directed by Richard Shepard
(Weinstein, 2006)

Danny Wright is about to leave his very middle-class home for a two-day trip to Mexico City, where he and a co-worker will be making the sales pitch of their lives to some Mexican businessmen.

It's not an easy trip for Danny (Greg Kinnear) for a number of reasons that take some time to surface but can be summed up fairly succinctly: 1) He really needs to succeed on this pitch because he fears he could lose both his job and his wife, "Bean" (Hope Davis), if he doesn't; 2) He and Bean already have lost their only child, Henry, in a school bus accident, and the always-observed anniversary of Henry's death is fast approaching; and 3) A passing storm has just brought a huge tree down into Danny and Hope's house, barely missing Danny and Hope, who were just about to do what couples often do when they suddenly realize they're going to miss each other. (Some people might take that alone as an omen.)

Still, the business of America is business (if you don't believe me, just ask Calvin Coolidge), and when the plane opens its doors, Danny boards. He knows there's a challenge waiting for him at the other end of his flight -- it's what he doesn't know that makes Matador a much more amusing film than most film critics ever expect to see.

What he doesn't know is that there's someone waiting for him in Mexico City -- not waiting in the usual sense, but waiting anyway: Julian Noble (Pierce Brosnan), a hitman (sorry, make that a "fatality facilitator") on a very tight schedule that just got a wee bit tighter.

Like Danny, Julian travels on business, and that's what brings them together. It seems they're booked into the same hotel, though it's unlikely they'd have met if they hadn't just shown up around the same time in the hotel bar. Julian takes an instant liking to Danny, who's a bit lonely because his business trip got extended by a couple of days by a Mexican company that just couldn't make up its mind.

Before you know it, Julian is telling Danny things he normally wouldn't bring up in conversation: about his life, about his loneliness and about his job. And therein lies a tale.

Or therein lies an extended exercise in polite discomfort, which Danny exudes from every pore as the two men circle one another cautiously -- or sometimes not -- get too close for comfort and run scared out of their minds back to the things that give their lives order, at least momentarily. The result is at once ominous and hilarious, a quirky comedy that may not quite pass for black, but certainly shrouds itself in a truly dark shade of gray.

Adding to the enjoyment is a soundtrack reminiscent of Get Shorty that punctuates just about every oddball thing either character attempts. And the script, written by director Richard Shepard, does its job, cooking up one surprise after another.

But neither would be able to carry off the film if it weren't for a riveting -- and hysterical -- performance by Brosnan, looking more like a not-so-aged Burt Reynolds than an ex-Bond out to demonstrate he really can act.

Brosnan (nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy) has the rare ability to come off as totally likable one minute and completely repulsive the next -- and the ability to say the one thing that will make him totally likable again, at least for a few minutes.

It's a trait that becomes more and more integral to the plot as Bean re-enters the picture and all three principals suddenly get a look of triangulation on their faces. But once again Shepard is out to surprise us.

Matador is an unusual film in this day and age in that it starts out looking into the lives of three troubled people and stays there. Shepard's film is not just about interesting characters, but about how interesting characters interact, first as a duo, then as a trio.

Outside events occur, of course, and are critical to the film, but how the characters react to those events and to each other's reactions to the events is just as important. And then there's that little matter of the matador metaphor, which Shepard introduces early, builds slowly and sticks with to the end.

The result just might be the best 86-minute film to hit your TV screen this year.

Unfortunately for Shepard, Brosnan, Kinnear and you and me, Matador is 96 minutes long. At some point -- and if you're like me you'll see it coming -- Shepard's film can't remain true to its own dark quirkiness, and what passes for an ending simply doesn't pass muster.

That said, rent the rest of the film and enjoy, enjoy, enjoy. Stuff like this is all too rare in Hollywood these days.

review by
Miles O'Dometer

9 June 2007

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