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Matador, The

dir: Richard Shepard
[img_assist|nid=891|title=Its no Remington Steele, but still.|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=300|height=442]
For a low-key comedy made up mostly of two and then three people chatting, this is a surprisingly enjoyable flick. Also, as part of the done-to-death genre of hitmen and the people that love them, this flick manages to rise above the common morass and actually represents an amusing and entertaining way to spend a couple of hours.

It surprised me, and I am rarely surprised, not counting the last time the cops knocked on my front door. No, Officer, I don’t know anything about anything. No, Officer, I don’t know anything about those death threats sent to Humphrey B. Bear, but if you ask me, the bitch had it coming.

There are only three roles of note in the flick, with Pierce Brosnan, Greg Kinnear and Hope Davis assaying those roles. Each of them does decent work in a talky flick with characters that seem simple but really needed to be nuanced in order to be memorable and sympathetic, which at least two of them are.

Julian (Brosnan) is a middle-aged hitman at the end of his professional tether. Though he’s enjoyed a lifetime of professional success, he finds he is losing his ability to perform at the crucial moment. As you might expect, such a person doesn’t really have an overly stable personality, and tends to live somewhat outside the norms of standard contemporary human behaviour.

As a consequence, it also means he’s pretty lonely. To be sure, we’d expect that a person who’s made a career out of violently ending people’s lives would be something of a sociopath, but at least in Julian’s case, he still has the capacity to reach out to another human being, the desire to be understood and heard, the curiousity to know how the other half live.

After all, the only way he can get to feel anything when he’s not on the job is to get drugged up, drunk and to shag as many prostitutes as he can. Good on him, the locals have to eat as well, you know.

In the course of his travels, he bumps into a regular guy, Danny (Kinnear), at a Mexican bar, and they start chatting. Julian, grandiose and drunk, tells Danny pretty quickly what it is he does for a living. He’s not bragging (I think), he’s just trying to chat about his work and himself the way other people do, because he’s desperately lonely, despite his braggadocio and overbearing manner.

It’s not one-sided. Danny, a regular, nice guy, is nothing like Julian, and therein lies the fascination that they have for each other’s worlds. Danny lives the quiet, suburbanite life with his wife Carolyn (Hope Davis), but a string of bad luck, the worst of which involves the death of their child, leaves him feeling like he’s been cursed.

Though a bit of a sad-sack, he’s still a genuinely good guy. And though he is appalled at Julian’s work and his behaviour, there is an attraction there. Not sexual, you strumpets. I mean he finds Julian’s cavalier and amoral approach to life compelling.
They spend time together, with Danny getting to hear and see all about Julian’s approach to life as represented in bullfighting, drinking, shagging and his work, until the plot reaches a critical point, and the story jumps several months into the future.

Something happened, potentially something terrible, relating to the reason for Danny being in Mexico in the first place, and we don’t know who is indebted to whom until much later.

Julian rocks up on Danny’s doorstep on Christmas night, as the film’s second act begins, and we have to wonder why and to what end.

Throughout the film, the dialogue and the tone are always upbeat, despite what you would think was the grim subject matter. It’s all light and breezy, and the better for it. It could not have worked at all if the Julian character was serious, and less hilarious, and if the Danny character was less square. They have to be opposites, in their respective roles as parts of the hallowed Dionysian / Apollonian dichotomy, but not so different that they don’t have something to envy in each other. But all of that is carried off with flair and with the right degree of style.

Of course Julian is a larger than life sleazy scumbag. Of course it’s entertaining to see him turning into a bit of a wreck due to his age and his existential panic attacks. But he’s also one of the most entertaining characters I’ve had the privilege of spending time with on the silver screen this year. He’s damn funny, and Brosnan, an actor I have always had great difficulty liking or believing in any role, does a damn fine job.

Greg Kinnear and Hope Davis have the somewhat harder job of making simple characters interesting and entertaining, and they both do a decent job as well. It’s easy to see why they become so fascinated with their naughty guest, but it’s also enjoyable to see the bond they share as a couple, and the dynamic that supports their relationship. They’re every bit as important to the equation as Julian’s nasty shenanigans are.

With a story about a hitman, you’d expect it to have lots of action and people being killed, but this is most definitely not an action film. This is not another go at something like Grosse Pointe Blank. I’d say that, if anything, it’s a comedy at first, and a character study second. The characters being studied are both Julian’s and Danny’s, because with the seductiveness that Julian’s amorality represents, it raises the very important question of what evil good people came bring themselves to commit, and vice versa. There is a gentle blurring of those lines, with the rationales of expediency and necessity coming to the fore, but, in the end, the film still has an ethically and emotionally satisfying point to make.

Whatever that is. As a comedy, it’s not a constant thigh-slapper, but it is better than the average flicks that bear that designation, and I do mean average. It’s an entertaining and mature flick that spends most of its time talking about stuff than doing stuff, but it never feels stagey or play-like.

It’s rare that I recommend films outright, but this flick is easily one of the most enjoyable flicks I’ve seen this year. I’d heartily recommend it to anyone who’s not after an action film, or who doesn’t hate Pierce Brosnan with the white hot fury of a thousand dying suns.

8 things that taste better in Mexico out of 10

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“Sorry about the cock thing, it's kind of a conversation stopper.” – depends on the company you keep, The Matador

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