In writer-director Richard Shepard's dark comedy, “The Matador,” the paths of a hit man and a salesman, who accidentally meet in a Mexico City bar, crisscross in completely surprising ways.
“The Matador” mixes the genres of the offbeat comedy and the assassination thriller with confident touch and stylistic flourishes. Featuring an original performance from Pierce Brosnan, and an unexpectedly funny turn from Greg Kinnear, “Matador” is a male buddy film that recalls “Midnight Run,” starring Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin, and others of its kind.
The former James Bond has done several comedies as a romantic lead, such as “Laws of Attraction,” but none too successfully. Before that, Brosnan courted Sally Field in “Mrs. Doubtfire,” in which he played second banana and the butt of Robin Williams' jokes. It's therefore a pleasant surprise to find Brosnan in top comedic form in “Matador.” Over the years, Brosnan has developed a loose, relaxed way of acting, being completely at ease in front of the camera, which works well for this movie.
Brosnan plays Julian Noble, a hit man in Mexico City for yet another job. However, he's at a low point in his life. A true professional at his craft, Julian is a lone wolf killer with no conscience and no personal connections. After decades of handling routine assignments (routine meaning killing), he's going through a depression and mid-life crisis.
Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear) is also in Mexico City, on a different kind of business, the outcome of which could make the difference between solving his financial problems, or falling even deeper into debt. Danny lives in Denver with his wife Bean (Hope Davis), and while they have troubles financially, there's still lust between them that belies years of marriage.
At first, Danny is clueless as to who his drinking buddy is. However, before long, Julian and Danny find themselves involved in a strange friendship that's built on the dark, drunken honesty shared among strangers who believe they will never see each other again.
“The Matador” takes the hit man film genre and spins it on its head, creating a character-driven story that's hip and full of unexpected turns. Shot in various countries, the story spans only several days but many more margaritas. “The margaritas always taste better in Mexico,” Julian says, meaning every word of it.
Shepard uses the hotel lobby bar as a strategic site in which encounters take a specific shape due to the peculiar nature of their interaction. People in bars tell truths about themselves with the safety net of knowing that they are never going to see their listeners again.
If the locale is original, the narrative strategy, throwing two disparate men together, is more familiar from other male buddy pictures. Here, one man is an average businessman abroad, the other an international hit man. Contesting movie clich about hit men, Shepard makes Julian's character “off kilter.”
The director cites Jonathan Glazer's “Sexy Beast” as inspiration for reinventing and turning upside down a genre picture. In “Matador,” Shepard takes the “one last heist” genre and turns it into a darkly humorous character-driven story. Though there's action and some suspense, at heart, the film is a comedy about a burned-out killer on his way out, who's at a crossroads in his life with choices to make. There's empathy for Julian as a man who has lost his soul, yet deep down in his heart, there's still a flame.
At the center are two different men who just find themselves in similar moments in their lives and through interaction turn each other's lives around. Tough coming from different walks of life, they gravitate towards each other, and ultimately end up pulling each other out of their respective crises in a funny manner.
Crossing boundaries and going over the limits is often part of professional traveling. There's something about meeting in an exotic tropical place that's so different from home that all inhibitions tend to disappear. It's the kind of place where people say things they normally wouldn't say, or start thinking about doing things they would never do at home.
Danny is the catalyst for Julian's transformation and change, which he has not been able to do for about twenty years. Like others who kill for a living, he has turned himself off emotionally. But then a simple friendship which starts by accident awakens Julian's feelings. The resulting vulnerability both men reluctantly reveal while pushing their luck, brings many surprising moments.
Julian's chance at redemption proves dangerous since a hit man with emotions is not a successful hit man. Julian is a guy who's had his life under complete control, never letting himself feel anything. But when he meets Danny, who's open, honest, and decent, Julian is surprised he wants to have a friend and to connect. His opportunistic killer spies the vulnerability of Danny, a likeable everyman with heart and soul.
The relationship has ups and downs. There are moments of truth, and then moments where you just want them to walk away from each other quickly. Danny is a dynamic foil for Julian, who is outrageous and has no censor or filter; he'll say or do anything. Danny plays against that, bringing a consistent level of sanity to Julian and the story.
“Aren't we fucking cosmopolitan Having a trained assassin stay overnight. Letting heartbreaking lies roll over us like a summer breeze,” says Bean (Hope Davis), Danny's wife, at one point. Bean is at the emotional core of everything that goes on in the relationship between Julian and Danny. Her character permeates the story, even when she's not on screen. And by the third act, when Bean takes center stage, she's like an angel to Julian.
With a mixture of viciousness and self-loathing, Julian is a discombobulated guy in arrested development guy, but you feel for him, especially in the third act, when he invades the quiet of lives of Danny and Bean.
Brosnan meets the challenge of playing a professional killer who's far different from the polished, elegant secret Agent 007. At first, Julian is cursed by an almost blank consciousness, but then he begins to reflect upon this crazy life of international intrigue and murder. Self-reflection is not an attribute of spy movies, and in this respect, too, “Matador” deviates from its genre.
It's exciting to watching an actor playing against type a character that departs from his suave roles in films like “The Thomas Crown Affair” and the Bond movies. Brosnan maintains well the balance among the various elements of his role: The serious, the real, the dramatic, the truthful, and the comedic. He is helped by Shepard the writer, who has constructed an unpredictable plot; you never really know where things are going.
Much of the film takes place in Mexico City, and there's something powerful about that foreign element, that loss of place.” The city's size, demographics, varied art scene, and cultural diversity make Mexico more compelling as the yarn's locale. The danger of Mexico City is part of its allure; being surrounded by things and places that are unfamiliar. Which explains why Danny, who's very confused, feels lost and disoriented in such a city.
The secondary characters help define the story's unique world, adding texture and flavor to the film. and they are played by such wonderful actors as Dylan Baker, Philip Baker Hall, and Adam Scott.
Cinematographer David Tattersall, whose credits include “The Green Mile” and “Star Wars” (episodes I, II and III), helps Shepard create the film's lush, vibrant look with bright colors like yellow and orange and bold lighting.