"The Matador," an intoxicating blend of concentrated writing, supremely fine acting and sharp character work, achieves a great dealprobably more than it has any right towithout relying on a strong plot to carry it forward. In actuality, there isn't much of a mainstream story at all, the film's central pull stemming from the involved predicaments of two very different peopleincreasingly wearisome hired assassin Julian Noble (Pierce Brosnan) and struggling businessman Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear)and the friendship that brings them together and ultimately changes their lives. For a film more interested in the study of human behavior and interaction than in flashily marketable plot developments, writer-director Richard Shepard has crafted an effective, wise, and frequently amusing entertainment that fondly sticks in the viewer's memory after the end credits have finished rolling.
A chance encounter between Julian and Danny in a Mexico City bar leads to an unlikely connection between these two diversely troubled individuals. With the burnt-out, womanizing Julian approaching a hoped-for retirement from the hit man trade, he sees in Dannya happily married man on a crucial business trip that could make or break himeverything he is not. After spending some time together, Julian comes clean with Danny about his profession. Instead of being turned off, Danny finds himself intrigued. Eventually they part ways, but meet again a year later when Julian abruptly shows up at Danny's and wife Bean's (Hope Davis) Denver home with a proposition to make. Julian's intentions and Danny's expectations turn out to not quite be what either anticipates.
Essentially a three-character comedic drama that ingratiates the audience into their lives, "The Matador" is a film where more happens underneath the surface than on top of it. Even still, surprises abound within the tightly constructed narrative that writer-director Richard Shepard has laid out. Julian and Danny are thoroughly fascinating three-dimensional people who are constantly unveiling layer upon layer of their personalities and intentions, which makes their bond with one another all the more believably profound. When Bean, Danny's wife, enters into the equation, there is a momentary fear that Shepard is setting up a love triangle. Thankfully, this never formulates, with Julian's seeming flirtation discovered to be more out of admiration and envy for what she and Danny have together than out of shallow lust.
Outstanding extended scenes are plentiful as Julian's and Danny's relationship develops. A sequence set around the stadium of a Mexico City bullfight in which Julian takes Danny through a step-by-step demonstration of how he picks off his assigned targets without ever being caught by the police is riveting in both its conception and the way it is carried out on film. The all-night get-together between Julian, Danny and Bean is fun, expertly portrayed, and bordering on hilarious. And the outcome of the climax, its details best left unrevealed, features a clever and natural twist that plays with the audience's presumptions of what is going to happen, and why. As an aside, it is also worth noting that two of the most effectively startling jolts in memory are elicited for a film outside of the horror genre.
The performances from Pierce Brosnan (2004's "After the Sunset
"), Greg Kinnear (2005's "Bad News Bears
") and Hope Davis (2005's "The Weather Man
") are without fault. Brosnan, safely outside the James Bond mold, brings a perceptive knowledge and dogged humanity to the role of Julian, as if he knows the man he is playing inside and out. Kinnear, who is often a bland presence, comes into his own in a big way as a man still coming to terms with the death of his child several years ago. And Davis, refreshingly away from the uptight and/or bitchy parts she usually plays, steals all of her scenes and gets some of the best, most real and funny moments as Bean. With limited screen time, Davis manages to make a major impression, and in a way is the rooting force that nicely offsets the machismo of her male co-stars.
"The Matador" is a strong example of the benefits of independent filmmaking over big studio releases. With characters that are often smarter than the viewer, lively writing that jumps off the page, and a plot that relies on low-key character texture and growth rather than overblown theatrics, director Richard Shepard knows precisely what is important in order to make a satisfying film experience that stirs and resonates. He also knows how to compile a perfectly modulated soundtrack that compliments the themes and emotions on the screen, with songs from everyone from Tom Jones to Asia to The Killers. "The Matador" is classy, economical, and ultimately makes more of an impact than at first meets the eye.