The timing couldn’t have been any better. Or so everybody thought.
In 2005, having recently been ousted from the James Bond franchise, Pierce Brosnan bid a bitter adieu and good riddance to the Queen’s suave secret agent, dive bombing every 007 stereotype in the book with his fiendishly funny turn in an overlooked movie from writer/director Richard Shepard called The Matador.
The movie did a paltry 12 million at the box office after being thrown into a couple theaters at the tail end of 2005 for awards consideration (Pierce Brosnan netted a Golden Globe nomination and that’s all it got) and then barely going wide in January.
It’s a shame, because it is a gas to see the debonair lead of The Thomas Crown Affair and TV’s Remington Steele play Julian Noble, a hitman who is so at the end of his rope that he gets into a petty put-down showdown with a 12 year-old kid on a park bench.
“See you, wouldn’t want to be you!” says the kid.
Julian’s petulant knee-jerk reaction, tossed off with a snotty sneer, is “Smell you, shouldn’t have to tell you.”
This fully grown man (possibly in the physical sense only) just can’t let the boy have the last laugh. What Brosnan plays so perfectly is that sense that this little confrontation really pisses Julian off. A man who assassinates people for a living is supposed to be cool and calculated, but Julian is quite the opposite, and this is the key to Brosnan’s character.
Although he travels to exotic locales and is paid handsomely to be, as he states, a “facilitator of fatalities,” Julian is desperate and lost. He’s losing his knack for killing, and realizes the trivial nature of his existence. His life is a series of frenzied one-night stands that he constantly makes reference to in the most nonchalant way.
Julian is like the party animal at the frat house the morning after a kegger who only wants to talk about how wasted he got or who threw up. Beyond these sordid exploits, Julian has nothing to say and no real connection to anybody.
His birthday puts him in a reflective mood. In lieu of any friends, he strikes up a conversation in a Mexico City bar with Denver salesman Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear). Depravity has rarely been so hilarious, and Julian’s complete lack of social grace is kind of charming. Danny, however, is spooked.
As an olive branch offering, Julian takes him to a bullfight. When the needy hitman offers a brief demonstration of his skills to his unsuspecting new pal, the movie showcases its best trait—the unique ability to walk the fine line, as Spinal Tap’s David St. Hubbins would say, between stupid and clever. Julian’s behavior is silly and over the top, yet somehow believable from a man who feels at once invincible and vulnerable.
Richard Shepard teeters on the edge of that line throughout The Matador, putting Danny in some mighty precarious situations and asking us to accept them. In addition to exploiting the vicarious thrills that we feel watching the mild-mannered salesman enter into the morally corrupt world of international assassinations, Shepard shoots for the moon. By supplying Danny with a tragic backstory and a three-dimensional family life, he succeeds—mostly.
Just when you think you’ve got the story figured out, when it seems to be heading towards ridiculousness, Shepard pulls a nice switcheroo. He reigns it back in, balancing the film’s absurdities a bit more believably. While the ending is still a tad implausible, that is a piddling criticism for a movie that explodes with energy in both action and look.
Shot in Mexico, the locations seem to be picked mainly for their abundance of vibrant colors. Key scenes are bathed in one dominant color. When Julian globe-trots to another city, it appears in huge, blocky letters that take up the entire screen. The letters’ hard edges and primary colors are showy, to be sure, but they are in step with the attitude of The Matador.
On one hand, The Matador is a hilarious send-up of humorless spy thrillers. At the same time, it invites you to take it seriously as a character study. It succeeds on one account more than the other, so much so that you’ll forgive it for reaching a little too far.