The Matador swaggers around in love with its own cynical quirk for its first hour, and I was completely with it for a while. There’s always room for mean, funny hit-man satires, and Pierce Brosnan, as the dissipated assassin Julian Noble, makes the movie worth our time. Very far gone into macho detachment, but not irretrievably so, Julian has started to fall apart. He’s bungled at least one job, and he fears he’ll botch others until his boss finally removes him from the chessboard. And he’s pathetically desperate for some meaningful connection. When he chats up businessman Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear) at a Mexico City hotel bar, Julian offends Danny in a variety of ways without intending to or even realizing the offense. Brosnan’s work as a monster who’d like to become human, but has no idea how, is painfully funny.
Unfortunately, aside from Brosnan, The Matador does nothing that wasn’t handled with more precision and cool in 1997’s Grosse Pointe Blank, which this film resembles right down to its mix of Latino-inflected tunes and I Love the ’80s soundtrack. Julian Noble might be Martin Blank 30 years later, lost in whiskey and soulless shags. He might also be meant as a real-world take on James Bond — probably what attracted Brosnan to the script. It’s a shame that script (by director Richard Shepard) doesn’t follow through on its promises, including its thematic link between Julian and a skillful matador whose bloody but clean killing Julian admires. Julian obviously sees himself as a matador, but what bull is he fighting? Shepard draws an explicit parallel visually but leaves it murky. The whole matador thing seems like a literary affectation.
Naive Danny, who’s nursing some personal and professional setbacks, is both repelled and fascinated by Julian even before learning what Julian does for a living. Like anyone else, Danny is morbidly curious about the job; Julian refers to “corporate gigs” in which he’s brought in to eliminate competition. The profession itself, really, is a corporate gig, but Shepard doesn’t develop that aspect, either. We’re set up to see Danny as Julian’s craven American doppelganger, who wants to be part of a culture that carries out its murders with paper and pen instead of bullets. Near the end of their time in Mexico City, a drunken Julian comes calling on Danny. What does he want, and what happens? Fade to black, and cut to six months later.
This is where The Matador loses its way. Back home, Danny is now a successful businessman; whatever job he flew to Mexico City to grab onto apparently fell into his hands. Again, Julian comes calling one night. He meets Danny’s wife (Hope Davis), who has heard all about Julian and is cautiously thrilled to have a paid murderer under her roof. Are Danny and his wife bourgeois novelty-seekers who must be punished for their sins of ethical blindness? Has Julian come to rub them out, or is there something darker and more lasting in store? Once again, Shepard hints at a bleak and fitting ending and then sidesteps it. I actually don’t know for sure, but The Matador feels as though it was heavily interfered with, in which case it wouldn’t be Shepard’s fault, unless he has internalized Hollywood’s fetish for neat and happy endings and has interfered with himself.
This would’ve been a fine, bitter hour-long short film if not for the “six months later” business. Or, if the script had had the courage to explore what Julian’s influence did to Danny, The Matador might’ve been a fierce little classic. Yes, I am asking for a different movie, but the different movie I’m asking for would’ve meant something. The movie’s tone and style, before it moves back to Danny’s boring home, have a lively malicious wit. But Danny, who has grown his own ugly mustache in apparent imitation of Julian’s, remains an innocent even when he joins forces with Julian. The film is presumably content to be an empty-calorie buddy flick. But Pierce Brosnan, sinking under the amoral weight of Julian’s 22 years of killing, makes you believe in Julian’s need to connect with someone, even a loser as unlikely as Danny. Brosnan elevates the material he’s given, but he could’ve risen to a sharper script and captured greatness. Maybe someday.