Film Reviews: Wednesday, January 25, 2006
Pierce Brosnan shows Greg Kinnear a glimpse of his line of work in ‘The Matador.’
The Matador\r\nStarring Pierce Brosnan and Greg Kinnear. Written and directed by Richard Shepard. Rated R.
Breaking a Bond

The Matador isn’t Noble or Wright, but it’s good entertainment.


One of my college roommates who shared my interest in movies maintained that Pierce Brosnan was the great wasted talent of his generation. I thought, “Remington Steele? You’re kidding me.” Ever since that tv show in the early 1980s made him famous, the handsome Irishman has been stuck in the same groove, playing dashing devil-may-care ladies’ men and men of the world. When he was announced as the new James Bond in the mid-1990s, the news was greeted with shrugs; audiences knew what they’d get from him, and no one else was an obviously better fit. Rather than catapult him to better things, the role only seemed to harden his persona. He tended to play his non-Bond parts in the same lackadaisical manner (After the Sunset, Laws of Attraction, The Thomas Crown Affair), and his few attempts to go against type met with dismal failure (Evelyn). His one recent success was playing a skeezier version of Bond in the underappreciated 2001 spy thriller The Tailor of Panama.

If he’d done one or two more movies of that quality, maybe we wouldn’t be so surprised by his starring role in a quite engaging dark comedy called The Matador. He plays a contract hit man named Julian Noble, though the name couldn’t be less appropriate for a man whose tastes run toward cheap liquor and underage hookers. He gives off the palpable vibe of a man who’s falling apart — he’s like Paul Giamatti’s character in Sideways, except that he kills people for money.

This is the state he’s in when he sits down in an otherwise empty Mexico City bar next to Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear), a weary salesman from Denver who’s desperate to close a big deal. In the course of their conversation, Danny reveals that his finances are on the rocks and his marriage is in trouble after he and his wife Bean (Hope Davis) lost their only child in a school bus crash. Julian’s immediate response is to tell Danny a hideous joke about a guy with a huge penis.

Danny is repulsed, but eventually they make up and become friends. Because Julian’s new acquaintance is so solicitous toward him, a guy who’s clearly in worse shape, the hit man breaks protocol and reveals his true profession while the two of them sit in the stands at a bullfight. Disbelieving, Danny picks out a random guy in the crowd and asks how they’d go about killing him, which leads to a quietly gripping scene where Julian takes Danny into the bowels of the stadium and talks him through the procedure, planning the location of the hit (the men’s restroom — “Everyone’s gotta pee”), distractions for the security guards, and exit strategy.

Writer-director Richard Shepard, who’s best known for his similarly dark but even more offbeat 1991 comedy The Linguini Incident, does fairly well scripting dialogue for a relationship we’ve seen in a bunch of other movies (master criminal meets ordinary Joe, and each is fascinated by the other’s life). His decision to have a key incident late in the movie occur offscreen is puzzling, but he keeps things at a good pace, and he does his best work creating the film’s look — mostly snazzy modernist hotel interiors decked out in cool color schemes. The entire movie was shot in Mexico City, which is impressive when you consider that the story’s locations include credible facsimiles of Budapest, Moscow, Singapore, and Tucson, Ariz.

Kinnear does all right by Danny, deploying his comic skills to keep the character from becoming too much of a sad sack while also demonstrating enough gravity to prevent the contrast between him and Julian from becoming too cartoonish. Still, it’s easy to imagine Ben Stiller or Will Ferrell doing equally well in the role. On the other hand, Brosnan owns the show here — you’ve never seen a character of his in such convincingly dire straits. He’s still a bit too smooth for the part, but he has a great breakdown scene in which he hyperventilates, sees double, and tries to shake off the effects of the alcohol he’s just consumed while lining up a human target in a rifle sight. Needless to say, the hit doesn’t go well. It leads to another set piece when a completely wasted Julian turns up on the Wrights’ doorstep in Denver during the Christmas season. They all go through the social niceties of gracious hosts and needy guests, even though Danny and Bean both know Julian’s a killer, and he knows they know. The scene isn’t as inventively surreal as it should be, yet the actors carry it, playing to perfection.

The film keeps the suspense in the air until the very end, when two revelations provide a moving perspective on Danny and Julian’s friendship. The Matador sets out to be an enjoyably disposable thriller and delivers a couple of unexpected kicks, and that’s mostly because Brosnan’s sweaty performance shows him vulnerable like never before. I need to call my college roommate and tell him about this.

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