A correction was made to this review on Jan. 24, 2005.
Deftly maneuvering through audacious mood swings and tonal shifts, “The Matador” emerges as a quirky yet commercial commingling of black comedy, seriocomic psychodrama, heart-tugging sudser and buddy-movie farce. Propelled by a fearlessly self-mocking perf by Pierce Brosnan as a swaggering vulgarian who’s losing his edge as an international hit man, writer-director Richard Shepard’s eccentric amalgam remains funny and sustains interest even during a shaky third act. Still, pic will require critical kudos and clever marketing to maximize bullish theatrical potential before charging into ancillary venues.
Pic pivots on a chance meeting between strangers in a hotel bar, the kind of latenight interlude that encourages complete honesty between lonely travelers who feel secure in their anonymity. Denver businessman Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear) is in Mexico City to close a deal that he desperately hopes will end a long string of bad luck that includes the loss of his son in a school bus accident.
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As he nurses a margarita in the wee small hours, Danny shares his not-so-quiet desperation with an improbably simpatico stranger: Julian Noble (Brosnan), a vet assassin marking time after his latest “corporate gig” as a “facilitator of fatalities.”
The first meeting ends badly when Julian, chronically averse to emotional displays, tries to change the subject with a crude joke. The next day, however, Julian apologizes and invites Danny to a bullfight.
After a popular matador ends a mano a toro matchup with a single, graceful sword thrust — and Julian pointedly admires the bullfighter’s professionalism — Danny again asks Julian what he does for a living. So Julian tells him. Danny is incredulous, then horrified — and, ultimately, genuinely curious.
Throughout pic, but especially in the early scenes, Shepard does bang-up job of lacing humorous scenes with an undercurrent of threat, hinting that gregarious Julian is capable of turning fatally violent without warning.
Danny rebuffs Julian when the latter attempts to enlist the businessman’s assistance in an upcoming killing. Six months later, however, Julian appears on Danny’s Denver doorstep, teetering on the brink of professional burnout and psychological meltdown. After bungling two assignments due to panic attacks, blurred vision and other psychosomatic ills, Julian has been marked for termination.
Once again, the hit man asks the businessman to collaborate on a killing. This time, however, Julian plays a trump card. “You owe me,” he tells Danny, cryptically alluding to something heretofore unrevealed. When Danny reluctantly agrees, the audience is left to imagine why.
Bedecked in gold chains and loud clothing, and seldom far from a potent drink or a nubile hooker, Brosnan exuberantly trashes his slick screen persona from the James Bond pics, “The Thomas Crown Affair” remake (1999) and other bigscreen outings. (A wink-wink sight gag recalls 007’s penchant for shaken-not-stirred martinis.) Coming off as a cross between a sleazy used-car salesman and a party-hearty conventioneer, actor continues to be boisterously likable even after pic shows Julian’s dead-serious approach to killing.
But “Matador” wouldn’t be nearly as much fun if Brosnan didn’t develop an aptly edgy give-and-take with Kinnear. Latter roots pic in some semblance of reality with his subtle portrayal of a decent fellow who has been driven close to despair by tragedy, and who finds himself by turns appalled, intrigued and unexpectedly supportive while forging a most unlikely friendship.
Unfortunately, pic’s refusal to risk aud’s regard for Danny by cutting away from the outcome of a key scene in the final reel bespeaks a last-minute failure of nerve.
In the underwritten role of Danny’s wife, Hope Davis makes a strong impression while conveying character’s lusty regard for her husband and unseemly interest in Julian’s firepower. Pic is basically a three-hander, with only notable support coming from Adam Scott as Danny’s business partner and Philip Baker Hall and (fleetingly) Dylan Baker as Julian’s overseers.
Filmed on location in Mexico City, which doubles nicely for Denver, Budapest and several other locales, “The Matador” benefits from vividly colorful production design by Rob Pearson and sharp lensing by David Tattersall.
Costumer Catherine Thomas also merits accolades for providing Brosnan with attire garish enough to serve as a running sight gag. And speaking of sight gags: Scene in which Brosnan parades through hotel lobby clad only in cowboy boots and skimpy Speedo is drop-dead hilarious.