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2005's The Matador has one big plus going for it, and that's the wildly entertaining performance of its star and producer, Pierce Brosnan. After his time with James Bond, Brosnan went on record as saying that this movie reignited his passion for performing, that it was "good to actually act again". Written and directed by Richard Shepard, The Matador is an unpromising idea of a movie with a gem of a character buried inside. If one can set aside the show's failed stab at black comedy, Pierce Brosnan's engagingly, charmingly awful human being can be fun in itself.
Rogue hired assassin Julian Noble (Pierce Brosnan) has been living undercover for years, performing hit after hit for his handler Mr. Randy (Philip Baker Hall). In between kills Julian drinks to excess and hires prostitutes. Finishing up a slaying in Mexico City, he suddenly becomes attached to a Denver businessman he meets in a bar. Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear) is worried about an important deal that may or may not come through, and after some initial awkwardness, befriends Noble and attends a bullfight with him. Lonely on some interior level and hungry for company, Julian tells Danny all about himself and even demonstrates a mock killing at the arena to prove who he is. Danny is put off by Julian's brash and frequently obscene behavior but also fascinated to meet a real example of the kind of wild man he only reads about. What he doesn't know is that Julian is on the way to a nervous breakdown. The men separate and Julian moves on to other jobs, some of which don't go well. When he suspects that his handlers have decided to eliminate him, Noble hasn't a friend in the world that he can turn to ... except that guy from Denver he met down in Mexico City.
Sold as a hip action thriller, The Matador is actually one of those vapid espionage comedies in which amusing people are engaged in murders and assassinations. James Bond and his brethren began as escapist parodies, turning the political anxieties of the real world into 'fun' entertainment. The problem comes with subsequent pictures that try to build upon the rickety superspy formula in wacky ways. I'm thinking of movies you probably never saw or can't remember, because they were just so awful. MGM made one called Undercover Blues with Kathleen Turner and Dennis Quaid. It's a farce/not farce about yuppies that are actually ruthless spies when nobody's looking. "Shoot the bad guy and take the baby for a walk." It's awful, a bad concept that nothing can save.
The Matador is nowhere near as inept, but it veers in the same direction. The movie starts from the moral baseline that hired killings are the norm in politics and business, and only a dope would think otherwise. We watch as the film shows Julian Noble killing strangers, one after another -- a man in a car, a woman seen through his telescopic sight. Danny, a likeable man trying to stay financially solvent, doesn't approve of what Julian does, but he hasn't any fundamental objections, either. Thus we have the same BS fantasy as always, that the world is crisscrossed with slick, attractive hit men knocking off important people on a daily basis.
The saving grace is Pierce Brosnan's highly enjoyable performance. Julian is a crude and slimy character, but that's because he's trapped inside this very isolated profession where his only contacts are hotel clerks and bartenders. Noble comes on like the boor you can't ignore, who keeps apologizing for his rudeness and then hitting you with a bigger faux pas. As Julian is the only one in the movie who seems alive he's naturally attractive (if also infantile). He's even amusing when he's unshaven, saggy faced and hung over from some gawd-awful bender. Brosnan even works in bits of interesting character business that may or may not connect with his incipient breakdown. While investigating the body of a still-sleeping call girl, he notices her toenails ... and proceeds to paint his own toenails, just to see what it's like. Had the movie made a bigger impact, I'm sure we'd have seen theories advanced about the homosexual overtones (undertones?) in Julian & Danny's buddy-buddy relationship. That much we've been spared. Greg Kinnear labors to make his plain-Joe character interesting, but the movie is all Brosnan's. He's enough fun to watch that the movie is worth checking out.
Although The Matador tries hard to be tough-minded, it goes soft once we get beyond the central performance. Julian Noble is really "The Killer With A Heart" who cracks up because slaughtering all those helpless people is hard on a guy, you know? 1 Predictability reigns, as 1) the hit man becomes the prey, 2) the mild-mannered civilian is tempted to partake of his new friend's skills to solve his own business problems, 3) Julian and Danny's wife (Hope Davis of American Splendor, wasted in the role) are momentarily attracted to one another, and 4) the milquetoast must take charge when the killer just can't hack it any more. Criss Cross! Gee, in reality we're all killers, all part of the same hypocrisy, you know? Having already jumped off the Precipice of Lame Insights ®, The Matador has the gall to foist a heartwarming finale on us. Danny and his wife are only made stronger by their brush with the lethal Mr. Noble. And to think that putting this together only required 17 producers, co-producers, executive producers and associate producers.
The Matador is handsomely filmed on location in Mexico; I think that a Mexico City location might be doing duty as a central European city, quite well. Richard Shepard's direction is clean and assured and economical. We've seen so many scenes with hit men that after a couple of examples, hardly anything needs to be shown. Neither Noble nor the audience have to deal with the bloody mess or the grieving families of, for example, the businesswoman who gets shot down on a sidewalk. The movie's comparison of Julian Noble to a bullfighting matador makes for a colorful but hollow visual motif, unless a gallant man with a sword is meant to be Julian's false self-image.
Like I say, Pierce Brosnan has a fine record in quality action pictures. He's a bit-player Irish terrorist in The Long Good Friday, a caddish secret agent in The Tailor of Panama, and he made a fine James Bond. I'd like to see a Matador sequel, where a retired Julian Noble gets into ordinary, low-key trouble that avoids so many groaning clichés.
The Weinstein Company's Blu-ray of The Matador is a beauty. Cinematographer David Tattersall's attractive images come across well in HD, especially all those well-lit dialogue scenes. The disc is overloaded with commentaries that get a little optimistic about the movie's overall merit, but Brosnan, Kinnear, and director Richard Shepard are all personable company. Also included is a making-of featurette, some deleted scenes, a trailer and a TV spot. The disc cover illustration works overtime to put a misleading 007 spin on the movie. Time sure has passed quickly -- I had no idea that this movie is already five years old!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Matador Blu-ray rates:
1. Charlie Chaplin's A King in New York contains a spoof movie trailer fragment that critiques American movies' love of violence, and the need to plaster sentimentality over everything: "HE'S A KILLER! --- WITH A SOUL! It could be the trailer for Shepard's The Matador.
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T'was Ever Thus.