by Jeff Meyers
Its hard not to like a film that opens with the Jams 80s pop wonder A Town Called Malice. The tunes buoyant hooks are the perfect introduction to writer-director Richard Shepards buddy film-black comedy, The Matador. Given that January is typically the month when Hollywood expels its cinematic bilge, this sharp mix of irreverent humor and engaging character drama is a welcome surprise.
Julian Noble (Pierce Brosnan) is a burned-out, globe-trotting assassin-for-hire. Orphaned, friendless and fond of pricey alcohol and cheap sex, he stumbles into Mexico City on his birthday to eliminate a target. Drunk at the hotel bar, he strikes up a conversation with down-on-his-luck businessman Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear). An unlikely friendship develops. Danny is desperate to secure an important contract so that his long-suffering wife doesnt abandon him. Julian is worried he might be losing his touch. But when Julian asks for Dannys help on a job, the two men have a falling out and go their separate ways. Or do they? Flash to six months later: Danny and his wife are happier than ever. ... Then Julian shows up at their door unannounced. Hes in trouble and looking to cash in on a favor.
Its not the first odd couple thriller to come along, and weve certainly seen the villain-caught-in-an-existential-dilemma story before. What The Matador does so well, however, is establish an intriguing and entertaining rapport between the two leads. Shepard has a knack for witty dialogue, a sharp eye for style and the good sense to create smart moments for his characters. One of the films finest moments is when Julian teaches his newfound friend the tricks of the trade, taking him on a spur-of-the-moment hit. The scene is funny, suspenseful and surprising, playing with our expectations without ever cheating us.
However, the revelation here is Pierce Brosnan. Playing the sleazy flip side to his well-mannered and manicured Bond persona, he tears into Julians amorality with abandon so much so that you can practically smell the stale cigarettes and scotch on his breath. Yet Brosnan still convinces us that beneath the crude bravado and boorish behavior, his characters sensitivity and desperation are very real. It takes a talented actor to make the audience not only like a murderous assassin but actually find him endearing.
Kinnear, on the other hand, is the perfect ordinary guy a guise hes been cultivating for years. Its not easy to believably play the straight man to Brosnans outrageously brazen killer, but here he delivers in spades. Danny yearns for some excitement in his life but isnt quite ready for what that means. Julian longs for stability but is unable to change. The chemistry between them is infectious and genuine.
If there is a criticism to be had its that The Matador doesnt take enough risks. Despite its intelligent subtext and genuinely funny banter, the plot starts to wear a bit thin in its final act, never delivering on the darker implications of its story. Shepard either isnt ambitious or courageous enough to fashion a black comedy masterpiece, settling instead for an irreverent and entertaining romp. No sin there. If youre looking for an enjoyable night at the movies you could do a lot worse at this time of year. But if youre looking for something similar but with a little more meat on its bones, rent the criminally overlooked Ripleys Game starring John Malkovich.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.