Movies like Richard Shepard’s “The Matador” exists in a world of their own making, where the rules are made up as the film progresses. It’s in this type of environment that an assassin can confess his profession to a meek salesman, only to have the salesman ask for a demonstration of the assassin’s skills. Or when an assassin shows up at your house unannounced, your wife wonders if he (the assassin) has brought his gun with him so she can touch it. If you’ve seen John Cusack’s late 1990s hitman comedy “Grosse Pointe Blank”, then “The Matador” will seem familiar, as the two films involve assassins who encounter an emotional crisis that hinders their ability to do their job, and must resolve it with help from an outside source. In the case of Martin Blank in “Grosse Pointe”, it was a High School reunion and an ex-girlfriend; with “The Matador”, it’s a salesman in a hotel lobby bar.
In “The Matador”, Pierce Brosnan plays Julian Noble, a charming, almost middle-aged assassin who travels from city to city “facilitating” murders. While in Mexico City for a job, Julian’s handler casually reminds him that it’s his birthday, setting off a chain of events that quickly spirals out of Julian’s control. For the first time the hitman starts to feel his age, and it all comes crashing down when, drunk one night, he has no one to turn to besides fellow criminals who want nothing to do with him. Julian’s situation brightens when he stumbles across Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear), a businessman in Mexico City for a meeting that will decide his future. The two strike up a conversation, and for once in his life, Julian has found someone to talk to.
Mexico City takes up nearly half of the film’s running time, but soon the two must part company and return to their separate lives. For Julian, it’s back to killing, except he’s still messed up, and without Danny to talk to, he’s botching jobs and having major mental breakdowns. Uh oh. You know what happens when an assassin botches jobs in movies. Soon Julian is knocking on Danny’s door in Denver , hoping for some little help. What’s a married couple to do when an international assassin shows up at your door in the middle of the night?
“The Matador” is a simple, straightforward film that breaks down into two acts — Julian and Greg in Mexico City , and Julian, Greg, and Greg’s wife Bean (Hope Davis) in Denver 6 months later. The ending and resolution to Julian’s problems are not really all that important, because the film is about the interaction between the film’s primary characters played by Kinnear and Brosnan. The two men do great work, first in their awkward meeting in the hotel lobby bar, then later during a lengthy sequence where Julian teaches Danny the tricks of the trade — namely how to set up, and then take out, the target. “The Matador” is essentially a 3-person play with Julian, Danny, and later on, Bean.
Sold as a comedy, “The Matador” isn’t laugh out loud funny enough to be called funny. The more appropriate description might be amusing. There aren’t any major punch lines to be had, and although the film elicits a few chuckles here and there, it’s really not written by Shepard as a “hijinks ensue” type of movie. And unlike Cusack’s “Grosse Pointe Blank”, Shepard’s movie is almost completely devoid of action. We see Julian take aim with his weapons throughout the movie, but there is never any blood shown onscreen. In fact, the whole profession of assassination is treated like just another job to be performed by someone with a low morale threshold. As with “Grosse Pointe”, “The Matador’s” best moments involve people reacting casually to Julian’s profession, as if they stumble across international assassins at least once a week.
“The Matador” is worth watching just to see Pierce Brosnan dump his suave 007 persona for a character that is rather despicable, although despicable and affable at the same time, if such a thing is possible. Julian likes his women young, his liquor doubled, and his sex paid for. Yet, despite his many, many scruples (he readily admits he’s a prick), when offered a job to kill someone, he refuses for the client’s sake. As the Ned Flanders to Julian’s Homer Simpson, Greg Kinnear does a fine job, but it’s nothing he hasn’t done in other movies. As such, Kinnear’s Danny doesn’t quite stand out as much as Brosnan’s Julian, and I suspect that’s why Brosnan chose the role in the first place. It allows him to stretch, to show his comedic flair, and who better than straight-laced Greg Kinnear to play against?
“The Matador” isn’t a great movie, which may seem like a strange thing to say after all the time I’ve spent in this review praising Brosnan and Kinnear’s performances. To be sure, the rapport between the two men is undeniable and is really what makes the film as worthwhile as it is. The same with Hope Davis, who easily steals the show when her character gets more than a cameo appearance in the second half. Still, there’s this nagging feeling that “The Matador” is a retread, and the film never really manages to convince otherwise. Plus, the fact that it’s a movie about a hitman, and there are no action scenes whatsoever, is somewhat disappointing.
Richard Shepard (director) / Richard Shepard (screenplay)
CAST: Pierce Brosnan …. Julian Noble
Greg Kinnear …. Danny Wright
Hope Davis …. Bean
Philip Baker Hall …. Mr. Randy
Adam Scott …. Phil Garrison
Dylan Baker …. Lovell