'Burb Your Enthusiasm

Washington City Paper | January 6, 2006
Having already played rough-edged guys in The Mother and Enduring Love—not to mention Munich—Daniel Craig may be the first James Bond who won’t someday feel compelled to prove he’s not an empty tuxedo. Sean Connery and Roger Moore both tried to divest themselves of 007, though only the former succeeded—despite the latter’s appearance in Spice World. But no Bond has turned against the persona as aggressively as Pierce Brosnan. First came The Tailor of Panama, in which he played an unprincipled, self-serving British agent. Now he stars in The Matador as a world-traveling assassin who’s too coarse for his license to kill.

Although it features an engaging little turn from Hope Davis, The Matador is basically a two-hander. Julian Noble (Brosnan) is a hit man with no friends, a big mouth, and only two hobbies: booze and anonymous sex, the latter preferably involving girls who aren’t old enough to drive. Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear) is as Middle America–average as the protagonist of an antacid commercial, save for a persistent gloominess that writer-director Richard Shepard’s backstory more than justifies: Danny and the wife he calls “Bean” (Davis) lost their only child in a school-bus crash, and now Danny is afraid that his sales job is next.

The two guys meet at a Mexico City hotel bar, where the hired gun’s lack of sensitivity quickly repulses the salesman. Improbably, they make up the next day, and Danny yields to Julian’s insistence that they attend a bullfight together. Either because he decides that Danny is too innocuous to pose any threat or—more likely—because he needs to advance the plot, Julian confesses that he is “a facilitator of fatalities.” The assassin’s tutorial in bullfighting, which includes such macho metaphorical blather as the notion that a bull is “honored” to be killed by a great matador, soon leads to lessons in dispatching human beings. Eventually, Julian asks Danny to help with a hit. He refuses, and the story is terminated before the Mexico City episode is complete.

Some months later, Julian arrives unexpectedly at Danny and Bean’s suburban Denver home. It seems that Julian is losing his nerve and has decided to retire. But he needs to do one last hit, and he requests the aid of “the only friend I have.” (Being a professional killer, at least Julian has an excuse for the friendlessness that’s endemic among American-movie characters.) This time Danny agrees to help and the two set off for a deadly rendezvous—and for a chance to reveal just what happened in Mexico City. When it finally comes, the disclosure doesn’t exactly propel this amiable but insubstantial movie to a higher level.

As a movie director—he’s also worked frequently in TV—Shepard has made a string of forgettable films since 1988’s Cool Blue. His sense of style is undistinctive, and his use of music in The Matador quickly degenerates from the thematic (the Jam’s “A Town Called Malice”) to the meaningless (Asia’s “Heat of the Moment”). Without Brosnan, who also signed on as a producer, the film would probably draw no more notice than such predecessors as The Linguini Incident.

The actor has great fun with Julian, supplanting Bond’s cool sophistication with brash tastelessness to give us a man of no apparent redeeming value. Alas, the character doesn’t quite add up: An assassin who starts blabbing to every Kinnear-esque dweeb he meets in a bar wouldn’t last long, and Julian’s sudden inability to complete his assigned hits suggests a submerged conscience that’s established by neither Shepard’s script nor Brosnan’s performance. The Matador may aspire to psychological comedy, but it skims its characterizations as if it were, oh, a James Bond flick.

With Derailed, The Matador is the second movie in two months from the Weinstein Company to pack the same essential message: There comes a time when the innocent suburbanite must learn how to kill. Bob and Harvey Weinstein, who founded Miramax but recently had to cede it to Disney, don’t seem to be in a Merchant Ivory mood these days. Perhaps there’s no hidden warning here for Michael Eisner, but even if there is, the Disney boss shouldn’t worry that the Weinsteins are really gunning for him. The two films clearly indicate that turning the American Everyguy into an executioner is a more plausible premise for a comedy than for a docudrama.

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