Like John Travolta's transformation from Look Who's Talking stooge to the charismatic icicle-cool hood in Pulp Fiction, Pierce Brosnan does a switcheroo from 007 smoothy to nihilistic booze- and sex-fueled hit man in the immensely pleasurable thriller The Matador.
Julian Noble (Brosnan), with his groomed mustache and cocky swagger, is a free-range peacock in life's playground. He is a raunchy Maxim fantasy-lad who prefers his women on all fours and signals his irreverent attitude in a scene where he shambles drunkenly through a hotel lobby dressed in just a prick sling and ankle boots before plunging into the swimming pool, a cerveza still in hand.
The globe-trotting gunman-for-hire crosses paths one fateful night in Mexico City with a Denver white-collar nobody, Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear), on a major losing streak hoping to turn his luck around with an international business deal. The kind of luckless chump who makes for a sublime film noir patsy, Danny is afraid his extended bad luck may finally drive away his devoted wife, Bean (Hope Davis). The couple has lost a child, Danny has lost his job, and on the morning of his departure for Mexico, a tree crashes through his suburban house in a dramatic case of coitus interruptus.
Danny and Julian meet over a drink at their hotel bar and begin an improbable friendship, bonding over the grass-is-greener life of the other. Danny, a square with a heart of gold, envies the jet-setting killer who, not coincidentally, is icing the kind of corporate bigwigs who put guys like Danny out to pasture.
"I'm a great helper in getting deals closed," Julian tells him in a parody of business world patois.
The two frustrated men have the kind of opposites-attract adventure at a Mexican bullfight reminiscent of Jonathan Demme's Something Wild. But what happens in Mexico doesn't stay in Mexico. Julian turns up six months later on Danny's door in Denver looking for help out of a sticky situation. Danny now sports a Julian-style mustache as a souvenir of his Mexico City run-in with macho cool, but worries that his fragile peace with Bean will be wrecked by the killer. Danny advises Julian to turn to his bosses for help, but Julian references Danny's own miserable corporate history, reminding him that things like human resources are a farce: Once you've been targeted for termination, no one is going to bail you out.
The Matador has the kind of watertight, twisting and turning plot that suggests the chiseled and honed, polished gems of Sundance workshops and a whole generation of post-Tarantino stylized-hep. But beneath the snarky chops and ironically curated pop soundtrack, screenwriter/director Richard Shepard gives the film some substance that raises the stakes. The Matador is about both the glory and pathos in the whole living racket, especially as experienced by the male of the species in the age of downsizing and outmoded notions of macho toughness.
There is some real gut-churning at the center of The Matador generally left out of the punchy, surface-is-everything pop crime pic. The giddy mayhem that propels so many Tarantino thrillers and James Bond adventures is balanced by a conscience and a streak of woe and heartbreak.
Despite their divergent realities, both Danny and Julian are middle-aged guys trapped in the working man's grind. They are dispensable employees of invisible corporate and crime empires. Julian has begun to develop a conscience or just an old guy's degenerating skills: Every time he raises his rifle to his eye, his vision clouds and his assassination is bungled. And Danny is also having a hard time getting it "up" as he grapples with the white-collar worker's lament of an ego and masculinity cut to ribbons in a downsized marketplace. The Matador is filled with acidic resignation at the power structure that keeps two very different guys like Julian and Danny in check.
The Matador plays with a dark, bloodthirsty American fantasy lurking beneath its mask of civility, of living off the grid and putting a bullet in the head of corporate America. But ultimately, the film reminds us that, assassin or business man, we are all just working for the man.