When you’re as much a fan of 80s music as I am, and as much a sucker for the inclusion of favourite songs in a movie, you know you’ve liked a film when hearing Asia’s Heat of the Moment is only the third or fourth best thing about it. Such is the case with “The Matador”, an unassuming, low-key dark comedy written and directed by Richard Shepard whose highlight is a most interesting performance by Pierce Brosnan.
Trading the suave and collected airs of James Bond for the shifty eyes and leering gaze of a cynical hit man, Brosnan’s performance is outstanding when looked at individually, but also playing off Greg Kinnear and Hope Davis in smaller yet important roles. The Irishman plays Julian Noble, a hit man whose career is slowly but surely hitting the skids. He’s by and large a con man, but the movie takes its time in revealing that he just might have a conscience after all. When we first see him, Julian is sitting on a park bench. A kid asks if the Porsche nearby belongs to him and adds that he’s caught the eye of his mother on the next bench. Julian tells him to bug off after saying he doesn’t know anything about the Porsche and bluntly mentioning the reasons why he’s not interested in his mom. When the Porsche blows up a few seconds later, we know right then and there we’ve just been introduced to a cool character.
Julian is also a bit of a quirky dude who covertly uses the toenail polish of a lady-for-hire he just spent the night with. He’s basically a horny middle-aged showoff who never misses a chance to peek at cleavage and offers the kind of inappropriate comments that make women roll their eyes with a brief laugh. Neither is he shy, in a very funny sequence, about walking through a hotel lobby in only black briefs and boots to get to the pool, which he enters as unceremoniously as possible.
Julian finds himself in Mexico City for a hit. One night at the hotel bar, he strikes up a conversation with Danny, a real estate businessman from Denver. After the mention of his son’s death in a school bus accident three years before, Danny is understandably appalled at Julian’s response, which is to launch into a midget joke. Julian comes across as a lyin’, cheatin’ bastard, but he manages to make amends for his conduct. One thing leads to another, and Danny accepts an invitation to a corrida where he learns the occupation of his new friend. He’s taken aback, but shows an undeniable curiosity about this man’s line of work. And after he asks him to go through the pretend version of his livelihood, a bond is established that will allow us to explore its effect on the psyche of both characters.
That the stories of Julian and Danny become mutually influential is a credit to Shepard’s focused and layered screenplay. A flashback which reveals a new dimension to the material is especially efficient, and the dialogue has an above average clarity of purpose and the right level of exposition. It is at that point that “The Matador” becomes more than a story about an unlikely relationship and starts looking at what makes these guys tick and what ultimately brings them some form of stability. After the part in Mexico City (where the most important development was a realization on Danny’s part stemming from Julian’s surprisingly lucid words), the story jumps ahead six months to Denver. One winter night, Julian shows up unexpectedly at Danny’s home. The latter’s wife Bean (Hope Davis) looks a bit too bohemian with those extra-long hair extensions and is a bit too unfazed at the arrival of somebody not far from being a stranger, but there’s a feminine charm to her acceptance and enjoyment of a dance with Julian. From this visit, the final act involves the two men going to Tucson for reasons I won’t reveal, and Danny accepting to go because he feels morally indebted to Julian.
Philip Baker Hall makes the most of his limited screen time as Julian’s boss and mentor, while Kinnear and Davis also give good performances, notably in a subdued bedroom talk that gains relevance and poignancy when the end credits roll.
The Matador has an intimate feel and moderate aspirations, which are far from bad things in and of themselves, yet that is precisely why the movie’s emotional impact is rather fleeting. The film deals with powerful human needs and emotions but seems hesitant or unwilling to flesh them out beyond the level of a nicely presented slice of life. I was also mildly puzzled at the falling tree crushing through Danny and Bean’s kitchen during a storm, a scene that would fit better in a natural disaster-themed film or possibly a madcap comedy. But those are minor complaints because “The Matador” deserves to be seen, if only for the lead performance. Brosnan is remarkable as a man who’s confronted with the nature of his work and, just as importantly, with his own loneliness. His work in this film is a fascinating portrait of a man for whom deceit has been a reliable weapon, but one that is powerless against the decency he uncovers within himself and in others.
Review by Jean-François Tremblay