Perched precariously somewhere between popular entertainment and art-house fare, Richard Shepard’s The Matador is a constantly entertaining, invariably good-looking, bittersweet black comedy that’s actually a lot more sentimental than it seems to think. The premise, as expressed by the tag line, “A hit man and a salesman walk into a bar …,” suggests something pretty edgy. The hideous trailer suggests something with maybe a dozen functioning brain cells. The film is something else again.
The one thing The Matador is not is some kind of breakthrough for Pierce Brosnan as Julian Noble, a role that supposedly puts his James Bond to rest. This isn’t meant to denigrate Brosnan’s performance in the film — he’s very good, sometimes brilliant, and spectacularly unselfconscious — but this isn’t the first time he’s plowed this field.
Nestled between his last two Bond outings was John Boorman’s The Tailor of Panama. At the time of its release in 2001, I wrote, “The casting of Pierce Brosnan — the current James Bond — as the utterly amoral spy, Andy Osnard, is nothing short of subversive genius. Brosnan, in the performance of his career, tears into the role full-bore, laying bare the already dubious myth of 007 in the process. A libido-driven secret agent, getting long in the tooth, out for himself, using the same tired pick-up lines on anyone he meets, cheerfully blackmailing anyone who suits his purpose, with a passion for pornography and a peculiar familiarity with gay bars, is about as far from James Bond as you can get.”
Compared to Brosnan’s Andy Osnard, his Julian Noble has a very apt last name. Of course, almost no one saw The Tailor of Panama. It was too dark, too depressing and too much the art-house film for mass consumption (though stupidly thrust into mainstream cinemas). So it’s possible that this role will free Brosnan from Bond-age, if it finds a broader audience.
The Matador is primarily an odd-couple buddy comedy — albeit an unusually shrewd one that works on more than one level. Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear) and Julian Noble meet in an upscale cocktail bar in a hotel in Mexico — and get off to a rocky start. No sooner has Danny observed that margaritas always taste better in Mexico than Julian agrees and adds that so does a certain part of the male anatomy, causing Danny to think he’s being hit on. Once this is more or less straightened out (it remains just below the surface for the entire film), Julian makes an even worse faux pas by greeting Danny’s story of the death of his son with a crude joke.
The next day, Julian apologizes and a weird on-again-off-again friendship springs up — in part because Danny becomes fascinated when Julian proves not only that he is a hit man, but elaborately shows him how to undertake a hit. Julian, however, crosses a line when he asks Danny to help him out with a real job and the friendship appears to be at an end in a deliberately inconclusive scene that has Julian knocking at Danny’s hotel-room door trying to apologize.
Danny returns home and Julian goes back to his work — except that his ability to carry out a job has disintegrated, making him a liability with a price on his head. He also comes to realize that he’s a man with no friends — with the possible exception of Danny. So naturally, Julian invades the world of Danny and Danny’s wife, “Bean” (Hope Davis), whom he proceeds to charm, while dropping little hints about whether Danny has really told her “everything” about their time together in Mexico. Despite the apparent feelings of friendship Julian has for Danny, he realizes he needs some leverage to coerce this upright citizen to help him undertake one last job that will get him out from under the threat of death.
The cleverness of the film lies in writer/director Shepard’s withholding the revelation of what actually happened after Julian knocked on that hotel-room door, keeping the motives for much of what happens vague for as long as possible. The film’s resonance — the thing that makes it more than merely clever — lies in vaguery (even when we know: Do we really know the whole story?) and in the examination of the mismatched friendship.
Apart from the film’s refusal to quite give up all of its mysteries, it’s the two men’s unlikely friendship — which blessedly never becomes treacly, and which retains its edge — and the questions their acquaintanceship raises that keeps The Matador from being just a black comedy. Even if it never quite becomes a great film, it easily qualifies as a very good one, a very funny one — and a surprisingly human one. Rated R for strong sexual content and language.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke