"The Matador" is one of those quirky films that never quite seem to find a home anywhere. It's not quite a comedy, not quite a drama, not quite a mystery, not quite an action film. The studio apparently had no idea how exactly to release it (who is the audience? how do we reach them?); the public has been barely aware that it's been released, much less expressed an interest in seeing it, and so on. Pierce Brosnan plays so far against type that it couldn't even be plugged in as a 'Pierce Brosnan movie,' nor could we expect his fans - his old, former fans - to come. And yet films like "The Matador" need to be made, and even more important, need to be released no matter what their grosses turn out to be. Maybe it's time to revamp the whole movie distribution system. Calling Mark Cuban.
"The Matador" begins as innocent Denver business hopeful Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear) says goodbye to his loving wife Bean (Hope Davis) as he heads to Mexico City to try and close a deal that will restore him to some kind of life after three and a half years of being out of work and four years after he and Bean had lost their only son. At a bar bertween meetings he runs into Julian Noble (Brosnan), longtime career assassin for unknown higher-ups who send Mr. Randy (Philip Baker Hall) to give him each new assignment. But Julian is now on the final downslope, as he is losing his once-infallible killing touch. Brosnan, in greying brush cut and choppy mustache, is almost unrecognizable here, with a brutal downmarket accent and a bullish walk.
"You don't believe what I do?" says Julian as they both watch a bullfight. "Pick somebody and I'll show you." And Julian proceeds to take Danny on the fright ride of his life as he prepares to kill an innocent spectator whom Danny just happened to notice sitting near them. It's a brilliant sequence by first-time writer-director Richard Shepard, perhaps the best in the film. But late that night, as Danny sits in his hotel room, Julian bangs on his door. He's exhausted, he's scared of failure, he's on the downslope. Cut to six months later, back in Denver at Christmas, and Bean and Danny find Julian once again in their lives. Times are good for them, not so good for Julian, whose inner demons have lost him at least one kill and who is now marked for elimination himself.
And here is where Hope Davis shines, in a role that's been barely indicated by Shepard in the writing. As Danny is embarrassed by the killer in his house, she is fascinated by Julian, whom she's only heard about. She and Julian drink and dance, and there are erotic hints scattered all over the place as we wonder where this will go. And then there is a revelation, which I will not give away, that ties it all together.
On the evidence of "The Matador," Shepard is a good writer with a feel for the original; but as a director he is less sure of himself. His choices of camera placement and, particularly, his sense of editing rhythm, are off. We keep wanting to look around his camera for what to see, and we keep waiting for his edits to catch up to us. But they are not so bad as to destroy the effect of the film; it survives, and should live on in DVD land.