- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 5, 2006

In “The Matador,” Pierce Brosnan has found the perfect vehicle to leave his cinematic license to kill in the dust. Oh, he’s still killing people on-screen. He’s just a mess doing it.

“The Matador” turns the hit man concept on its bloody ear, asking us to invest our emotions in a spiritually damaged killer trying to find another line of work.

Retirement options are few and far between in his field, so he turns to a befuddled businessman (Greg Kinnear) for a lifeline.

It’s a spasmodic journey of discovery for both characters, but writer-director Richard Shepard makes it an inspired trip.

Professional hit man Julian Noble (Mr. Brosnan) is cooling his heels in Mexico when he runs into a bored American named Danny (Mr. Kinnear) at a bar. Julian alternately charms and repels Danny, but their awkward chemistry ensures they’ll meet again.

Sure enough, Julian invites Danny to take in a bullfight, and in between small talk reveals he’s a “facilitator of fatalities.” Instead of being outraged — or at the very least, frightened — Danny wants to hear more. That fascination deepens when Julian shows Danny just how easy it is to bump someone off in a crowded stadium, a sequence brimming with danger and dark humor. Thus starts a series of not-so-random meetings between the two.

Julian may appear to be a sophisticated killing machine, but deep down he needs someone like Danny to make him whole. He’s losing his will to kill and doesn’t know how to get it back for one last gig. Danny, in turn, hasn’t recovered from the death of his son and finds Julian a welcome distraction. Julian also might help secure the business deal that brought Danny to Mexico in the first place.

In ways, “The Matador” offers a more sly commentary on societal violence than David Cronenberg’s appropriately named “A History of Violence.” It isn’t just Danny who’s intrigued by Julian’s resume. Danny’s wife, Bean (the always terrific Hope Davis), finds Julian irresistible even though any smart, sensible woman should be appalled by him.

Mr. Shepard gets as caught up in Julian’s web, as we do, and toward the film’s end asks us to swallow situations we instinctively know we shouldn’t.

Beyond the compelling buddy dynamics, “The Matador” looks smashing. Cinematographer David Tattersall wrings every ounce of color from the Mexican landscapes, and Mr. Shepard’s large city titles introducing scene shifts give the film a lip-smackingly retro appeal.

“The Matador” won’t garner a fraction of the box office your average Bond thriller generates but, for Mr. Brosnan, the film could be the start of something bigger — a career second act worth following.

***

TITLE: “The Matador”

RATING: R (Sexual situations, violence, mature themes and adult language)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Richard Shepard. Cinematography by David Tattersall.

RUNNING TIME: 96 minutes

WEB SITE: www.matadorthemovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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