Ole! Former Bond sleazes it up in excellent Matador

by Glen Baity

How do you make friends if you kill people for a living? Who do you call for a pleasant chat when your address book is filled with names like ‘Lock Pick’ and ‘Fake Noses ‘— Portugal’? These questions drive The Matador. A globe-trotting caper that finally makes a stop in the Gate City, it very well might be the only good movie you’ll see in the theatre until March (unless you haven’t yet seen Capote).

The film follows Julian Noble (Pierce Brosnan), a hit man undergoing a crisis of conscience, who befriends Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear) in a Mexico City bar. Danny, a businessman abroad vying for an important contract, strikes up a conversation with a severely inebriated Julian on the latter’s birthday. The two embark on a brief, cautious friendship, which is tested when Julian, grown haggard from 20 years of killing on command, asks his reluctant companion for help completing his latest assignment.

Director and screenwriter Richard Shepard does a good job in The Matador’s early scenes establishing the danger inherent in so much as crossing paths with Julian. It’s evident that there’s a risk involved in admiring him ‘— yes, he’s instantly likeable, but by virtue of his profession, he’s also capable of doing tremendous harm.

The assassin-with-a-conscience character is certainly not new, having been chronicled, in recent years, in The Professional and, somewhat less effectively, The Whole Nine Yards. The lesson of these films ‘— and for all the good things I have to say about it, The Matado is no exception ‘— always seems to be that hit men aren’t bad people, so long as you’re on their good side. I’m not sure I agree with the logic, but I’ll take that leap for a 90-minute movie.

There are a few important factors that set The Matador apart. First and foremost is Brosnan’s performance: even nearing the close of the film, his motivation isn’t completely obvious, and it still seems plausible that he’ll turn on Danny, his only real friend. The line between comedy and tragedy is a fine one, and The Matador dances all over it ‘— right up until the credits rolled, I found myself guessing what might happen next. It’s refreshing to see Brosnan shake off his cool Bond demeanor and sink his teeth into what becomes a fantastic performance.

Second, Shepard’s examination of Julian in the context of a bullfight presents an engaging metaphor. At different points in the film, the hit man is shown as both matador and bull, fostering serious consideration about the nature of Brosnan’s character, and real-time speculation about his fate.

Holding up the other end of the bargain is Kinnear’s salesman. Though his character seems like a comparative bore, Danny is actually quite interesting on closer inspection: he’s taken his share of nasty tumbles professionally and privately, and he’s managed to claw his way back within shouting distance of the summit. It’s therefore difficult to observe him with condescension, or predict his behavior. Also delivering a striking performance is the ever-reliable Hope Davis as Danny’s wife. Though only present for a fraction of the film, hers is a presence that echoes in every decision her husband makes, and when the camera trains on her for more than an instant, it’s plain to see why ‘— Davis is one of our most consistently strong and under-praised actors, and this is yet another in an unbroken line of strong supporting roles.

Danny and Julian’s hard-won friendship almost qualifies The Matador as a buddy film, but that label as well seems condescending. Perhaps it’s the whip-smart dialogue, the interesting motivation of each character, or the elegance with which it all comes together. In any case, there’s much more substance to this film than a brief synopsis can convey, so I urge you: postpone your Blockbuster night for a week or so, ignore the posters for Big Momma’s House 2 on the way into the theatre, and go see this film. It’s extremely funny, exciting, and surprisingly sentimental. An outpost in this January wasteland, The Matador offers welcome relief in the harshest movie season of the year.

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