Pierce Brosnan spoofs his super-suave James Bond persona as burnt out hit man Julian Noble, an elite contract killer suffering a profound bout of mid-life depression. Childish, rude, and vain, Noble's spent his entire life in the pursuit of superficial thrills while burying any trace of a conscience. The work is finally starting to get to him, unfortunately, and crippling panic attacks have caused him to fumble a couple of important jobs. The realization that he's never managed to form a friendship or relationship in his entire life doesn't help matters, and he just isn't able to bury his worries in his usual pleasures (booze and whores) the way he used to. Enter Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear), an uptight and utterly conventional Middle American nobody visiting Mexico City in a desperate bid to save his failing business. Things aren't working out so well for him either, but at least he can pretend to keep his shit together, which puts him three or four steps ahead of Julian.
Meeting one night in a hotel bar, Julian decides that he needs a friend and that Danny's just the man for the job, being that he's, you know, right there. For his part, Danny is at once fascinated and repulsed by this obnoxious yet devilishly charming man who keeps making wildly inappropriate comments and jokes. When one insensitive remark goes too far, Danny tries to brush Julian off, after which Julian makes it his mission in life to win over his new best friend. Naturally, in Julian's mind the best way to go about that is to show him the most effective way to kill a person. Strangely, Danny finds this kind of intriguing. So begins a dysfunctional buddy movie about a meek businessman who gets a peek at the wild side and an amoral killer who learns to appreciate the value of life. If that sounds a little pat and sophomoric, the movie is anything but.
Writer/director Richard Shepard uses the templates from familiar suspense and buddy pictures and turns them on their heads. The Matador actually has a brain, as well as a heart. The movie gives us compelling characters with genuine personal problems and dilemmas. More importantly, it's funny as hell. Brosnan is a riot as the neurotic, socially inept Julian. The actor fearlessly lampoons the debonair image he's carefully crafted his entire career. Julian is crass, boorish, gaudy, and simply a mess. Yet Brosnan keeps him on just the right side of believability, reining him in whenever he threatens to turn into too much of a cartoon. We actually start to feel for this guy, and when we see him curled up in a blubbering ball, unable to complete his latest hit, we want the morally-conflicted Danny to give him that inspirational pep talk that will allow him to get back on the horse and kill that random stranger he came for. This is dark comedy at its finest.
The wonderful Hope Davis (American Splendor) also has a role as Danny's supportive wife who expresses just a bit too much interest in seeing Julian's gun. She's sublime. The movie takes us on a tour of Mexico City not seen from the usual gringo's perspective. In films like Traffic, the area looks like a filthy, violent cesspool, but Shepard shows us a city that's vibrant, colorful, and alive. The Matador is a celebration of life in the midst of death, a notion particularly appropriate to director Shepard, whose career looked to be stalled after directing bombs like The Linguini Incident and thankless cable TV movies until writing this script. If the movie has a flaw, it's that for all its talk of danger and death the film is oddly bloodless, which unfortunately feels like a cop-out. We're given hints about Julian's dark side, but the movie pulls back from showing it. The director was obviously afraid of making the character too unlikable, and perhaps he has a point, but it's the one element that feels lacking in a movie otherwise firing on all cylinders. In any case, The Matador is a gem just waiting to be discovered by more people. Don't let it fall into obscurity.
The HD DVD:
[Update: Since upgrading to an HD-XA2 player, I found this disc to play without incident. Cleary the HD-A1's hardware is at least partially at fault, but I do still suspect that there's something wrong with the disc authoring as well. How the disc will function on other players, I can't say.]
The interactive menus are accompanied by annoying gun-loading sound effects for every selection that cannot be turned off. The menus are also not well thought out. The Scenes Selection options, for example, are ridiculously tiny even on a large projection screen.
Just to throw one last gripe out there, they've also given the disc cheesy and misleading cover art. Who's that sexy female silhouette supposed to be? The artwork reminds me of the equally horrid cover on the Miramax DVD for Infernal Affairs. I bet they were designed by the same PhotoShop dropout.
HD DVD discs are only playable in a compatible HD DVD player. They will not function in a standard DVD player or in a Blu-Ray player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.
This is a terrifically sharp and vibrant transfer. The movie has great cinematography featuring plenty of wild, eye-popping colors (bold yellows, reds, and purples make up a large portion of the palette). Flesh tones are spot-on accurate, and the picture also has solid black levels and good shadow detail. It's a very slick and glossy production, with minimal film grain visible and no noise or compression artifacts on the disc. Fine object detail is perhaps not rendered with the clarity of the very best High-Def discs, but this is certainly a pleasing image and a great show-off piece.
The Matador HD DVD is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over an HD DVD player's analog Component Video outputs.
Subs & Dubs:
Matador is a hugely entertaining movie and the HD DVD offers nice High-Def picture quality plus a decent selection of supplements. Normally I'd be inclined to give it a Highly Recommended rating, but the disc's technical glitches temper that enthusiasm. I'll still give the disc a qualified recommendation.