Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Jan 25, 2006 7:56 pm 
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Shallow high-concept comedy pits Brosnan against his own image

Posing as a comic noir like the wittier Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, this movie is really just an amoral string of jokes and stereotypes in a glossy package with the "high concept" of a hit man facing a midlife crisis blended with an attraction-of-opposites theme. Two men meet in a Mexico City bar, Julian Noble (Pierce Brosnan), who we've already been shown is a killer, and Danny Wright (Greg Kinear), an ordinary guy with a run of bad luck. The none-too-subtly named good guy Wright has lost a son in an accident three-plus years ago, and been out of work for some time. He's here to pitch a big contract with a partner. Just before he left on this trip we have seen him having impetuous sex with his wife when a big tree falls into the room and breaks it open. Ha ha. Sex in The Matador is always crude – Julian has a taste for young girls and a steady diet of hookers – and quick. In the bar where the two chug margaritas, Wright talks about his lost son, and the sleazy, heartless Julian retorts with a dirty joke. His tendency is to cause offense. Despite his apparent hyper-heterosexuality, he throws out gay innuendoes just to make Danny uneasy.

Not withstanding deep offenses and bad jokes, the two, both lonely and in the case of Wright nervous over the Mexican company's coming decision, stay together for several days, during which Julian proves (more or less) that he wasn't fibbing when he said it was his job to kill people. This will be the only practical bit of business in the story, which is mostly dialogue with colorful backgrounds or mere large place labels (VIENNA, DENVER, etc.), and reads like a stage play except for two key scenes set in stadiums. The dry-run "hit" demo happens in a bull fighting arena, and the actual bullfight shots somehow take on the sleaze of the slim, schlockily dressed professional killer of men. Julian has a handler, Mr. Randy (Philip Baker Hall wasted in a minor role) on whom he is utterly dependent. In the transitional scene, Julian knocks on Danny's hotel door late at night, apologizing for another offense and apparently wanting to ask his help on an assignment. . .

Cut to six months later, when Julian again appears late at night knocking on the door of Danny's house in Denver. Danny's luck has changed and things are okay now. His wife Bean (Hope Davis) has heard all about Julian and despite the late hour is interested and titillated and wants to see his gun. As handled by the suave Ms. Davis this is mildly funny and the situation as before has a level of tension. In this second sequence we learn with greater emphasis that Julian has begun to lose his edge and is in danger of not only forced retirement but death. Then surprises happen, with several twists before we come to the end.

There are a few real laughs (not many) and both Kinnear and Brosnan perform with confidence. The audience is meant to be amused also at the former James Bond playing this down-market version of 007 and doing it convincingly and with a flourish. Not surprisingly Kinnear is believable as a good-guy schlub; he too has been de-glamorized. The trouble is that due to the screenplay's crude, story-board conceptions of the action, neither character is given any depth. The hit man is by definition empty inside. There is no mystery other than why he does it: hence his loss of motivation is no surprise. As Danny Wright, Kinnear has his usual palatable appeal, but his version of the ordinary man is as much dorky as simpatico. This is no complex Willy Loman type: his personality is a mix of forced smiles and puppy-dog looks. The relationship's obvious explanation that opposites attract is a shallow cliché. The story might have had true interest had the action led to full moral compromise on the part of Danny. Restricting the audience hook to Wright's and his wife's queasy attraction to violence keeps the outcome shallow. And the plot twists pale compared to real con mind-benders like The Grifters, Nine Queens, or The Spanish Prisoner.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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