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With: Pierce Brosnan, Greg Kinnear, Hope Davis, Philip Baker Hall, Dylan Baker, Adam Scott
Written by: Richard Shepard
Directed by: Richard Shepard
MPAA Rating: R for strong sexual content and language
Running Time: 96
Date: 01/01/2005

The Matador (2005)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Open 'Matador' Policy

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

How unique. Opening right in the middle of awards season, The Matador doesn't employ any social, political or religious statement, and no group or organization is officially endorsing it. Nobody is going to call it "visually stunning!" and it runs less than two hours.

It's not based on a novel, comic book, graphic novel, video game, TV show or amusement park ride. It's not a sequel or a remake of another movie. It's not a biopic. And it's certainly not an adaptation of a Broadway play, which was in turn based on a movie.

It's a comedy, but it does not contain any fart jokes, nor people getting hit in the groin, people spilling food, paint, mud, etc. on themselves, cute animals or ludicrous romantic entanglements.

The Matador, is, in fact, what people in the business used to call an "original screenplay." The concept goes something like this: a guy has an idea for a story he wants to tell. He writes the script, someone gives him some money and he makes a smart, entertaining movie that he hopes people will enjoy.

Guaranteed, if there were more movies like The Matador, Hollywood's box-office decline would disappear.

Our visionary journeyman is Richard Shepard, a veteran filmmaker who has so far failed to get his name in lights, though he has made some very good movies. Oxygen (1999), for example, went straight to video, despite its crisp performances by Adrien Brody and Maura Tierney, its daring characterizations and its taut storyline. Oxygen boasted another original idea that another set of distributors decided was too difficult to market. (It's available on DVD from A-Pix Entertainment for a mere $10.)

His new The Matador introduces the luckless couple Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear) and Bean (Hope Davis), who very nearly get to make love on the kitchen table before a fallen tree crashes through the wall. No matter: the unemployed Danny is off to Mexico to strike a business deal that could save him.

When investors begin considering a second offer, a distraught Danny hits the hotel bar and meets Julian Noble (Pierce Brosnan), a charming vulgarian with a vaguely off-center sense of style. Later, Julian takes Danny to the bullfights and Danny learns that his new friend is, in fact, a hitman (or, more appropriately, a "facilitator of fatalities").

Movie fans have seen any number of stories about hitmen, but it's a pretty good bet that even the most jaded of cynics will be unable to detect just where The Matador is going. Focusing instead on the film's trio of superb, finely-tuned performances, let's just say that if the Academy cared at all about pure comic resourcefulness, then these actors would all walk away with Oscar nominations.

Brosnan, especially, jumps out mainly because he swings so fiercely against his established type. Miles away from James Bond, Remington Steele and the lot, his Julian is a sleazy scoundrel, and almost wholly untrustworthy, but totally appealing. He wears too-tight suits, a salt-and-pepper crew cut, a zippy little moustache and blocky boots that stop just past the ankle. He lusts heartily after too-young women, and he's so burned out that he forgets his own birthday.

Julian's moment of triumph comes during his much-discussed glide through a hotel lobby wearing nothing but said boots, sunglasses, a gold chain and a little swatch of black, stretchy underwear.

Shepard generously allows Brosnan room to play within his role, without shooting off into the outer reaches of hamminess, and it's clearly the time of his life. Julian fits seamlessly with the other characters, and Shepard creates a fairly subtle, yet entirely charming, homoerotic relationship between the two men. It's far more touching than this year's "official" gay romance.

The Matador also has a lovely sense of space and atmosphere, and Shepard unfailingly employs it for his comedy. The characters always appear in some specific place: a sun-baked bullfighting stadium, a multi-colored Mexican hotel and bar, the Wrights' modern living room plunked in the middle of snow-bound Detroit. Each space plays specifically within its filmic moment; Shepard moves closer and further out, speeds up and slows down, playing with each environment. The characters always have room to maneuver, always have props to play with. Yet The Matador always has a sense of airy freedom rather than a stagebound limitation.

In fact, just about everything about The Matador, from start to finish, cries out for adjectives like "smart," "refreshing," "fun" and "hilarious." Rolling it around in your head afterwards reveals more jokes, such as the fact that each time Julian makes a metaphor, it has something to do with prostitutes. ("I look like a Bangkok hooker on a Sunday morning, after the Navy's left town.") Or the look of sheer glee in Bean's eyes when she asks, "do you think he'll let me see his gun?"

Long after many of the year's messages have curdled within the audiences collective brain, images and lines from The Matador will continue to resonate, growing ever funnier and more connected as a whole work. It may well be this year's The Big Lebowski.

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