What is it about professional murderers in film that makes them so likable? Even in the midst of dark dramas focusing on the reality of their actions and the moral ramifications of killing, it’s impossible not to relate in some small way to the killer and, when it comes to comedies about the subject, we embrace them even more. No one watching Grosse Point Blank or Pulp Fiction is offended that our heroes are killers; on the contrary, we root for them to beat the “bad guy” (how arbitrary is this?) and do their jobs. In the latter film, when Vincent accidentally shoots Marvin in the head, splattering his brain and bits of his skull across the back of the car, it’s hilarious. Everybody’s got to have a job, right? Some guys are plumbers, some doctors, some paid assassins. No big deal. A director with enough skill can draw a rounded character who wants more out of life than just big money for shooting strangers, getting us to embrace the lonely killer while excusing their day job.
The thing is, it never feels as weird to accept these characters as it should, that is, until you see it played out on the big screen in writer/director Richard Shepard’s The Matador, in which sad-sack businessman Danny (Greg Kinnear) strikes up an odd but durable friendship with Julian (Pierce Brosnan), a hit man going through an identity crisis. They meet at a bar in Mexico City: Julian’s just finished a job there, and Danny’s there on business, something vague involving sales or technology or name your own WASP job. They get to talking, and it becomes clear that, for all the booze and drugs and prostitutes and hired murders, Julian’s desperate for a real human connection, a genuine friend. And Danny’s the perfect guy. Julian is a foul-mouthed Brit with an endless supply of dirty jokes and success with women; Danny, on the other hand, seems to have been specifically crafted for Kinnear. He’s bland, pleasant, and doesn’t say anything worse than “darn.” Kinnear is a stalwart everyman, the poor man’s Tom Hanks and, except for Auto Focus, he seems to have spent most of his career playing the nice guy that’s probably going to get stepped on (and, oddly enough, actually loses out once to Hanks).
After a few Coronas, Julian takes Danny to a bullfight and explains the glory of the matador: One stab and the bull is dead. A less talented matador has to keep hacking away, but a good one can do it in one shot. (There’s a metaphor in here somewhere; I’ll let you figure it out.) While there, Julian tells Danny about what he does, and Danny moves through disbelief and into blase acceptance pretty quickly. Julian even walks Danny through a mock assassination at the bullfighting ring, Danny alternately grinning and awestruck at the new world opened up to him.
Needless to say, their friendship carries over into the real world after Danny returns home, but the second half of the film, involving Julian’s re-entry into Danny’s life and those crazy murderous hijinks that kids always seem to get into, takes place several months after the action in Mexico. Usually a fade to black with the “Six months later” title card is a sign that the writer didn’t feel like working hard enough to construct a workable narrative, but it usually happens right after a bad opening or before an unnecessary epilogue. Placing it in the middle splinters the story, turning it into two much shorter films (and at a running time of 96 minutes, The Matador is brief to begin with): There’s a story of a businessman and a killer becoming friends in Mexico, and there’s a story about the killer revisiting the businessman later in their lives. Shepard should have done away with the pointless time lapse, shortening the gap between the stories to no more than a week or two. None of the film’s impact would have been lost, and the change (among others) would have in fact tightened up a fairly loose screenplay.
Brosnan, for his part, brings humor and pathos to the anti-Bond, forlorn killer he plays. Julian has a way with the ladies, but he’s much more crass than the characters Brosnan usually inhabits, dropping dialogue such as, “I look like a Bangkok hooker on a Sunday morning after the Navy’s left town.” He’s a dirty, unhappy man, but Brosnan manages to make him a sympathetic figure, both pathetic and relatable. In a scene that’s at once funny and heartbreaking, Julian sits on his hotel bed on his birthday and thumbs through his little black book, looking for someone to talk to for a few minutes.
I found myself enjoying many moments in The Matador, but they’re insubstantial ones: the way location titles like Mexico City or Budapest were splashed across the screen in giant, boldly colored letters; watching a hungover Julian stroll through the hotel lobby in Mexico wearing only a black Speedo and cowboy boots before tumbling into the pool, beer still in hand; the slight bounce I got from watching Julian and Danny walk onto a job wearing matching sunglasses to the oddly enjoyable strains of Asia’s “Heat of the Moment.” But the good points of the story are eventually overtaken by the odd or unconnected ones. For instance, Danny’s wife (Hope Davis) goes by the nickname “Bean” for no discernable reason. It’s a minor point sure, but a five-second fix. The nickname has no bearing on the story, and it’s not an abbreviation of the character’s real name, Carolyn, so why have it and not explain it? Then there are Julian’s conversations with his handler, Mr. Randy (Philip Baker Hall), all of which are necessary but don’t have any real sense of importance or consequence. And Mr. Randy’s interaction with his own superiors is also pointless, from another film entirely.
This is the root of the problem with The Matador, a likable but ultimately unfulfilling film. It’s got quirky characters and a breezy, darkly comedic plot; Shepard shows a real knack for strong dialogue; and there are a number of humorous or touching scenes that connect with the viewer. But it just doesn’t quite add up. From Danny’s easy acceptance of Julian’s job, to the characters and plot points that are mentioned and then dropped, to the easy resolutions in the midst of no real conflict, it all feels like an incomplete effort. Walking out as the credits rolled, I felt as if I’d just watched 80 percent of a good movie, and I really want to know what might have been.
Daniel Carlson is the L.A. critic for Pajiba and a copy editor for a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his weblog, Slowly Going Bald.The Matador / Daniel Carlson
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()