While in Mexico City, Julian Noble (Pierce Brosnan), a womanizing hit man, lands right in the middle of a big, fat mid-life crisis. There for a job, he realizes he has no one to share his birthday with and this causes the downward spiral to hit him full force. Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear), a businessman experiencing a couple of tough years, has just made a pitch to a company headquartered in Mexico City. Positive the pitch went well, he walks into the hotel bar to celebrate and orders a margarita. Julian is already drinking his fourth or fifth and they start a strange, awkward conversation which leads to an equally strange and awkward relationship.
"The Matador", written and directed by Richard Shephard, provides a juicy, meaty role for Pierce Brosnan, allowing him to portray a character who is the antithesis of James Bond. But the film has problems and Brosnan can't smooth them over enough to make the film work.
Brosnan is amusing and engaging as Julian, his most interesting role in years, maybe ever. Julian's lifestyle is beginning to take its toll; too much booze, too many women, and the requirements of his job have seriously warped his world view. For a while, he seems to enjoy the life. Who wouldn't enjoy a life with no restrictions? But then he begins to realize his existence lacks the key elements people need to survive. Most notably, companionship, love and friendship.
Naturally, this realization hits on his birthday, when he is sitting alone in his hotel room, with no one to talk to or share the day with. This scene is very funny and a little sad. Brosnan manages to convey the character's many facets, helping to make Julian both interesting and unusual.
Strangely, even though the character is not very likable, we feel empathy for him. The guy hits on a teenaged Catholic school girl in Mexico for goodness sakes, yet we still like him. As we realize Julian's life is, basically, out of control, we also understand he is used to living this life. He is used to sleeping with a different woman in every city. He is used to getting drunk and behaving outrageously. Because we watch a little of this, we understand how empty this ultimately is and when the midlife crisis hits, we believe it.
Julian is also not afraid to say what he is thinking. Because he has no meaningful relationships, he is fairly crass and doesn't mind speaking openly about sex using vulgar terms. Some of these lines are really funny, more so because they are rarely uttered.
Because Brosnan's character is so interesting, Kinnear's character seems particularly flat. They don't occupy the same universe. Clearly, they aren't coming from the same place in their lives, and that's the point, but I just didn't believe that Julian would find anything about Danny interesting. From the moment they first meet, Danny is clearly interested in everything Julian has to say, and vice verse, but the salesman is more than a little overwhelmed by the hit man. Danny is a normal guy, living a normal life, with his normal wife, Bean (Hope Davis). It seems natural that he would be a bit incredulous if someone he just met told him he was a hit man. I would react in the same way. But I think the key here is that there is no hint at any sort of character trait that would lead us to believe that Kinnear's Danny would feel comfortable enough to hang out with this guy. Yes, their initial relationship has some ups and downs, good times and bad, but a salesman from Denver is going to hang out with a guy who says he is a hit man? I don't believe it. There is nothing in Danny to indicate that he is just a little off, maybe just a little susceptible to Julian's charms. Without this, it seems too far a stretch for Danny to become so enamored of Julian. Yes, I get that Julian is very different, exciting, and that is a large part of the attraction, but Kinnear's character needs that something extra, that extra push towards the dark side.
When the film picks up six months later, at Danny's home in Denver, it is amusing to see that Danny has grown a moustache, his act of rebellion and idol worship; Julian also has a moustache. But then Danny gets involved in Julian's life again, and it is, once again, a big stretch.
Hope Davis' Bean is also interesting and slightly unusual. Very quiet, when she initially meets Julian, she becomes fascinated with him. There is a hint that she doesn't entirely believe that he is a hit man, but is willing to go along with his tall tales because it will add a little excitement to her life.
The dynamic between the three characters is certainly better than 80% of the films we ever see, but it is missing one element, Danny's one character trait, to make the entire thing believable. Without it, their relationships don't work. And because the film is all about their relationships, this is problematic.
Director Shephard has crafted an interesting visual look. As the film hops around the globe, each new location is designated with a huge title, filling the screen. Each of the locations they visit has a slightly dated look; the hotel in Mexico City is so chic it looks purposely dated, Danny and Bean's home is old-fashioned and even has a large console record player. All of this helps give the film the feel of "Caper" filcks from the late 60s and early 70s.
In an interview on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart", Brosnan talked about how Shephard initially came to his attention. Brosnan was interested in making "The Thomas Crown Affair 2" and received "The Matador" as a writing sample. They liked it so much, they decided to make it. "The Thomas Crown Affair", starring Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo, was a remake of the 1968 film starring Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway. While the remake was made in 1999, it still had some elements from the original, some of the tone and feel, allowing the new version to retain some of the charm of the original. This is my long winded way of saying that it seems natural that Shepherd would use his screenplay for "The Matador" as a sample for a planned sequel to "The Thomas Crown Affair".
"The Matador" gets its title from a bullfight Julian and Danny attend. During the fight, Julian explains the bullfighter's methods and this becomes a loose metaphor for Julian's relationship with Danny and a metaphor for Julian's own life. It is very loose, almost non-existent, but it is there. The film would've benefited greatly from a stronger tie to this message. In Woody Allen's "Match Point", the director begins the film with voice over from Rhys-Meyers character explaining a Tennis play which later figures prominently in the resolution. The connection isn't beaten over our head, but it is there. In "The Matador", the connection is never remotely pointed out for the audience and I feel it may be too vague for many to pick up.
Also, the film is about the characters, it isn't about Julian fulfilling his professional contracts. In fact, these are presented in a vague way. In almost every case, the contracts are fulfilled, yet we almost never see the completion of the contract. People are viewed in cross hairs, shots are fired, and just as we are about to see the end results, the film cuts away. Or we might watch Julian setting up a contract only to leave before we see him fulfill it. This is an interesting choice, reinforcing the director's main focus. Julian is a hit man, but the film is about his troubles dealing with that and his life.
"The Matador" is, like the main character, strange, unusual and difficult to get along with. There will be moments you will enjoy and many more that you won't.