Soulful Brosnan enlivens sneaky, witty Matador

The Matador, about an unlikely friendship between an aging hit-man (Pierce Brosnan) and a glum businessman (Greg Kinnear), evokes the fluorescent visuals of a '50s Cinemascope musical and the verbal wildness of a late-'50s film noir, but these references merely hint at writer-director Richard Shepard's peculiar, disarming artistic sensibility. His film is both an ash-dry black comedy and a fascinating inquiry into Americans' obsessions with violent professionalism and unchecked sexuality. It is much more compelling and much less pretentious than the past year's alleged histories of violence from David Cronenberg or Steven Spielberg.

To its credit, The Matador is probably too sloppy, too serious, too funny, too sincere, and too strange to regard wholly seriously or praise as a cult classic, in spite of an exuberant, soulful turn by Brosnan as assassin Julian Noble. For years, Brosnan has exuded the bloodless alien sexuality of an international supermodel; here, he oozes pornography, smut, and disrepute. Although his character is suffocated by everyday existence, Brosnan the actor seems to be breathing real air for the first time. His bristly moustache turns his whole face downward, converting his smirk into a lusty snarl. His faded tattoos and gold neck-chain gleam with a pirate's cachet. And his gut achieves sentience in a lovely joke where he struts through a hotel lobby in a Speedo and combat boots on the way to a mistaken dip in a shark pool.

Kinnear, as Danny Wright, the lonely businessman whom Brosnan meets and seduces, exercises his squirmy, ingratiating charms and open face to revitalize an often-botched stock character: the curious Everyman who believes he has a taste for exotic thrills but quivers when they actually materialize. Brosnan and Kinnear's first scene together, set in an aquamarine hotel lobby, is a wonder of gestures and pauses; it limns the texture of a developing male friendship like few films I've seen while setting up the rest of the film for the moments when these two sad sacks are given the chance to redeem one another.

In addition to the two leads, Hope Davis' small role as Danny's wife Bean is masterfully conceived; her scenes with Kinnear reveal tiny, important truths about the erotic vicissitudes and casual joys of a solid, long-lasting marriage. And when Danny, Bean, and Julian meet for a startling midnight drinking session, wit, sentiment, and betrayals shoot around the room like bottle rockets. It's the high point of a witty, unconventional, sneakily sentimental Hollywood film.

The MatadorOpening Friday, January 27th

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