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 The Matador
 Critic's Rating
 Date Posted
   5th June, 2006
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Cast: Pierce Brosnan, Arlin Miller, Azucena Medina
Director: Richard Shepard

"I need a break. There's no retirement home for assassins is there?"

Meet Julian Noble, a burnt-out hitman, played with tender cunning and impeccable comic timing by Pierce Brosnan who with "The Matador" has – finally – performed his James Bond exorcism. It is a savage performance, the best yet of Brosnan's career and the highlight in a brilliant film about friendship and change.

Richard Shepard is a relatively unknown writer and director ("Oxygen" and "Mexico City" his only previous films). In "The Matador" Shepard demonstrates an extraordinary skill with prose. Using the basic buddy comedy outline, Shepard builds an engrossing story around his characters. There are rarely any Hollywood clichés in this one. Julian Noble is a globe-trotting assassin who really loves his job; he is completely immoral (after flirting with some Mexican schoolgirls Julian adds: "I hate these Catholic countries. It's all blushy-blushy and no sucky-fucky"); but Julian is also instantly likeable, and for his profession, he possesses the rare ability to be truthful. Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear) is Julian's polar-opposite: a shy family man bewildered by the everyday hardship of bills and boredom. When Danny meets Julian in a chance encounter at a Mexico City bar sparks fly – they get along precisely because they are so different from each other. Danny doesn't judge Julian for killing people (we are reminded that he is a mere "facilitator of fatalities"); and for Julian this modest man is the emblem of normalcy, something he has always craved. The demands of Julian's job leave little room for friends, so when he becomes unstable a friend is what Julian needs most. Of course it might also help that this friend may be coerced into assisting in the facilitation of fatalities! This amusing chapter in Mexico is juxtaposed against a bull-fight which acts as the film's metaphor – just as the careful dance of death between a matador and bull is like the wispy line separating majesty of life from the impropriety of death, "The Matador" turns from sly comedy into a gentle drama and then back again without a hint of abnormality.  

Hope Davis is terrific as Bean Wright, Danny's loving housewife. When Julian comes to pay a surprise visit at their Colorado home, it's an awkward moment this formal introduction of an eccentric killer to the Wright family. But writer-director Richard Shepard uses the scene to tell us something about Bean. Fascinated by Julian's uncommon profession, Bean asks if Julian brought his gun with him. He has. She wants Julian to show it to her. He asks if she's sure. Bean is quite sure. And here we begin to suspect that this may be the most exciting thing that has happened to her in a long time. Then as the three of them get tipsy on cheap wine, as they laugh and dance to Dave Van Norden's In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning, it becomes clear to us that despite all their differences, what Julian, Danny and Bean share in common is their loneliness and a deep-rooted social hurt. Such a scene is a testament to writer-director Richard Shepard's faith in his characters as the grit of his film. The great Philip Baker Hall also makes an appearance as Julian's mentor and boss, Mr. Randy. A small role that is critical to the film's story as it anchors Julian's dilemma (if he messes up another hit, Julian will himself be killed). We feel guilty when we root for Julian to kill his next victim so he can be safe. This subversion of moral ethics may be attributed to the master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock. Transfer of guilt to characters in the film or the audience was a recurring theme in Hitchcock's films.

"The Matador" is irresistible. It is intelligent, funny and heartfelt, it makes us laugh and feel good to be alive. This is why we love movies. - Adnan Khan

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