Jacob Farley refuses to put a hit out on the well-cast but oddly marketed low-key character study The Matador.
The Matador is almost a great little movie. I remember seeing it when it first came out, thinking it was going to be a very different kind of thing—the sort of thing implied on the DVD cover, with explosions and shooting and so on. Instead, it’s actually a small little character study about sad people finding one another and enriching each other’s lives. (Also, there is some murder.) I recall leaving the theater having mostly enjoyed the film. Really, that’s kind of the best thing I can say about it. This is clearly a movie that somebody (I guess presumably Richard Shepard, the writer/director) had envisioned and dreamed about for a long time and now finally got the chance to make it all happen, and good for him.
The Matador is the story of how the lives of international assassin Julian (Pierce Brosnan) and struggling businessman Danny (Greg Kinnear) intersect. Julian is having a rough year, mental-health-wise (it seems that a workday that consists entirely of murdering strangers for large amounts of money is a high-stress gig), but is in Mexico City to finish a contract. Also in Mexico City is Danny, in town to present some kind of vaguely unspecified proposal to a group of likewise sketchily drawn investor types. They meet in their hotel’s bar one night and sort of strike up an acquaintanceship, if not a friendship—Julian cracks a joke after being told about Danny’s recently-deceased son and Danny, fairly reasonably, storms out. Julian apologizes the next day and the two begin to hang out (both are in town with nothing to do for a few days, conveniently, for business reasons). Eventually, at a bullfight, Julian reveals to Danny what he does for a living. Initially disbelieving Julian, Danny comes around after Julian walks him through the mechanics of a hit. Danny is horrified to have Julian later ask him for actual assistance on his next job, and leaves, again perhaps quite reasonably so. The last we see of them, Julian is drunkenly (he is often drunk in this film, in fact) knocking on Danny’s hotel door, begging forgiveness.
Cut to six months later (Christmastime! How topical, thank you The Matador), and Julian has burnt out completely. He’s having trouble pulling the trigger on his hits and his bosses decide they want him out of the game. In the international assassin business, forced retirement comes with a terrible severance package, so Julian flees to Denver, the home of literally the only person in the entire world he can call a friend—Danny. They haven’t seen or spoken to one another since that last night in Mexico City, but Danny, being an obliging sort, lets Julian in. Danny’s wife Carolyn (Hope Davis), who Danny refers to as “Bean” for unstated reasons (at one point she recalls children on the playground mockingly referring to her as “Plate of Beans,” so I really don’t know what this whole thing is about), is actually quite thrilled Julian is there, having been told the whole story by Danny (who has, amusingly, grown a mustache to match Julian’s). Eventually Bean goes to bed and Julian talks Danny into assisting him with the traditional one last job to get out of the game. Danny listens with a bit more enthusiasm this time around and finally accepts, on the condition that they be home in time to go visit his son’s grave with Bean (it just so happens to be the anniversary of his son’s death—in a bus accident, if you were wondering). They go to Arizona, Danny helps Julian kill a guy, and they both receive self-actualization as a reward. How wonderful. At the end, Julian watches Danny and Bean (seriously, what is up with that nickname?) at their son’s grave, puts a plane ticket to visit him in his chosen place of retirement on their windshield and then the movie is over.
The thing about The Matador is that it wouldn’t really work nearly as well without Greg Kinnear and Pierce Brosnan. Both of them do a great job playing simultaneously into and against their respective types. Brosnan has all the confidence of James Bond, but dresses and looks more like a sleazy trailer park owner somewhere in Florida. His accent bounces all over the world, and he laughs too much, too often, too desperately. Kinnear, for his part, is a classic straight-laced guy (Danny is so aggressively normal-looking, in fact, that the first time they meet, Julian assumes he must be a CIA agent). They bounce off each other so naturally that they alone drive the movie. It’s really pretty delightful. The comedy writing isn’t sharp enough to work without these specific actors (this is no Grosse Pointe Blank), but the directing is at least attempting to be lively, and the color palate in Mexico City is very nice. Hope Davis is also pretty enjoyable, what with her delighted insistence on seeing Julian’s gun, but the movie pretty much sidelines her for the whole first half. I’m not sure what the intention was for her character, honestly—she seems pretty into the whole assassin thing, but Danny still insists on keeping it a secret from her when he actually goes on a hit. I guess he’s just kind of a crummy guy that way. Communicate with your wife, my dude! Haven’t you seen True Lies? Maybe this could become a whole thing for you two! Anyway.
Going into it the first time, I was expecting a thriller. Knowing this time what was coming, I was able to more or less enjoy it for what it is—a character study so low-key it could almost be a stage play. It’s one of those movies that happens so other, better movies can stand out next to it while it fades into the past, eternally an entirely adequate way to spend an hour and a half.
– Danny’s business partner in Mexico City is played by Leslie Knope’s own Adam Scott, in a role so purely functional in the plot that it could have been adequately portrayed by a wooden crossbeam.