Pierce Brosnan stars as a cynical, washed-up, irresistible cad of a hit man in “The Matador.”
It’s the kind of role you’d expect to see Billy Bob Thornton play, or Jack Nicholson if the movie had come out 20 years ago. We know Brosnan’s Julian Noble is devilish from the first time we see him with tattoos and a bad mustache, waking up in a hotel bed with an empty bottle of Maker’s Mark on the nightstand on one side and a naked woman lying next to him on the other.
You could call Julian Noble the anti-James Bond — even more so than the part Brosnan played in “The Tailor of Panama,” which was considered the anti-Bond when that film came out in 2001. This character is even more twisted and tormented, and Brosnan wears it as comfortably as one of 007’s custom-made tuxedos.
And in “The Matador,” writer-director Richard Shepard has crafted for Brosnan and Greg Kinnear a breezy, stylish, darkly funny thriller that transcends the cliches of the mismatched-buddy movie genre.
Julian goes down to Mexico City to perform a job, something he’s done expertly for the past 22 years, but lately with less enthusiasm. While he’s there he meets Kinnear’s Danny Wright, an optimistic, straight-laced Denver businessman, at the hotel bar.
Each of them has had way too many margaritas — it’s Julian’s birthday and he’s been drinking alone because he has no friends; Danny’s been celebrating the deal he thinks he closed earlier in the day — and they forge an unlikely connection.
Of course they’re total opposites, a fundamental element of this kind of film. Danny sees Julian as dangerous and exciting and finds himself unexpectedly fascinated by his globe-trotting lifestyle; Julian sees allure in the stability and normalcy of Danny’s suburban existence, complete with a loving wife who’s waiting for him at home (Hope Davis, naturally smart and funny as always).
We know from the outset that these two disparate creatures will change each others’ lives, but in Shepard’s film, the journey is the destination. Seemingly in a nod to Brosnan’s days of Bond-style worldwide intrigue, the journey hops from Mexico City to Vienna, Moscow, Budapest and back to Denver.
“You a spy, something like that?” Danny asks early in the film, another clever acknowledgment of Brosnan’s best-known screen role, as he and Julian puff on cigars at a bullfight.
Julian reveals reluctantly that he’s an assassin, but prefers to think of himself as a “facilitator of fatalities.”
“I do what I’m asked to do,” he adds with a twinkle in his eye.
The two have an easy chemistry — it helps a great deal that Shepard has given them clever things to say — but both actors create meaty, complex characters who are always believable and never feel like broad types, despite their familiarity.
Danny could have been a spineless shlub, a caricature of the naive, big-hearted Midwesterner, but Kinnear brings a great deal of pathos and intelligence to the role. Brosnan, meanwhile, slowly shows the loneliness beneath the bravado as Julian ages and questions himself.
Shepard spells things out a bit too obviously toward the end, and he relies a little too heavily on the matador-assassin analogy. But these are minor quibbles about a film that, for the most part, takes aim at its target and nails it dead-on.