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Published: Friday, 1/27/2006

Movie review: The Matador ****

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Somewhere there is a big comfy lounge, complete with a Starbucks and gym and a pile of newspapers with the film reviews thoughtfully scissored out, where movie characters go to unwind.

I like to believe this. Scarlett O'Hara is at the door, like the greeter at Wal-Mart, being gracious (but Vivien Leigh is nowhere in sight). Frodo is the bellhop. Travis Bickle, taxi driver extraordinaire, is at the bar, making everyone nervous, complaining to no one in particular why this guy Robert De Niro makes so much junk these days.

Here, characters revert to who they actually are, when a camera is not paying attention. And here, they carry their personalities beyond what screenplays and movie formulas dictate, and they behave as they truly would.

That's one way, I suppose, to approach the fun, loose, and nimble dark comedy The Matador, which only looks and sounds routine. It stars Pierce Brosnan as a slick, smooth international charmer and go-to guy with a license to kill. Which sounds kind of familiar. And any similarities are entirely intentional.

But keep in mind my alternative-universe theory of movie characters, and it should help you get over the shock of seeing James Bond in nothing but a Speedo and pair of cowboy boots, walking through a startled hotel lobby with a beer in one hand, a cigarette in the other, a pencil-thin mustache on his lip - and an impressive gut.

Brosnan plays Julian Noble, a seedy and gone-to-seed hit man who finds himself on the verge of a nervous breakdown, with the relish of someone free and finally able to say everything he always wanted to say about a character - but was contractually obligated to keep to himself.

And this is what Brosnan appears to be saying about 007: If he were real, he'd be a sleaze. With too much self-regard and little self-awareness. People would think he was rude, not charming. He'd have a twisted sense of humor, instead of tactful one-liners to deliver. He'd be good at his job, but the amoral nature of the work would exhaust him, and eventually the endless string of cheap flings and anonymous hotel rooms, coupled with the inconvenient discovery of a conscience would leave him a miserable loser, wondering if he has any friends.

He'd be burned out.

Richard Shepard's film, which he wrote and directed, takes that idea and delivers it the way you would with a joke: Flabby old 007 walks into a bar in Mexico, meets a friendly Denver businessman in Dockers and a buttoned-down shirt (Greg Kinnear), and the two strike up an unlikely friendship.

That's the general outline and why nearly any synopsis of The Matador will make it sound like another dreary high-concept buddy comedy. The first indication that we have something much more interesting (and even touching) is in the conversations Julian and Danny (Kinnear) have at the bar.

Their chat - like the film itself - strikes a nervous balance of being twisted and sad and funny and deeply heartfelt, all at once: The nice guy hits it off with the killer, and after a few margaritas they say things to each other you would never say to a stranger if you were sober and expected to see that person in the cold harsh light of the following day. Danny slips that his son died in a bus accident.

He's not poor but he and his wife (played by Hope Davis) are a bit financially strapped and never really recovered from the shock of losing their son. Julian interrupts with a joke. Danny is disgusted. But Julian is desperate for someone to talk to. They reconnect, and with a few days to kill in Mexico City, they bond.

And Danny, after Julian reveals himself a little and explains what he does for a living ("a facilitator of fatalities"), is fascinated. Julian has "seen everything, done everything." Kinnear's expression as Julian tells his stories is the look of a man who can't believe he's having dinner with, well, James Bond, but surprised to find himself as repelled as he is mesmerized.

Danny is the kind of guy you never remember, but the picture suggests these two are more than types. So now Julian is disgusted: He's opened himself up and begins to see that their talk will never amount to more than an anecdote for Danny, "the best cocktail-party story you've ever met." He needs real connection.

Shepard makes it easy to see how such disparate personalities would be innately curious about whether the grass were greener on the other side. The film's stylish razzle (lots of primary colors) and somewhat tentative pacing suggests stranger, bolder places it might go; and Shepard is never quite as dark as he intends.

But he does get across the ways a killer and a regular guy (if one of those exists at all) are neither as ugly nor as simple as they seem (or let on) - never better than in a scene where Julian walks Danny through the steps of a hit, and Danny is buzzed on the danger.

The Matador peaks in Denver. Julian visits at 2 in the morning. Danny's wife is turned on by the idea of a killer in their rumpus room, one who looks the suave role. Except there's nothing suave about him. They stay up late, listen to music, and drink, and it's moving to watch these people with nothing in common find something to talk about. Julian might not be suave, but he is not beyond dignity.



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