Tell me if you heard this: a hit man and a failed businessman walk into a bar in Mexico City…. This is the beginning of writer-director Richard Shepard’s story about Julian Noble (Pierce Brosnan), a prolific but lonely assassin, and the bond that develops between him and Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear) after their chance introduction in “The Matador.”
A hit man/buddy flick that has a heart? Not something I was expecting with this likable assassin-lite comedy that is both entertaining and darkly funny.
Pierce Brosnan, as Julian Noble, is initially the smart-ass, confident killer-for-hire who,under the pressures of his vocation and his lack of roots, begins to fail on the job – a condition that gets more than just a verbal warning from his employer. More like dead. When he and Danny meet by chance in Mexico hotel bar an odd friendship is spawned, but with a price tag.
Six months later, it is Christmas and Julian shows up unexpectedly at the Wright front door. They, along with Danny’s wife, Bean (Hope Davis), consume a lot of booze and Julian eventually lays bare his problem – he has lost the will to kill. He confesses that, now, he blacks out just before the hit and his unreliability make him a burden for his boss. Something that doesn’t bode well for Julian’s chances with his longevity. He asks, in return for an unspoken favor months before, that Danny help him get back his former cool.
This quirky little comedy keeps you guessing all the way through. This is an unusual Hollywood artifact in that it doesn’t explain what’s going on every step of the way. The story allows you to form opinions about the characters and their motivations (and feelings) only to realize you’ve been second-guessed and the characters are not always what they seem and are fully realized. I particularly like Brosnan when he has a verbal joust with a kid whose mom “thinks your kinda cute.” Kinnear plays the straight man effectively and Davis amuses as Bean, who is thrilled to have a hit man as a houseguest. “Do you think he’d show me his gun?” she asks like an excited little kid. The actress makes the small role her own.
Locations jump all over the world making me think that much of the locales are shot on the studio lot, but the production design, by Robert Pearson, gives things a proper foreign look. Costume (by Catherine Marie Thomas) is notable if only for Julian’s garish, form-fitting rayon-blend shirts that effectively identify the man.
The Matador” is not going to compete with the end-of-year biggies but provides enough of a change of pace that should draw reasonable, if not big, box office. It’s a change of pace for the former James Bond, Brosnan, which will make his fans appreciate him all the more. I give it a B-Laura:
Danny Wright's (Greg Kinnear, 2005's "Bad News Bears") life has been on a downswing since the death of his son three years prior, but his life is about to encounter a strange twist of fate. During a trip to Mexico City in a last ditch attempt to make the deal that will secure his new business, Danny meets Julian Noble (Pierce Brosnan, "Die Another Day," "After the Sunset") in the hotel bar. Julian persuades Danny to accompany him to a bullfight, where he not only admits to, but gives a demonstration of, his highly illegal profession. In the world of hit men, Julian is "The Matador."
Writer/director Richard Shepard's ("Oxygen") darkened version of the classic buddy genre plays a little classier, a little more hip than it otherwise might have due to Pierce Brosnan's rascally embracement of poking holes in his own image and Hope Davis's sly comedic sense. Shepard uses some dubious logic to absolve his 'innocent' party, nice guy Danny, but he constructs a decent audience mislead and sure has a way with a sexual metaphor.
We're introduced to Julian as a global hit man who spends his down time drinking and picking up women (and painting his toenails metallic purple) or drinking alone (wearing a giant sombrero on his birthday). Meanwhile Danny's on such a tragic streak that a tree falls through his kitchen as he's attempting to have a little goodbye nookie with his wife Bean (Davis). When the two cross paths in a Mexican hotel, Julian repels Danny several times with his boorishness, then finally wins him opening a door to a radically different, dangerous world, but when he attempts to help Danny out of his financial straits by offering him an assist on his next job, Danny is horrified once again. Then late that night, Julian receives a knock on his hotel room door.
Fast forward to six months later. Julian has a serious career block. He's a burn out unable to complete his jobs and he shows up on Danny's door step at Christmas time to beg for his help because if Danny cannot complete his next hit, he will become the target. The film's final act follows the comedic suspense of the odd couple's trip to a Miami race track to save Julian's life and answer the question of just what happened that summer in Mexico City.
Brosnan, looking seedier than we're used to seeing him, has a ball sending himself up, whether he's verbally sparring with an adolescent boy ('See ya, wouldn't wanna be ya; smell ya, shouldn't have to tell ya') or coming on to a gaggle of Catholic school girls ('I hate Catholic countries, all blushy blushy no f$&ky s$&ky'). The image of Brosnan traversing a hotel lobby in cowboy hat, cowboy boots and Speedos may become as indelible as his tux-clad 007. Kinnear is essentially a wide-eyed straight man and doesn't bring as much to the mix as supporting player Davis. She's so openly turned on by Julian's profession ('Is that a 38?' she flirts), she reflects a different light on Danny. It's Davis that makes us wonder what the ordinary shlameil is capable of.
Shepard's screenplay contains some nice parallels. Julian 'grows up' as Danny reverts to golly gee wonder and Julian's initial social ineptness (he tells a smutty joke after Danny relates the woes which began with his son's death) is replaced by his mental breakdown, his inability to shoot an antisocial ineptness. The 'one thrust of the sword' needed in the bullring turns into a need to outrun one's opponent on the racetrack, but Shepard does fudge with Danny's morals at his conclusion and his doubling back to the film's mid point to demonstrate how we've been hoodwinked doesn't overcome that, and his titular metaphor doesn't hold. Production designer Robert Pearson ("Joy Ride") complements Shepard's corkscrew character development with Brosnan backdrop of bright primary colors (blues, yellows) which gradually soften to secondary (pinks, corals).
"The Matador" doesn't break any new ground in the buddy genre, nor does it even rate as one of its best, but it's an amusing enough little comedy with enough offbeat hooks to make it stand out from the herd.
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