Try imagining a movie directed by Quentin Tarantino and scripted by John Hughes and you may get a sense of The Matador's disarming schiziness. You know you're in for one nutty buddy film when Greg Kinnear plays a down-on-his-luck Denver executive who bonds with Pierce Brosnan in the role of a hit man having a nervous breakdown.
The two cross paths in a hotel bar in Mexico City. Both are in town on business. Danny Wright is trying to restart his career after being laid off by the company where he's worked for nearly a decade. He's desperate. If he doesn't land the account he's come all this way to pitch, the repercussions may be as bad for his marriage as for his bank account. Hope Davis costars as his wife, a woman whose supply of faith in him, he suspects, is just about exhausted.
As Julian Noble, a foul-mouthed "facilitator of fatalities," Brosnan gives the wildest, funniest, most flipped-out performance of his career. Talk about playing against type. He's the anti-Bond. Once the model of a suave and cold-blooded assassin, Noble is beginning to go to seed. He drinks too much, suffers from hallucinations and, more frequently, botches his jobs. So close to the edge is he when he runs into Wright that he decides to do what he's never done before: Confess what he does for a living.
Naturally, his new friend is dubious, so Noble invites him to a bullfight, lets him pick a target at random out of the crowd, and walks him through the steps involved in setting up and finally completing a hit. The sequence is the first of several in which writer-director Richard (Oxygen) Shepard demonstrates he is one very cheeky devil.
From there, things get freakier by the minute. In full mental meltdown, Noble strides through the hotel wearing just a black Speedo and cowboy boots, and, with a can of beer in his hand, steps into the pool -- at which point he's approached by a great white shark. Shortly thereafter, Noble finds himself unable to follow through with a job because, in place of the man he's supposed to kill, he sees himself as a boy.
On his last night in the country, Wright has reason to believe his deal has fallen through. When, early in the morning, a drunken Noble bangs on his door offering to share $50,000 of his fee if Wright will help with his next assignment, Shepard fades to black and jumps ahead six months, leaving the viewer to wonder whether Wright answered the door that night and, if he did, what answer he gave.
The next thing we know, Danny Wright is back home in Denver. He has grown a mustache reminiscent of Noble's. It is late at night and, again, there's a knock at the door. Guess who. When asked what he's doing there, Noble shrugs and replies, "I don't have the slightest idea." But he does. As night turns into morning and the whiskey flows, the truth comes out: He's had a complete breakdown, frozen on one job too many and, as a result, now has a bull's-eye on his own back, courtesy of his boss. His only hope is to successfully carry out one final assignment. He needs the help of his one friend and reminds him, "You owe me."
What does he mean by that? What, if anything, did Noble have to do with Wright landing the Mexican account and getting his life back on course? Is anything in this unlikely relationship even remotely what it seems? The highest praise I can possibly offer Shepard's script -- praise it richly deserves -- is that the answer to none of these questions is predictable, derivative or dull. This picture constantly twists toward the unexpected, and runs on a premium blend of humor and humanity. If it's not a great film, it is, at the very least, an undeniably great time.
Shepard's direction is stylish and assured. The dialogue could be a master class in snappy, bizarro repartee. So endearing and nicely nuanced is Kinnear's suburban-loser-turned-steel-nerved-man-of-action, he could be channeling William Macy. Brosnan, for his part, is simply a joy to behold. There'll be other Bonds. Julian Noble, on the other hand, is a singular creation. I, for one, am happy he's hung up that tux. Now he's likely to be available when killer roles like this one come along.