Sunday, February 5, 2006

Matador, The



Pierce Brosnan plays Julian Noble (sic), an aging, lonely, somewhat narcissistic assassin who is fast losing his edge. He doesn’t off politicos, but sticks to the corporate types. On assignment to Mexico City he meets Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear), a corporate type from Denver who is trying to rebuild his life after the death of his little son a few years before. Danny walks into the hotel bar after his partner leaves for Denver after the business meeting; Danny is to wait to hear the company’s decision because they learn that another offer threatens their proposal.


Julian makes a poor conversationalist, not because he is drunk so much as because he has no social skills. He insults Danny over and over; finally Danny retreats to his room. But the next day Julian convinces him to go to the bull fights. There he admits that he is an assassin and he shows Danny how it is done. 


That night, after more insults, Julian retreats again to his room. Julian comes begging at his door to forgive him once again…. Julian is miserable and pathetic but his cries  do not seem to touch Danny as he sits on his balcony nursing a beer, deciding if he should answer or not.


Fast forward to six months later. After more assassinations, Julian bungles a couple. He wants to take time off because he is burned out, but his handler convinces him to do one more job –but he’d better do it, or else. But he cannot pull the trigger, and sees visions of himself as a frightened child.


Just before Christmas, someone knocks on the front door of Danny and his wife Bean’s (Hope Davis) house in the middle of the night. It is Julian.He charms Bean, who knows all about Mexico. But toward morning Julian wakes Danny and tells him he owes him for Mexico City. He wants Danny to come and be his look out for a hit at the race track in Tucson and then he will retire in peace. Danny protests because this is the anniversary of their son’s death and he must be go with his wife to the cemetery that afternoon.


Danny distracts the security guards at the track and Julian gets into place. As Julian is about to shoot his mark, he once again sees himself as a child and collapses into tears. He begins to leave, but Danny meets him on the stairs, a mess, huddled in a corner. Danny convinces him to go ahead with it, so his life of killing will be over. We don’t see it, but the next scene they are on the plane, talking. We find out that what Danny owes Julian for is that he did let Julian in the room and promised him all kinds of money if he would kill his business competition. But Julian refuses, knowing that this one deed will ruin Danny’s life forever. We also discover that Julian's target was his former "boss" who had a contract out on him for messing up so many jobs.


Next, we are at the cemetery, Danny and Bean praying at the grave and Julian watching… and he turns to leave with an almost mischievous little grin on his face.


There are many ways to interpret this film or even to grasp its little moral universe. What I have not mentioned so far is that an assassin’s life is pretty much amoral, and Julian has his way with the ladies, just as Danny and his wife’s sexual relationship is intense and almost desperate. Julian is degenerate but his inner child is fragile. Danny is a good man, if not a little bland, and his child is dead. Julian practically becomes a child to him, as he becomes a kind of father to Julian. What’s extreme are the assassinations, especially the final one – if they really did it. I am not sure it resolves anything…


The "matador" analogy is interesting. The bull is innocent, but a skilled man is sent into the ring to kill the bull and risk eing killed himself. 


There’s a religious dimension to the film as well, though what it means is up for grabs. Every time Julian is about to kill someone he takes off his ring, and the crucified Christ’s image is on it. He and his handler also meet at a church; Danny and his wife pray. What all this means does not add up to a conscience, or a sense of providence – or does it?


But if Julian is a kind of mirror image of Danny, rather than a real person, then we can admit another dimension to the story, and this way the story, if not all the scene choices, works. If Julian is real and a kind of moral fairy godfather to Danny, then this is one messed up moral universe. 


My sense is that director/writer Richard Shepard didn’t take quite enough time to develop the nuances that would have made this a really smart independent dramedy. As it is now, it’s just smart with an elusive sense of the ethical. But is the story "real" or is it Danny's nightmare? Or is Danny Julian's way out of one?


Pierce Brosnan looks like what James Bond would if Hollywood could have ever let him age, but he acts his role well enough. In fact, he’s pretty funny.


Not sure if this is everyone’s cup of tea. If I had realized how … explicit it was for the uneven payoff, I probably would have taken a pass on this one. Wish filmmakers would consider more often "what" they are presenting - the story - and "how" they are telling it.


A hit man and a salesman walk into a bar...

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