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The Matador

(2005) *** R
98 min. The Weinstein Company. Director: Richard Shepard. Cast: Pierce Brosnan, Greg Kinnear, Hope Davis, Philip Baker Hall, Dylan Baker.

In The Matador Pierce Brosnan wakes up from the dream of his James Bond career with a bottle of Maker's Mark on his hotel nightstand and a naked hooker by his side. Before long he'll be staring woozily at a Mexican bartender who's shaking, not stirring, a drink for him: not a martini, but a margarita. The good news is that The Matador doesn't merely coast on the calculated sullying of Brosnan's sleek, mega-budgeted Bondian image. Writer-director Richard Shepard speeds through the hairpin turns of a pure-comedy "what if?" premise.

Surprisingly, The Matador opens very much like Syriana, with an unflinching hit man strolling away from a car-bomb fireball. But Brosnan's seedy killer Julian Noble, wearing an untrustworthy mustache and bad print shirts, is unnerved and nearly unglued by his lonely and meaningless existence. When panic attacks literally begin to threaten his livelihood (assassins don't get three strikes before they are themselves taken out), a drunken Noble looks down that Mexican bar and sees the potential for friendship in sad-sack Denver businessman Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear).

For the first time in his life, the ignoble Noble lets someone in (or, perhaps, drags him in) to his secret existence. Flush with the thrill of companionship, Julian demonstrates his killing skill; repelled and seduced by danger, Danny considers getting involved in Julian's dirty work. Their oddball friendship makes for a cracked buddy comedy—Julian and the film itself constantly keep one off balance. The "facilitator of fatalities" asserts that there is honor in being a noble victim, but that's easy for him to say until a botched assignment makes him a target.

On paper, The Matador sounds like The Sopranos or Analyze This warmed over, but Shepard proves estimably punchy in the writing and directing departments. Brosnan, Kinnear, and Hope Davis as Kinnear's ever-so-itchy wife make comic music together, but the core of the film is the give-and-take between Julian and Danny. One minute, Danny bravely attempts to mock Julian (Kinnear cleverly puts on a lame Australian accent for the bit); the next, Julian is begging Danny to help him pull off a job.

Time jumps and time-delayed narrative revelations help to keep The Matador as quirkily suspenseful as it is ticklish. As the disturbing pastel palette settles down to more realistic shades, common reality comfortingly returns for both men. For the career assassin, it's been a long time.

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