The Matador

The Matador (2006)
Genius Products
Cast: Pierce Brosnan, Greg Kinnear, Hope Davis, Philip Baker Hall
Extras: Deleted Scenes, Commentaries, Featurette, Radio Programs, Trailer

A Sundance Film Festival fave from last year, "The Matador" is an offbeat character study with a darkly comic wild streak that is extremely satisfying, mainly due to the superb acting talent of the two leads. Pierce Brosnan gives his finest performance to date by flexing his strong comic muscles, while Greg Kinnear matches Brosnan's show-offy role with a quiet, subdued performance. This mismatched pair brings to life a bevy of comical situations and the clever writing compliments them well, even though the story occasionally drifts into moments of sappiness.

Julian Noble (Pierce Brosnan) is a weary professional assassin who jumps from job to job, country to country, in a perpetual state of loneliness. With no emotional ties to anyone or a place to call home, he strolls through life immersed in a haze of drunkenness and cheap sex. On assignment in Mexico City, Julian runs into businessman Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear) who is the opposite of Julian in every way; he's caring, thoughtful, married and uncommonly bland. Soon, the two men strike up a friendship and for the first time in Julian's life, he has somebody he can confide in. Danny immediately gets wrapped up in Julian's exhilarating line of work, soaking up every ounce of information that Julian doles out. Parting ways after a tense argument over Danny's involvement with an assassination, Julian appears (six months later) on Danny's doorstep in Denver. Burnt out and suffering from intense panic attacks, Julian is a mess and his career is in ruins after botching a couple of jobs. Oh yeah, he's also being targeted by his former employer. Harboring sadness over their son's death four years prior, Danny and his wife Bean (Hope Davis) welcome Julian into their home and become transfixed by his brashness and thrilling ways. With time running out, will Danny be able to help Julian with one last kill, possibly saving his life?

"The Matador," when boiled down to its essence, is a film about a professional killer who just needs a hug. Although it's tonally schizophrenic (mainly it's a laugh-out loud farce, but sometimes becomes a sentimental downer) and while the heartwarming scenes ring false by being too predictable and lazily manipulative (especially the mishandled coda), "The Matador" does succeed in providing exciting plot twists and humorous characterizations. By setting up certain expectations, then changing course in irreverent ways, the film consistently keeps us on our toes. Writer/Director Richard Shepard displays a strong knack for witty dialogue and, for the most part, constructs interesting scenes for his actors to roam around in. Every new twist is character-driven and the script respects them, staying true to their motivations. So, there is never a moment where we question why this person did that or why this person said that. By establishing a groundwork with each of the participants, Shepard is able to achieve a strong sense of believability in regards to their actions.

Spearheading this rich cast of characters is Pierce Brosnan as Julian. Like James Bond on a bender, Julian is a charming lothario who attempts to cover up his boorish ways with witty repartee. Dead inside and living a soulless existence, Brosnan inhabits the antithesis of his Bond character with the perfect amount of pathos and fragility, straddling a fine line between being sympathetic and loathsome. Quickly, Brosnan obliterates all notions relating to his former onscreen alter ego. Every grey hair in his scraggly, stubbly beard and every crease in his aging face communicates the wear and tear of misbegotten years. Brosnan attacks his role without inhibitions, creating a fully developed character that is joyously realized. Just as effective is Greg Kinnear as Danny, who plays straight man to Brosnan's irrepressible Julian. Kinnear embodies Danny with a curious nature and a striking humility that balances well with his innate intelligence. Danny counters the braggadocio and gregariousness of Julian with quiet respectfulness and both actors display an amazing chemistry with each other, adding extra vitality to their scenes. Watching them bounce off one another is a treat and their impeccable timing hammers home the comedy with playful ease.

On a side note, the packaging is somewhat deceiving. It features a gun-toting Pierce Brosnan with the silhouette of a woman behind him (who is she? she's not in the film), evoking allusions to James Bond. This certainly makes the film appear to be a rollicking thrill ride with gun fights and hot women, when in actuality; it's a quirky dark comedy. One could assume that this misleading marketing ploy was implemented in order to pull in some extra dough from out-of-touch Bond aficionados. Anyway, don't be fooled into thinking this film is something that it's not.

The Weinstein Company presents "The Matador" in an anamorphic widescreen 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The transfer is amazingly vivid, with vibrant colors drenching the frame. Garish blues, pinks, greens and yellows are dazzlingly featured and the color palette gives the film a burst of energy. This quality extends to the print, which is flawless, with no instances of grain or specks. Edge enhancement is non-existent and black levels are rich and deep. Everything seems to pop from the screen with great detail and clarity. A fine job all around.

Likewise, the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is exceptional. The varied score is powerfully eclectic, featuring bosa-nova type music, mariachi-inspired acoustic arrangements, prog-rock from the band Asia, campy punk from The Cramps and synth-pop from The Killers. The track is strong and robust, with the mix nice and aggressive. Directional effects are well utilized, especially during the opening scenes that take place in a thunderstorm. Subtitle options are in English and Spanish.

For "Special Features," we have two Commentaries. A solo track with Writer/Director Richard Shepard and another featuring Shepard joined by actors Pierce Brosnan and Greg Kinnear. The first Commentary is the more technical of the two and is thorough and informative. Shepard covers the origins of the production and how Brosnan initially got involved as a producer and actor. Shepard also points out many of the Bondsian moments, whether intentional or not and the homoerotic red herrings that populate the film. Also interesting is a story about how Brosnan got cold feet with a crisis of confidence three months before the start of shooting, which caused him to temporarily quit the film. Shepard also talks about the heavier dramatic moments, stating that he wanted to add weight to the characters in order to give the audience an emotional investment into their lives. In the next Commentary, Brosnan and Kinnear are able to give first-hand accounts regarding many of the on-set happenings that Shepard referred to in the previous Commentary. Kinnear's accident with a fire stunt and his improvisational skills are talked about, as well as Brosnan's character motivations and the idea behind his iconic traipsing through a hotel lobby, clad only in underwear and boots. We also get to hear about the miscommunications between the English-speaking crew and the Spanish-speaking extras, Hope Davis's pregnancy and its effect on the film (as well as her involvement in cajoling Brosnan to do the movie) and how Kinnear's mustache came to fruition. While redundant at times (in relation to Shepard's Commentary), it is nice to hear the actors give their take on the film and characters, while also cracking jokes that add levity to the track. Of the two Commentaries, the second one is more entertaining, yet both are worth listening to.

Next is a brief seven minute Featurette entitled "Making 'The Matador,'" which is basically a fluff piece that has the actors and director stroking each other's egos. Nothing earth-shattering here, or even the least bit informative.

Then we have a sixteen minute collection of "Deleted and Extended Scenes with Optional Commentary by Writer/Director Richard Shepard." For the most part, these excised scenes are entertaining, with a little more nudity and ribaldry on display, as well as a nice mixture of laughs and drama. Even the director makes a brief cameo as a sex-club patron. Ironically, my favorite scene is the one that test audiences had the most problems with. Shepard explains that the "Mr. Stick Talk" was the least favorite sequence since it spent too much time away from Brosnan and Kinnear's characters. While it definitely slows the film down, it does feature great acting by Philip Baker Hall and Dylan Baker (who are sadly underused in the final cut) and the scene also adds a much-needed sense of peril to Brosnan's predicament. In the end product, Mr. Stick (Julian's dissatisfied employer) is never seen and the power he wields is never well represented, so we never quite get the feeling that Julian is in mortal danger. This sequence fills that void.

Also included are two radio segments running roughly a half-hour apiece; "Sundance Rollercoaster from NPR's 'The Business'" and "Richard Shepard on KCRW's 'The Treatment' with Elvis Mitchell." The first one covers the ins and outs of the Sundance Film Festival, from the moments leading up to the premier of "The Matador," to all the deals and parties that occur afterward. This is a narrated piece that describes what Shepard and the film are going through at the festival (which primarily involves trying to procure a distribution deal with a studio), with short sound-bite bursts from the director as the events unfold before him. The second portion is a one on one interview between Shepard and film critic Elvis Mitchell, where many of the same anecdotes and points from the previous extras are repeated. Both radio segments are interesting enough, but it's hard to sit through them with a static screen in front of your face. While both can be a test of patience, there is some interesting stuff revealed, especially in the Sundance radio spot, which really brings you into the tense world of deal making.

Lastly, we are given the "Theatrical Trailer" and a "TV Spot" preview.

A unique and off-kilter character study, "The Matador" boasts a career defining performance by Pierce Brosnan, who unabashedly turns his iconic Bond persona inside out. Boasting an equally effective performance by Greg Kinnear, the two actors exhibit a rousing chemistry that continually proves to be funny and touching. Filled with surprising twists and humorous dialogue, "The Matador" is an enjoyable romp that occasionally stalls due to sharp tonal shifts. Don't let this deter you though, since there are many laughs to be had, leading to an overall rewarding viewing experience.