Hawk Down," "Thelma & Louise") collaborate, it doesn't mean the results will be remotely watchable.
Those sounds you hear are the sighs of relief from Ben Affleck and Justin Timberlake. "Runner Runner" is no longer 2013's worst thriller.
1 stars (out of 5)
Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem
Rated: R (graphic violence, some grisly images, strong sexual content and strong language)
Running time: 117 min.