The Matador (2006)

2006-01-06 (Limited release)

If no one quite matched Sean Connery’s suave standard as 007, Pierce Brosnan brought a businesslike humor and ease to the part. And while the next Bond film, starring Daniel Craig, is stuck in pre-production as producers search for an A-List Bond girl (three have turned them down), Brosnan is having the last laugh with his new film, The Matador.

He plays Julian Noble, a hitman who favors “corporate gigs.” Slick in a morally vacant, sleazy sort of way, Julian exposes his hairy chest, has a slight beer gut, and walks through a hotel lobby in his speedos. He’s vaguely charming even as he insults women and children, drinks too much, and executes vicious hit after hit. These killings appear as they usually do in movies about professional assassins: Julian casually walks away as a car explodes in the background. When he kills a woman with a sniper rifle, his action is cruel and efficient, whereupon the film moves on to the next scene.

And yet, despite his cool self-image, Julian’s cracks are beginning to show. He travels first class, beds many women, and knows his cocktails, but he’s a social maladroit. He’s avoided basic emotional needs — intimacy, family, and friendship — so long that he no longer has the capacity to feel them. He’s the end of Bond, done traveling and killing, and now lost.

At a bar in Mexico City, Julian runs into Danny (Greg Kinnear), who’s suffering from the opposite problem. He has a loving wife and is gracious to a fault, but he’s professionally mediocre. His current business venture is preceded by failures, and he lacks the professional smarm to be the executive he wants to be.

Their interactions make for some of the best dark comedy in recent memory. When Danny tearfully admits that his young son has been killed in an accident, Julian doesn’t know how to respond, so he cracks a dirty joke. Danny’s horror makes him regret his mistake, and so he tries to sympathize by inventing a dead wife, mimicking Danny’s mourning. Thinking he’s befriended Danny at last, Julian invites him to a bullfight, where he confesses his career choice. When Danny doesn’t believe him, Julian walks him through a “hit,” Danny going along until it starts to look real. At this point, Danny believes Julian and can’t believe he’s hanging out with him.

If Danny is both enthralled and disgusted by his new friend’s brutality, Julian is touched and insulted by Danny’s moral compass. When Danny refuses to help Julian carry out a hit, even if it’s only to trip and cause a diversion, Julian storms off in a huff. Julian’s approach to life, both personal and professional, is aggressively “masculine” in a standard Hollywood sense, but director Richard Shepard strips this sensibility of just enough glamour to show how repulsive and shallow this existence can be.

Danny represents a different type of masculinity: he’s a dedicated family man and provider. When Julian comes to fear for his life and has nowhere else to go, he finds Danny’s house, where he is offered kindness, hospitality, and even an awkward admiration, despite and because of his shady past. Though Danny worries about exposing his wife Bean (Hope Davis) to this risky personality, she’s enchanted, and they both want to believe that Julian is a “nice guy.” Her reactions to both men — tender towards Danny, fascinated by Julian — highlights the different aspects of maleness they represent.

The film, however, does not keep these two aspects diametrically opposed, and there are hints of a practical reconciliation. Once Julian is embraced by the couple, whom he takes as a new “family,” he feels equipped to reciprocate, and Danny, having gained confidence and professional success by the end of the film, emerges a more secure individual.