The Matador

Cast:
Pierce Brosnan as Julian Noble
Greg Kinnear as Danny Wright
Hope Davis as Bean
Philip Baker Hall as Mr. Randy
Adam Scott as Phil Garrison
Dylan Baker as Lovell

Summary:
Richard Shepard and his terrific cast turns a fairly simple premise into one of those rare mainstream buddy comedies that has both brainsÂ… and heart! Julian Noble may be the character that makes people forget that Brosnan once was James Bond.

Story:
Julian Noble (Pierce Brosnan) is a hired assassin, traveling the world killing people for corporations willing to pay him; he’s also incredibly rude and obnoxious, especially around women. In a bar in Mexico, he meets a mild-mannered salesman named Danny (Greg Kinnear), and the two become fast friends until Julian asks Danny to do something he refuses to do. The two split, but a year later, they’re reunited and this time, Danny might not have a choice in helping Julian.

Analysis:
The buddy comedy has been all over the map since it peaked in the ’80s, and it’s arguable whether it’s seen better days, because the genre is about as formulaic as it can get. This is why it’s great to see 2005 becoming the year where the genre was redefined with better writing and unconventional casting. Like “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang” earlier this year, “The Matador” is all about the script and the three actors bringing the characters to life, but most importantly, it’s about Pierce Brosnan doing something different by playing Julian Noble, a great movie character in the vein of Ben Kingsley’s Don Logan from “Sexy Beast,” an obvious influence on writer/director Richard Shepard’s biggest budget film to date.

Julian is a professional hit man, one of the best in the business, while Danny is a salesman, living in Denver with his gorgeous wife Bean (Hope Davis), trying to make enough of a living to keep her content. These two very different men meet in a bar in Mexico, where they’re both on business, and start making small talk. Danny is friendly and open about the tragic death of his son in a car crash years earlier, but when Julian rudely changes the subject, Danny walks away. Later, the two meet up and Julian is more open with Danny, even admitting his occupation. At first, Danny doesn’t believe him, but then he’s curious about it, but when he realizes how serious Julian is about his job of killing, they part ways, though not quite amicably. A year later, Julian is going through a mid-life crisis and getting burnt out on killing. Unsure of himself and what to do, he tracks Danny down in Denver, and intrudes back into his life.

Richard Shepard’s first movie in five years never tries to be something that it’s not, and it’s the simple premise and its three-act format that makes it easier to appreciate the three main characters, especially Julian Noble, who is cut from the same cloth as Thomas Haden Church’s Jack from “Sideways.” Sporting a really ugly moustache and little fashion sense, Julian is the type of brash and outspoken guy that you can’t help but admire, because his random quips are often as offensive as they are clever. For Brosnan, the performance is on a par with Johnny Depp’s breakout as Captain Jack Sparrow, but there’s also a sadness to Julian, since he usually has to lie and manipulate people to get them to like him. Those with a keen eye might also catch a few moments where Brosnan is clearly poking fun at the debonair ladies’ men he normally plays.

In that sense, Greg Kinnear is a great counterpoint to Brosnan, bringing a truth and honesty to Danny that makes him the perfect rube for Julian’s sleazy ways. Likewise, Hope Davis is wonderful as his wife Bean, though it’s a smaller and different type of role than we’re used to, mainly because she gets to use her looks and sex appeal more than normal. This is especially true when Julian shows up on their doorstep, and she starts acting like a schoolgirl when she finds out what he does for a living. It’s the film’s best moments, as Danny is a bit intimidated by Bean’s fascination with Julian, and you learn everything you need to know about their relationship right there. Thankfully, it doesn’t go in the direction that you might expect.

Shepard’s ability to continually throw you for a loop with a couple well-timed gear changes is definitely the film’s biggest strength, especially once we learn what happened off camera after Danny and Julian split in Mexico, which puts their relationship in a different light. On the other hand, the movie is far more dialogue driven than you might expect for a movie about a globetrotting assassin, and the varied pacing takes a bit of time adjusting to, especially with a few major lulls in between the stronger scenes.

Another smart move by Shepard, besides the excellent casting is getting Rolfe (“Sideways”) Harris to provide the soundtrack, and he does an excellent job paying homage to the music from great spy thrillers including the Bond movies and Henry Mancini’s Pink Panther theme. Just in case that doesn’t completely win you over, then Shepard uses a bunch of great ’80s tunes including Asia’s “Heat of the Moment”, which kicks off the third act with such a bang that it’ll keep you on board until the very end, which is surprisingly touching.

The Bottom Line:
“The Matador” is not your typical buddy comedy, because it’s smart and even warm, written in a way that allows the three actors to shine as their very atypical characters. The interplay between Brosnan and Kinnear is so strong that it makes Brosnan’s buffonnery with Woody Harrelson in his last comedy, “After the Sunset,” that much more embarrassing.

The Matador opens on Friday, December 30 in select cities and then expands into other places over the course of January.

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