If we took our cues about the world strictly from movies, we’d be forced to believe that no line of work produced more conflicted souls than that of hit man. From Jean Reno in The Professional to John Cusack in Grosse Pointe Blank, from James Gandolfini in The Mexican to Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction, the ranks of cinematic killers-for-hire are a sea of introspection and sensitivity. Writers are so fascinated with what makes assassins tick that they can’t get enough of shrinking their heads, refusing to abide by the simple equation “Killer = Evil.” Take that, Red State America.
It would be easy then, to look at the concept for The Matador and think, “Hell, I’ve seen that movie before. And aren’t you cinehmah-reviewing types always the ones bemoaning the lack of originality in movies? Take that, Mr. Liberal Critic Guy.
Well, guilty as charged, sort of, only the real matter is this: Originality is wonderful, but anything can feel fresh with the right approach. The Matador may begin from a premise you’ve seen before, but you haven’t seen it pulled off with the same smarts and style demonstrated by writer/director Richard Shepard.
To the list of film history’s multifaceted hired guns, Shepard adds Julian Noble (Pierce Brosnan). Julian at first generally seems quite comfortable with his immorality, whether it’s serving as a “facilitator of fatalities” or leering at underage girls. But when he realizes while on a job in Mexico'on his birthday, no less'that he is completely alone, his thinking starts to get a little fuzzy. Pretty soon, he’s in the middle of a full-fledged existential crisis, even though he doesn’t even have the emotional vocabulary to realize that’s what it is.
At a hotel bar in Mexico, Julian meets Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear), a businessman whose run of bad luck'career setbacks, a family tragedy, a tree falling through his kitchen roof'has reached epic proportions. Julian reveals his trade to Danny, and at first, Danny thinks he has merely landed himself the mother of all cocktail-party stories. But six months later, Julian is in trouble'and ready to call in a favor.
There are a lot of conventional movie buddy-picture rhythms to the odd coupling of Julian and Danny, but the performances never allow The Matador to sink into predictability. Brosnan has by far the showier role'he gets to polish his toenails, berate a schoolboy and wander through a hotel lobby in his skivvies'and he bites into it with relish. But Kinnear'rapidly turning into a stellar all-around screen actor'doesn’t fade into the background. One standout sequence finds an incredulous Danny asking Julian to prove he is what he says he is, leading to a meticulously-staged targeting of a random crowd member at a bullfight. While Brosnan digs into Julian’s glee at being able to share his craft with someone, Kinnear finds the perfect anxiety/excitement of a sadsack experiencing the biggest rush of his life.
The Mexico-set stuff appears hard to top, but Shepard finds just as much energy when Julian turns up on Danny’s doorstep in Colorado. Hope Davis has a relatively tiny part as Danny’s wife, but her line readings'an almost turned-on hitch in her voice, for example, as she asks Julian about his work'give every moment a zing. The Matador never once becomes a wacky fish-out-of-water farce about a hit man in the suburbs; it’s as finely observed a character piece as you’ll find.
Some critics have knocked The Matador for its ending, arguing that it somehow chickens out on a tone established throughout. There’s a real cynicism to such a charge, because it stems primarily from the fact that Shepard doesn’t go for the bleakest possible perspective on his characters. There’s an unexpected sweetness to Shephard’s take on the friendship between Julian and Danny, and it would have been more of a betrayal not to have their actions show how much they actually seem to like one another. It’s buddy stuff, and it’s killer-with-a-heart-of-gold stuff, but The Matador is further proof that concept alone means little when it comes to judging a film. The operative term here is “executionâ€'and not just as it relates to Julian’s profession.