Arrested Development

Buddy movie with a twist

THE MATADOR: Written and directed by Richard Shepard. Produced by Sean Furst, Bryan Furst, Pierce Brosnan, Beau St. Clair. Executive producers Adam Merims, Andreas Thiesmeyer, Josef Lautenschlager, Andy Reimer, Bob Yari, Mark Gordon. Cinematography, David Tattersall. Production design, Rob Pearson. Editor, Carole Kravetz-Akyanian. Music, Rolfe Kent. Music supervisor, Frankie Pine. Costume design, Catherine Thomas. Starring Pierce Brosnan, Greg Kinnear and Hope Davis, with Philip Baker Hall, Dylan Baker and Adam Scott. Miramax Films. The Weinstein Company, 2005. R. 96 minutes.

A character-driven hit-man movie may be oxymoronic, but a character-driven hit-man movie with heart? But Richard Shepard’s (Oxygen) The Matador keeps its genre straight. Pierce Brosnan is perfect as the burned-out hit-man, Julian Noble, a seedy boozer who’s losing his touch. I first noticed Brosnan’s dry comic wit in his memorable performance as Andy Osnard in John Boorman’s excellent 2001 The Tailor of Panama. Andy was a spy for “our” side. Dressed like a dandy, Andy was a sleazy opportunist looking for a way out of the game.

Brosnan’s Julian isn’t as clever, although he’s very good at what he does. Without an inner censor, Julian says and does outrageous things. He looks like he sleeps in his polyester pants and shirts, but he blends in at airports, hotel bars and on the crowded streets of foreign countries where he works. He doesn’t have an address, phone number, home or friends. He wears retro ’60s zip-up Chelsea boots and sports a mustache.

Danny Wright (Gregg Kinnear) is his opposite in many ways: a warm, likable businessman with a loving wife, Bean (Hope Davis), waiting for him at home. He’s traveled to Mexico City to put together a deal that will set him on the road to success again.

Julian and Danny are strangers who meet in the hotel lobby in Mexico City, meet again in the bar after each has had a hard day. They drink too much, talk too much. Something is stirred up between them, and Danny agrees to go to a bullfight with Julian in the big stadium. Julian tells Danny that a good matador kills the bull quickly and cleanly. Then he comes clean, telling Danny that he earns his living as a contract killer. To prove it, Julian takes Danny down into the stadium, where the food kiosks and bathrooms are located. “I’m a big fan of the ‘gotta pee’ theory of assassination,” Julian notes, as he trolls the men’s room with Danny in tow.

Brosnan not only gets right Julian’s sense of humor but also his pain, loneliness and self-loathing. Likewise, Kinnear shows that beyond Danny’s pumped-up self-confidence lurk vulnerability and fears about his marriage. “My luck has been so bad,” Danny confesses to Julian. “If we don’t get this job I don’t know what I’ll do. I’m afraid I might lose Bean.”

Against a backdrop of exotic, tropical locales, Julian’s decline as a hit-man is noticed by his “fixer,” Mr. Lovell (Dylan Baker), while a former hit man, Mr. Randy (Philip Baker Hall), is a father figure of sorts.

Carrying a separate emotional load for Julian and Danny is Bean, whose acceptance of Julian touches him deeply. Bean is a grieving mother, and yet she radiates a healing vibe that makes everyone in her presence relax a bit and look inside. Davis has this magic about her performance, a comic timing and humorous edge that lightens the film’s darker moments. Although her role is slight, Davis makes the most of her onscreen time.

An unlikely comic thriller, The Matador is an entertaining way to pass a winter evening. Unlike most such movies, killings take place out of sight, and there are no gratuitous scenes of bloody bodies or body parts. Julian’s language is crude but direct and creatively profane. Now playing at Cinemark, The Matador is a quirky, surprisingly appealing film. Recommended.

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