It has seemed for a while now that Pierce Brosnan is going to keep playing variations of James Bond until he dies. Even when he’s on the opposite side of the law, as in “The Thomas Crown Affair” or “After the Sunset,” he’s always the suave, dashing playboy type — essentially 007, but without the killing license. It feels desperate, often, like he’s clinging to the one thing that ever really worked for him.
Not until now, though, with his masterful turn in “The Matador,” does his apparent inability to escape his Bonds work for him, rather than against. His performance as a once-smooth hitman who has lost his mojo is as funny and as fearlessly absurd as anything he’s ever done. The quintessential moment in the film is the one in which Brosnan, hungover and dressed only in a Speedo and a pair of boots, walks into a hotel swimming pool. It’s delightfully wacky, an indication Brosnan is willing to go the distance to create a memorable character. And the dedication pays off.
He plays Julian Noble, an assassin, unrepentant philanderer, and heavy drinker. But he is slipping. He is depressed, he can maintain only a loose air of suavity anymore, and he is not above trading insults with 10-year-old boys on playgrounds. He hates that he is alone in Mexico City on his birthday, hired to kill someone like it was any other day of the year. This hitman is sad.
Along comes Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear), an ordinary Joe from Colorado with a lovely, supportive wife named Carolyn (Hope Davis). Danny is in Mexico City to pitch a business proposal that he hopes will save his floundering career. He and Julian meet in the hotel bar and Julian latches onto him like he’s his only friend in the world, which maybe he is. Danny doesn’t know what to make of this odd fellow at first, but once he learns what he does for a living, he is morbidly fascinated. And thus a friendship is born, one relying on the other for his stability and calmness, one intrigued by the other’s close association with death and the underworld. Surely men have based friendships on much shallower foundations than that.
The writer/director is Richard Shepard, whose previous efforts have mostly been straight-to-video affairs. I note that one of them, from 2001, was called “Mexico City” and depicted the place as gritty, ugly and depressed. Interesting that in “The Matador,” he should go the other direction, using bright primary colors to paint Mexico City as a vibrant, picturesque metropolis, the sort of sunny place you might actually want to visit.
Danny and Carolyn’s loving marriage is played nicely by Kinnear and Davis, and their interaction with Julian when he comes to visit six months after the Mexico City incident is just one of the film’s many well-oiled comedic sequences. But Julian himself steals the show, a hopeless man with a vulgar sense of humor whose crass remarks (“I look like a Bangkok hooker on a Sunday morning after the Navy leaves”) seem more pitiful than offensive. He’s like a once-powerful man who’s doing his best to convince you he’s still “got it,” when in fact “it” left him some time ago.
Could such a description apply to Brosnan himself? Yes, maybe so — which is why his performance here is all the more daring and outrageous. Sometimes you have to shed all traces of dignity and simply start over, rebuilding yourself from the ground up. That’s what Julian does, and “The Matador” may be a sign that Brosnan will do it, too. In both cases, it bodes well for the future.
B+ (1 hr., 37 min.; )