Pierce Brosnan wakes with a start. He begins to survey the high-design hotel room in which he'd passed out, and notices first a half-empty bottle of Maker's Mark on the nightstand, and then, a purple-toenailed brunette asleep in the bed beside him. After examining the sleeping gal's feet like a dick on a case, he snatches up her purse and empties it out on the bed. He finds what he's looking for. He plucks the bottle of violet polish and sets to work on his own toes.
Not the typical morning ritual of the man you once knew as James Bond, for sure, but in its very vulgarity as both a complex personality sketch and as a simple joke, this scene seems to say a lot about what's wrong withThe Matador, acquired by the Weinsteins a year ago at Sundance and scheduled, with little explanation, for what seems suspiciously like an end-of-year burn-off release. The problem, in short: novelty and quality can sometimes be mutually exclusive.The Matador is one of those indie-in-name-only films, full of name stars and expensive effects shots and just enough coarse writing to ensure a festival run, that goes out of its way to prove that it doesn't "play by the rules", whilst simultaneously seeming unable to accomplish anything particularly anarchic, or even very interesting. If this is the kind of thing Brosnan is playing to spend his post-Bond capital on, one imagines he won't have a wallet full of currency for very long. Brosnan plays Julian Noble (the name itself is a lightweight irony the film confuses for biting sophistication), a hit man who wakes up one morning and realises that all the killing is killing him. Lonely, despondent, and very, very, drunk, he starts up a conversation with mild-mannered business man Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear) whilst in Mexico on a job. Though Danny is initially put off entirely by Julian's sloshy flamboyance, the hit man has an attack of guilt (possibly his first) and invites the nebbish to accompany him to the bullfights. Their relationship starts to get murky when Julian confesses his profession, and then endeavors to teach Danny a few tricks of the trade. Soon Julian is begging Danny to help him complete a job. Julian is moral-free, but he's got cash, which Danny , coming off a streak of bad luck, sorely needs. Before we learn which path Danny decides to take, Sheperd jumps forward half a year. A panic attack-stricken Julian again needs Danny's help doing his dirty work. He shows up at his "only friend"'s suburban home on Christmas Eve, and threateningly purrs in Danny's ear: "You owe me."
What happened that night in Mexico, after Sheperd so rudely dissolved us out? The Matador's answer to that question is abominably lame, which makes the two hours it takes to get there seem like a cheat. By dragging it out, Sheperd draws a brighter spotlight on the relationship between Danny and Julian than the actual bond between the two men can stand to take. It becomes clear right away that Julian needs more from Danny than vice versa, but he's also got more to offer. "Consider me the best cocktail party story you ever had," he tells his new friend – and for a man like Danny, whose personal self-worth must depend in no small part on his social standing in suburbia, this is not a small thing. The film's structuring metaphor – the idea that a matador is a man in pink socks and ballet slippers, who can kill a bull with a single plunge of a sword – is potentially rich with ambiguities that a better film might have explored.
But under Sheperd's execution, it's largely wasted. The script is unsubtle to a fault ("I'm as serious as an erection problem" is just one of Brosnan's brutally unfunny punchlines), the staging occasionally an eyesore, and the source cues (Tom Jones, generic 70s cock rock classics) universally bad. Its overall appearance would suggest that The Matador is a fairly generic buddy comedy, and though Noble's growing existential awareness should inject some kind of gravitas to the proceedings, I certainly didn't feel it. This might have something to do with Brosnan's broad performance – he chews the (largely garish) scenery to bits. So highly polished as Bond, here he looks dirty – as in actually unwashed – and he spits out Sheperd's cringe-worthy dialogue in an indeterminate working-class brogue. "I run away from anything that remotely resembles emotion," Julian tells Danny at one point, as way of apology for a faux pas. "Thus, you tell me about your dead son, and I tell you about a 15 inch schlong." I don't know if that would sound anything but awful coming out of any actor's mouth, but in Brosnan's hands, Julian is so much larger than life that his brewing moral dilemma fails to connect. It's not a bad performance, exactly; it's just too big.
The only reason to see the film is Hope Davis. As Danny's long-suffering wife Bean, she anchors the film's third act, and the film's one great scene. As she and Danny and Julian drink away a semi-awkward, half-magic Christmas Eve, Davis manages to temporarily transform the picture. Maybe her presence quells the odd, if minor, homoerotic tension between the two men; maybe it's just that her character, a closet hedonist, seems to understand and sympathize with Julian in a way that Danny never could.Regardless: by the time the trio moves on to the second bottle of Bushmills, things start to get really interesting. If you came in on this scene after stumbling across the film on late-night IFC, you might be fooled into thinking the whole thing was worth seeing; it's not, but Davis would make it hard to turn away. The whole thing suddenly seems to be moving alone swimmingly – and then Brosnan ruins it by proudly dropping a poop joke.