A hitman is the perfect target. In Hollywood, anyway, a hitman equals automatic edge – instant dark comedy – since any movie where your sympathetic lead is a cold-blooded killer implies either moral ambivalence or a sociopathic audience.
And sure enough, that’s the kind of reasoning “The Matador” is banking on. It’s a clever, funny and exceptionally well acted little meditation on friendship and morals, but its pretensions of edge and hipster appeal are tacked unceremoniously on to the ethics of rooting for a professional killer. It’s lazy and it’s been done. The situations are comical and the depth of characterization is a pleasant surprise, but “The Matador” plays so sweetly devoid of cynicism that when it strives for dark it only comes up sunshine.
Here’s the setup: A hitman (Pierce Brosnan, “Die Another Day”) and a nondescript businessman (Greg Kinnear, “Nurse Betty”) walk into a bar in Mexico City. Soon they’re bonding over margaritas and taking in bullfights, when suddenly the straight-laced salesman learns his new friend is a professional killer, specializing in “mainly corporate gigs.” Like any good bar joke, the juxtaposition of society’s polar opposites produces all the hilarity of incongruity and situational awkwardness.
But without convincing and sympathetic characters, that means nothing more than a bad sitcom. Professional “facilitator,” Julian Noble is a man without identity, home or friendship. Brosnan draws him clearly as a man crying out for connection, breaking down inside from a crippling emotional void, but reluctant to shatter his tough veneer.
The sex appeal of his work A-A-A– the slick precision, secrecy and efficiency with which he takes out targets, not to mention the babes he beds on the way – might call to mind Brosnan’s most famous role as Her Majesty’s superspy, James Bond.
But Brosnan’s Julian is a man of need and irritation, and the actor is wonderfully effective at maintaining the three dimensionality of his character while displaying deft comedic timing in the script’s funnier moments. Kinnear plays an appropriate foil to Brosnan’s outlandish hitman as the tightly wound Danny Wright.
He’s the kind of suburban hero who throws around “sales pitch” and flashes nervous tics as though he’s making a point of it. Kinnear might have played equally effectively and less annoyingly by toning down the neurotic everyman persona, but it certainly works to illuminate the unlikeliness of a friendship between these two very different men. And when buddy comedies have become the expected mishmash of ethinicites and social classes, a simple juxtaposition of employments, like this, often reveals more than an audience has any right to expect.
When Danny discovers that all Julian’s globetrotting and sexual escapading have added up to is an ultimatum of kill or be killed, he reluctantly agrees to help the hitman.
The film counts on a savvy audience to recognize that, for most people, murder isn’t a casual pastime. Why is Danny helping this man who kills corporate nuisances without remorse? Does it have something to do with his unexpectedly getting a much-needed corporate gig back in those sun-drenched, margarita-soaked days at the bullfights in Mexico City?
Well, newcomer director Richard Shepard is counting on a sharp audience to wonder, and he expertly balances that tension with the sillier moments of humor to ensure that neither element threatens to usurp the tone of the film. Overall, “The Matador” remains consistently smart and upbeat. With a little sex, a lot of alcohol and just a slice of murderous intrigue shaken together in a Mexican cantina and the snowy suburbs of Denver, the film is about as intoxicating a buddy-comedy cocktail as you’re likely to find.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
At the Showcase