Director / Screenplay: Richard Shepard / Editing: Carole Kravetz Aykanian / DP: David Tattersall / Music: Rolfe Kent
Cast: Pierce Brosnan / Greg Kinnear / Hope Davis / Philip Baker Hall / Adam Scott / Dylan Baker
Rip it up and start again…
Here’s a story to warm the cockles: a young writer/director by the name of Richard Shepard is inspired by the approach taken by cult British gangster flick Sexy Beast (2000) in subverting the expectations of its genre. He wonders how a tale might be woven around another ‘last job before retirement’ premise, this time involving a washed-up hitman, instead of an overweight villain in budgie smugglers…
Shepard duly knocks up an outline and a chunk of polished script, from what would become The Matador, whereupon his agent promptly sends it out to various production companies ‘for feedback’. One such, is Irish Dreamtime, co-owned by none other than newly-retired 007 himself Pierce Brosnan, who reportedly finds the work a rare page-turner.
In common with all his predecessors in the role of Bond, Brosnan is looking to escape from under its shadow and nurture a diverse second-half to his career. Shepard’s script offers an opportunity to do just that: playing a freelance hitman, as opposed to an officially sanctioned British agent? Okay. Come to that, he’ll be Australian? Sure. And he’s a total burnout with little chance of retiring gracefully? Hell yeah! With a start like that, it’s little wonder Brosnan went for it so eagerly and kudos to Shepard for getting the thing mounted in the first place: quite an achievement I’d say.
Irish Dreamtime lined-up with the Furst Brothers (a producing duo with dabs on Shepard’s material) and the script suddenly got a huge green-light and an inflated budget to match Brosnan’s profile and aspirations. His last appearance had been in the perfunctory Die Another Day (2002), but the experience wasn’t without its positives for Brosnan, as at least it brought the DP – David Tattersall – to his attention. Tattersall’s control on D.A.D.’s vibrant palette, would prove invaluable for ‘Matador’s extensive shoot in Mexico City.
Shepard’s script hinges on the premise that the hitman – Julian Noble – meets a ‘civilian’ in a hotel bar and treats him as confessor and confidante; the idea having come to Shepard, having spent endless hours in these soul-less places, waiting for contacts as he strived to get his projects off the ground. The subsequent conversations he’d have with complete strangers fed into the core premise and led to the creation of Danny Wright: a businessman in-town, who’s staying at the same hotel out of sheer coincidence. It’s not spoiling things, if I go on to say that Julian latches-onto Danny as a potential friend and, ultimately, uses his help to successfully complete the Last Job.
Casting would be crucial, if Danny was to be credible. Brosnan’s take on Julian was going to be obsessively, unselfconsciously and gloriously OTT, so the role of Danny would need an actor possessed of natural grace & self-deprecating charm and therefore, it was Greg Kinnear’s almost by default. He first came to my attention as an actor in As Good As It Gets (1997) where he inhabited the role of the artist, Simon, with utter sincerity. Around these, other roles in other stuff I’ve yet to see (and some I’ve forgotten such as Nurse Betty (2000), that weird, edgy comedy starring Reneé Zellweger), but I wonder if the same open-hearted earnestness displayed in ‘As Good, somehow tipped the balance for Kinnear.
Likewise, the role of Danny’s wife – Bean – was nabbed by Hope Davis. Another actress with a history of hard graft in movies seen by few outside the USA, her credentials as a ‘serious’ player would resonate with Kinnear’s Danny and play well against Julian when their paths eventually crossed.
Things start promisingly enough. There’s a neatly packaged car-bomb job that Julian pulls-off with aplomb; no sign here that he’s a killer on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Next, a shift over to Danny’s place. He’s up early, desperate not to wake Bean, though there’s a thunderstorm outside, so the eye-mask and earplugs are a little superfluous, I’d say. Sure enough, the thunderclaps wake Bean, who descends to the kitchen to say goodbye to her man, who’s about to leave on the fateful trip. They’re about to get down and dirty, right there on the kitchen table, when a tree blows down, crashing into the house, thus paying homage to Sexy Beast’s boulder. Danny’s bemused response to them both escaping this calamity unharmed? ‘Still horny?’
Well, it made me laugh.
Danny and partner Phil (Adam Scott in a throwaway bit-part) land in Mexico City, on the same flight as Julian, it seems. Even ending up at the same hotel, in whose bar Julian is asked by the barman ‘Are you in Mexico on business or pleasure?’ His answer? ‘My business is my pleasure’; yet more savvy, crisp writing. A contact leaves Julian an attaché case, containing a sniper rifle for his next job and, at a local funfair, he’s met by his handler, the deliciously named Mr Randy. He’s played by the wonderful character actor Philip Baker Hall, who I first saw in P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia (1999); an interweaving, fabulist tale I urge you to watch, if you’ve the chance.
I digress. I meant to add that Randy’s parting shot, is to wish Julian a ‘Happy Birthday’: an innocent remark that’ll have far-reaching consequences… Again, so far, so good. Things are rolling along. The film’s going somewhere. It’s tight, as the kids are saying this week.
Julian does the job and celebrates by buying a comically oversized sombrero and starts calling past acquaintances to talk about the good old days; presumably when they were helping him kill folk for money. After getting a string of wrong numbers and/or best buddies who’d conveniently forgotten him, Julian heads out to a sex club for, err, light relief.
As you do, when you’re alone on your birthday… Despite myself, I’m liking this seedier side of Brosnan: no wonder he looks like the cat with all the cream.
Then Shepard goes and spoils it all, by having Julian return to the hotel and continuing his latte-night revelry with Danny, who’s alone at the bar, minus Phil-the-lightweight. Julian gets Danny to open up about his marriage and children (one, killed in a school bus crash). When pushed, Julian remains cagey about his own line of the work, initially believing Danny was ‘from the Agency’. Undeterred at the evasiveness of his new acquaintance, Danny’s happy to continue drinking tequilas with him. It’s an interesting scene as it establishes their respective power-relationship, but its tone is odd and out of kilter with what we’ve enjoyed to this point. As written, Danny is preppy, middle-class and on the bitter end of a string of bad luck, of which we’re asked to believe the falling tree was just the latest event to blight their lives.
I’ll admit the death of their child would be a misery hard-to-top, but when we look at their (pre-tree) home and a lifestyle that allows a pampered visit to Mexico, even if it’s on business, do we really buy their tale of woe?To this point, The Matador’s tone has been brisk, if not playful. Now, things have body-swerved towards mawkish. Suddenly, things are serious between them and what makes this all the more awkward, is that Shepard is probably drawing on his experience here. There’s something liberating in the idea of being able to speak freely to a complete stranger, knowing (or at least expecting) that you’ll never see them again: which is precisely what Shepard’s going for here and why things are suddenly stark. And real.
Julian knows it too, which is why he launches into a crude joke to break the spell, as much as his own embarrassed silence. One suspects he’s not had to listen to something like this in years, which explains why he’s uncomfortable; it’s hitting too close to home. It also pisses-off Danny, who retreats from the field, bowed but unbeaten. Thus Endeth Act One.
The next begins with what is, for my money, the film’s best sequence, as Julian walks through reception, wearing nothing but trunks and ankle boots, whilst swigging a beer. On reaching the pool, having not deviated one degree from his intended target, he kicks-off his boots and falls in to the water, beer and all. It’s this kind of context-free, unexplained mayhem that made Shepard’s other feature, Dom Hemingway (2013) so memorable. Later, Julian learns that Danny’s plans have altered and that he’ll be in town longer than expected. Thus, in order to make amends for the scene at the bar, he takes a reluctant Danny out to the city’s bullring. It’s here, whilst watching events unfold, that Julian opens up about his occupation:
Danny: ‘There’s no honour being killed by a man, with a sword, be it one plunge or twenty.’
Julian: ‘Oh, you’re wrong. You’re very wrong. There’s honour.’
Danny: ‘How would you know?’
Julian: ‘I do.’
This is Brosnan putting the torch to Bond with every word. We’re witnessing a tenderness in his craft as an actor we’ve seldom seen before, when parts were so hidebound. Certainly Bond would’ve struggled with such introspection. As if to prove his startling claim, Shepard then directs another intriguing sequence in which Julian picks a random stranger from the crowd and proceeds to show Danny a few tricks as to how he might take the guy out and effect an escape. More bickering then ensues and the two men go their separate ways – Danny, back to Bean with the hoped-for contract and Julian, into the ether – the abyss – of a life without roots, but armed with a predilection for baroque cursing and general self-abuse.
So it’s interesting when the Third Act begins with Julian knocking on Danny’s front door and treating him like a blood-brother. A few years have passed since Mexico and Danny had evidently been affected by the experience, given he now sports a Julian-esque moustache: a touch approved by the man himself. Bean’s impressed, too, on finally meeting the legend-in-person. ‘Do you think he would show me his gun?’ she whispers to Danny. What transpires, is an awkward, rushed sequence that involves Julian invoking the help of his ‘friend’ one last time, on a job which, if successful, will ensure he can retire for good.
That Julian’s also suffering panic attacks is a cringeworthy revelation, though it’s sporadically amusing to see Danny offering him life coaching in the vicinity of the job… I watched this last movement of the film and couldn’t help but wonder how much of this had been left out of the edit, in an attempt at clinging to a narrative thread that’d been threatening to wobble for some time? Or, whether it’d been written this way, in which case I think it’s the weakest Act of the movie and undermines the good work done elsewhere. In short, I don’t think that Julian has ‘earnt’ this revelation; it’s so powerful, so disruptive an idea that I think it should’ve arisen a lot earlier. Yes there are hints of something in Mexico, but not enough to successfully pre-load this twist.
Oh and there’s a teeth-grinding coda which made me angry and had no place; watch the film and we’ll debate whether this was insisted on by the Studio…
Julian then, is a shapeshifter. A cipher. A gatekeeper to a world hidden from Danny (and, by extension, us). Julian is a pungent whiff of living danger. He’s forbidden fruit. But he’s also lonely and as we can see, that’s just as corrosive to the soul as the job itself. When you live an emotionally distant, rootless life, your chances of survival depend on using the distance you put between yourself and the truth as an emotional & social prophylactic. In Julian’s case, his self delusion is fuelled by the ideal of The Matador. A showman, yes, who parade, struts and dances with the bull, in order to dazzle the crowd and earn their applause, yet Julian’s missing a crucial aspect: he might sense accomplishment at a job-well-done, but no-one’s applauding. He has only the tacit approval of his employers to validate his worth. Beyond them, nobody cares. It’s a hollow boast and precisely why he falls apart when confronted by Danny & Bean: mirrors to his own schism.
I’m also puzzled at Julian’s credentials. No killer this dissolute would be free for long, as his ongoing psychodrama would generate too many incriminating errors. But this is a movie, and its internal clockwork unwinds differently to that of The Real World we all recognise. I get that. Yet it was only on later reflection that another possibility occurred to me, that might’ve elevated The Matador to greatness: Bean’s sparky enthusiasm on meeting Julian SHOULD have led to her joining the boys on Julian’s last gig; funnier still, if she’d grabbed more of a hands-on role than either man. If the film were being written & made today, maybe this idea might’ve flown higher…
In conclusion, The Matador is a curio of a movie. I went in expecting a different movie to the one I saw. Yes, it has moments of humour, but there’s too little to qualify even as a black comedy. What ‘action’ there is, is restrained by Shepard’s direction & budget, and ends up resembling fragments of something more grandiose. Such conflicting dynamics are never satisfactorily resolved, leaving this a curate’s egg: the whole is better than the sum of its parts: but only just. Take – no, cherish – the bits you like in the hope they’ll sustain you through the arid tumbleweed elsewhere (i.e. Act Three).
The only outstanding question therefore, is this: does Brosnan achieve his original intention at exorcising the ghost of 007? Yes and no. Yes, as this lone role allows him to play against type and No, if his subsequent choices are any guide: The Matador is as brave as it gets. There’s no doubt, he feels at home acting in a sharply tailored suit and nursing an optional cocktail and more power to him: stick to what you know (and what you’re known for) if it’s working for you…
I look like a Bangkok hooker on Sunday morning after the Navy’s left town.