Offbeat buddy comedy has a lethal sense of humor
By Devin D. O'Leary
Directed by Richard Shepard
Cast: Pierce Brosnan, Greg Kinnear, Hope Davis
“A hitman and a salesman walk into a bar ...” That's the setup for the delightfully unexpected breakout film from writer/director Richard Shepard--who gave us the solid but little-seen 1999 thriller Oxygen.
The hitman in question is Julian Noble (Pierce Brosnan), a likable loudmouth who just happens to be in the middle of a full-on mid-life meltdown. The salesman in our story is Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear), a terminally unlucky midlevel sales executive who has been sent to Mexico to negotiate a make-or-break deal. The two bump into each other one drunken night in a hotel bar. Julian comes across as brash and rude and manages to scare off the straightlaced stranger with a few raunchy jokes. The next day, however, he tries to apologize by taking Danny with him to one of Mexico City's famed bullfights. There, the two manage to bond and, in a fit of misplaced friendship, Julian admits to being a professional killer. What follows is a perfectly timed black comedy sequence, in which Julian demonstrates the mechanics of a hit right there in the stadium for the benefit of a dumbstruck Danny.
Despite his demonstrable skills, however, the self-styled “facilitator” has been having a little trouble pulling off his profession of late. Prone to nervous breakdowns and drowning his troubles in hookers and booze, Julian is in serious need of some help to pull off his latest gig. Appealing to their newfound friendship, Julian asks Danny for assistance. For Julian, it's kind of like asking a friend to help you move into a new apartment--no big whoop, really. All Danny needs to do is provide a little distraction while the hit takes place. Danny, of course, freaks out and refuses to speak to Julian again. End of chapter.
Six months later, Julian shows up, out of the blue, on Danny's suburban Denver doorstep. Seems that--unable to perform his assassination duties--Julian is now on the hit list. He has no one to turn to for help. Danny, it would appear, is his only friend. Besides, he mysteriously intones, Danny owes him a favor.
Brosnan and Kinnear are an incredible duo--which is good because the entire film hinges on their odd couple chemistry. Brosnan, free from the chains of the James Bond franchise, looks like he's having the time of his life as the lecherous, yet likable killer. “For a hitman, he's a nice guy,” Danny tells his curious wife (always-welcome indie gal Hope Davis). Kinnear is, as always, the perfect straight man. The key to The Matador is in watching Brosnan and Kinnear play off of their well-established onscreen personas.
The Matador could have been a perfectly entertaining, perfectly formulaic crime comedy--something along the lines of Midnight Run. In fact, the modest film is elevated by Shepard's grander ambitions. Julian, thumbing though his phone book calling prostitutes in Kuala Lumpur looking for a “friend” to talk to on his birthday, has a magnificent pathos to him. Danny, by the same token, has set himself up as a perpetual second-place finisher--blissfully unaware of the gifts life has given him.
The Matador is, by turns, dark, dramatic and magnificently funny. The film's script is an economical affair, cramming thrills, laughs and some surprisingly emotional character drama into a breezy 96 minutes. The film's twists and turns are modest, but clever, unexpected and perfectly in tone with this oddly likable buddy comedy. Put simply, it would be a crime to miss this one.
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