Director: Richard Shepard
Cast: Pierce Brosnan, Greg Kinnear, Hope Davis, Philip Baker Hall, Dylan Baker
MPAA Rating: (for strong sexual content and language)
Running Time: 1:36
Release Date: 12/30/05 (NY & LA); 1/6/06 (limited); 1/20/06 (wide)
Review by Mark Dujsik
The Matador is a concept movie, and stop me if you've heard this one: A likeable hitman. And at this point, I probably have to stop for most of you. Yes, what was so new five years ago is now so five-years-ago. I guess the question here is how does writer/director Richard Shepard's variation on the concept set itself apart? Honestly, it doesn't, but in spite of this, The Matador is still a breezy entertainment—perhaps too much so. The movie runs a little over an hour and one half, but it breezes by in what feels half that time. That could be considered an advantage, and yet, here, it's not. Simply, I liked the movie and its characters too much for it to end as suddenly as it does, and Shepard certainly does not explore anywhere near the high potential that these circumstances with these characters bring with them. Everything the movie does—finding more than enough humor in its scenario and characters and even suggesting depth in them both—it does well. Movies like this are of a particular frustration for me—good enough on its own to recommend but missing the courage of its convictions to go that step further and explore that at which is hinted.
Julian Noble (Pierce Brosnan) is the hitman who has just finished a job and is heading down to Mexico City for another one. Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear) is a businessman who is heading to Mexico City to win over a client in a career-making or breaking deal. Julian's handler Mr. Randy (Philip Baker Hall) sets him up with an opportunity to finish the job early and, upon Julian's completion of the task, wishes him a happy birthday. Julian forgot it was his birthday and finds himself in Mexico City with no friends and a list of contacts who either don't remember him or pretend to never have known him. He sits at the hotel bar with a Margarita, and Danny enters. Danny's presentation has gone incredibly well, and the two men celebrate his success. The talk gets more serious, but Julian has certain anti-social tendencies that force Danny to walk away. The next day, Danny's partner is on his way home while Danny has to stay behind to hear final word; perhaps the presentation didn't go over as well as the next guys'. Julian apologizes and, to make up for his behavior, invites Danny to a bullfight, where eventually he spills the beans about his profession.
How does Danny react? Well, as most of us would, with complete disbelief. Clearly, this guy is messing with me, but after a lengthy sequence in which Julian creates a hypothetical assassination, Danny is a believer. Now his reaction is one of morbid curiosity, almost a feeling of privilege, and, of course, fear. This is one guy whose bad side you definitely do not want to be on. In a movie that showcases Pierce Brosnan's comic reversal of his screen persona (more on that later), it could be easy to overlook Greg Kinnear's performance, but Kinnear's reactions to each revelation of his new friend's character are spot-on and recognizable. Shepard's script works along similar lines, taking familiar scenarios and setting them to the tune of this situation. Take the sequence at the bullfighting arena where Julian convinces Danny of his legitimacy. Julian progresses through the setup with a giddy sort of pride that comes when someone who likes their job talks to you about what it entails, and up until that climactic moment where Danny is unsure just how far Julian is ready to take his demonstration, there's a sense of the ordinary in how Julian relates the details.
That, of course, is why Danny connects with Julian. His life revolves around the mundane, with his perfect house (disrupted by a collapsed tree early on in the movie), typical job, and a high-school-sweetheart-turned-wife (Hope Davis), whom he affectionately calls by the moniker "Bean," but Julian is a variable, constantly changing according to whatever situation he finds himself, and also a dependent, latching on to this friendship with a completely ordinary guy to fill some deep, unspoken void. Underneath the snappy dialogue and quirky premise, Shepard's eye is on character study, and what he has established between these two characters alone is more than enough for prime material. Strangely, where he begins to falter is in giving them more complex histories. Danny and Bean are still grieving over the death of their son, and Julian's unknown past is catching up with him, causing him to falter one too many times on the job, which sends his boss' assistant Lovell (Dylan Baker, always underused in any sized role) to Mr. Randy with the news that Julian is done for. As much as these details add layers to the characters, Shepard simply doesn't expand upon them, and it only leaves us wanting more.
Kinnear and Brosnan know more about these details, though, and we can see it in their performances. Brosnan is effective not only in his hilarious send-up of his persona but also in the way he takes his character's shadowy past and helps create a level of sadness just underneath the surface. There's too much underneath the skin of The Matador left unresolved and underdeveloped, and it's a shame Shepard either didn't stick to the simplicity of his premise or take the time to develop those aspects of his characters. I liked them so much, I would have preferred and wish for the latter.
Copyright © 2006 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.