A film review by Craig J. Koban
2005, R, 96 mins.
Julian Noble: Pierce Brosnan / Danny Wright:
Greg Kinnear / Bean Wright:
Hope Davis / Mr. Randy:
Philip Baker Hall / Phil Garrison: Adam Scott /
Lovell: Dylan Baker / Guenivere: Portia Dawson / Gretchen: Maureen Muldoon
Noble is a foul, uncultured, and unadulterated pain in the neck. He's
also a monosyllabic slob that just may be one of the cinema’s most
depressed hitmen. Whereas the lowlife scum of past films (like
FICTION, for example) seemed to take great pride in their dastardly work
and had fun with their roles as “facilitators of death,” Julian - by
comparison - is far too melancholy for his own good.
He kills people for a living, seems fairly proficient and expedient at it, but he is growing jaded in his advancing years. He has no home, no wife, no friends, and seems to wander around in a constant, unshaven, inebriated stupor all day long. He drinks a lot, maybe a bit too much for a man in his profession, curses worse than a longshoreman, insults people viciously both intentionally and unintentionally, and has a penchant for whores, whether they be of legal age or not. Julian is simply a mess, or to aptly describe him with his own words, he looks like, “a Bangkok hooker on a Sunday morning after the navy’s left town.”
Yet, Julian is incredibly winning and endearing as a screen persona, and that is the subtle genius of Pierce Brosnan's performance. This is not a saccharine role for the former 007 agent. This is a man that does incredibly vile things that defy explanation. It’s not too beneath his character to lip off a young child, to flirt with a girl that is easily four decades his junior, to respond to sincerity and honesty with grotesque and ill-timed humour, and…yes…to shoot a person dead in their tracks. Yet, despite his otherwise horrid outward façade, he really is a lonely puppy dog that is just crying for a bit of attention. Much like the mob boss Robert DeNiro played in the painfully funny ANALYZE THIS, Bronson’s Julian is a man of hard-edge and of cunning and ruthless ambition that – when faced with the unpleasantness of having no one in life to share his with – is reduced to a blubbering and overly sensitive man that could easily find a home on The View.
Yes, Julian is not a nice, decent, honourable man, but it’s so hard not to like him, which is made all the easier with Brosnan’s effortless and madcap performance. Much has been said of actors that have previously donned the guise of Britain’s most famous secret agent. Perhaps with the possible exception of Sean Connery, not too many actors who have played James Bond can make the claim that the role has not over-shadowed their career and have typecast them forever (Roger Moore, ahem!). Yet, I think that with his role as the kooky killer with a amiable heart in THE MATADOR, Brosnan can successful join Connery in the “I’ve shaken Bond’s image off me for good” club.
Not to take anything away from Brosnan’s highly popular portrayal of Bond in the most recent string of films, but his suave, cool, refined, and debonair visage in that iconic role has – let’s face it – overshadowed his real talents as an actor. The Bond character himself is not one that demands a thespian of range, nor does it place huge demands on the actor, other than to look good at all times and carry yourself off with cheeky and promiscuous charm and vitality. It’s no wonder, then, when former Bond actors want to distance themselves away from Ian Fleming’s creation. Watching Brosnan in THE MATADOR it’s amazing – in hindsight – that this is the same man that portrayed Bond for over a decade. It’s as if his modus operandi was to find the least refined and sophisticated role that would allow him to appear to be as big of a loser as possible. Whereas Bond preferred martinis and distinguished and cultured women, Julian prefers tequila and a night at peep shows and brothels.
Can a great performance be enough to carry an otherwise uneven film? In THE MATADOR’S case, I think so. The strength of the film does not lie in its overall plot or tone, but more on its characters and the interplay between them. Like other quirky dark comedies, we remember the people that populate them more than we do the story they are involved in. I left THE MATADOR feeling that Julian Noble is truly an original creation and the sheer richness and depth of Brosnan's performance does indeed carry the film. He sort of covers such a broad spectrum of emotions for his character. He’s neither a vindictive, one-dimensional monster nor is he an unrealistically endearing man. Julian is sort of a weird hybrid – a man that is competent and confident some of the time, but who is also paranoid, confused, ambivalent, and abandoned emotionally. I think we feel for him because of his sense of inner isolation. Sure, he’s capable of being a jerk, but at least he later acknowledges his social mistakes and desperately tries to make up for him. In these ways, this just may be Brosnan’s most powerful and layered performance. We laugh at Julian; we laugh with him; we fear his hostility and ruthlessness; and we feel pity towards him because of his place in the world.
As the film opens we see Julian as a horrendously burned-out hitman who seems to want to retire and retire quickly. One job takes him to Mexico and during one drunken night in a bar he meets a shy, polite, and unassuming businessman named Danny (Greg Kinnear). Julian has been drinking considerably, but seems to like something in the noble spirit that is Danny. He buys Danny a drink and the two begin the strike up a conversation. A few drinks later they begin to open up to one another and confide in some dark secrets, although Julian does not let on about his real occupation. In one particularly poignant and thoughtful exchange, Danny relays a painful story of how he and his wife have lost their son in an accident. Julian, having never had such a heart-to-heart with another man, has no idea how to respond other than to tell a dirty joke. Danny is mortified and abruptly leaves.
What happens then is interesting. Julian, somewhat clean and sober, meets Danny later the next morning and pleads for forgiveness for his behaviour. Danny, surprisingly, listens attentively and sympathetically, and does forgive him, enough at least for Julian to persuade him to attend a bullfight with him. The two again begin to confide in one another. Julian grows to like Danny more and more, maybe because his nights of aimless meandering into alcohol and hookers has made him feel cut off from a more regular part of the world. He’s so cut off that even the subtle art of conversation for him requires an instruction manual. Yet, when he talks, Danny listens and Julian soon begins to see Danny as a friend. He becomes so close to him that he finally reveals his true vocation in life. When Danny asks if he’s serious, he replies, “I’m as serious as an erection problem.”
Now, as many would assume, Danny does not believe him at all...at first. So, why does he continue to hang around with this man? Maybe because Danny too feels like an emotional drifter. His business deal in Mexico has gone south, he’s lost his child, and he even fears that he may lose his wife. Danny, still highly suspect of Julian, asks him how he would kill a man in a packed stadium of tens of thousands. Julian feels obliged and asks him to pick out one man in the crowd. Danny does and then – in the film’s most inspired and darkly funny sequence – Julian takes him on a sort of odd dress rehearsal as to how he would kill this stranger and, most importantly, get away with it. Afterwards, the two part and go their separate ways. “Just consider me the best cocktail story you ever met,” he tells him.
Months go by and we see Danny living happily with his wife Carolyn (played humorously by Hope Davis). They go about the monotony of their daily life until, suddenly one night, the doorbell rings and it's Julian! Yet, this is not the same Julian that Danny met in Mexico. He’s become completely unglued and desperate and is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. It seems that Julian has botched a series of jobs so badly that a contract for his life is now out. This all leads to the conclusion of the film where Julian asks Danny for a favour that could save his life, that is unless Danny is a willing participant.
As a work of nail-biting and sarcastic dark comedy, THE MATADOR is a very engaging and hilarious film. The byplay between both Brosnan and Kinnear gives the proceedings a bit of a twisted, ODD COUPLE sensation. Their relationship has both whimsy and edge, not to mention that the screenplay is generous enough to infuse in both of them moments of thoughtfulness. Writer/director Richard Shepard is able to embody in this key relationship a nice balance between side-slitting laughs and distressed pathos. Both characters have a modest, zany edge and appeal, but both also have a decidedly down-to-earth vibe. Neither is a broad caricature nor are they over-played for cheap, sophomoric laughs. Brosnan plays his role both for broad, physical chuckles and for more slight sentimentality. Kinnear, on the other had, is a brilliant foil to Julian as the quiet man that is attentive and easy-going, which only further heightens Julian’s increased sense of fear and disillusionment to us. Julian appears as an inscrutable sloth, but the fact that we buy into his character and into his relationship with Kinnear attests to the film’s strengths. Shepard gives the film an offbeat style in the Tarrantino mould, but it never overwhelms the core foundation of what makes it work.
If the film feels a bit uneven it would be in the area of some of the supporting roles, such as the case with Julian’s employer, Mr. Randy (played by the terrific Philip Baker Hall). Randy is a bit too enigmatic and mysterious of a presence in the film than he should have been, and the few scenes between him and Julian could have been embellished more as an effective counterpoint to the closeness of Julian’s relationship with Danny. The film is a breezy and sparse 93 minutes and – unfortunately – Hall’s integral role is more or less reduced to a walk-on cameo. He also never really becomes a threatening presence to Julian that he should be. His role needs elaboration and an actor that we would fear. Was Christopher Walken not available?
Nevertheless, THE MATADOR works exceptionally as a film of black comedy that successfully transcends some of the more obvious conventions of its story. It’s a basic tale of how two polar opposites begin to trust and appreciate one another. This thematic device is nothing new. Yet, it is the strong and confident writing and direction of this violent comedy-noir and the equally feisty and strapping performances by Kinnear and Brosnan that allow THE MATADOR to shine. The film has a sneaky and sly sensibility that is as smart and ruthless as it is screwball and funny. More than anything, the film has the thankless task of inverting Brosnan’s past image of a shrewd and charismatic British secret agent. After leaving the film, you never find yourself pigeonholing Brosnan into that role occupied by wearing tuxedos and being a hero of sophisticated charm and vitality. Finally, with James Bond behind him, we can see just how accomplished of an actor Brosnan truly is, even when he has to play a dubiously groomed and awkward social butterfly that reveals him relishing in every glorious, lewd, and shocking moment.