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The Matador

The most unexpected thing about the new film The Matador is not that Pierce Brosnan has a middle-aged paunch or that he’s unusually hairy, or even that he has the skill necessary to distance himself from his most famous role as James Bond.
The most amazing thing about The Matador is that Brosnan is able to create a character we sympathize with, even when we know what a repulsive creep he is, even when all traces of international espionage have been wiped clean. Despite all the film’s pomo cynicism, The Matador is a buddy film of an extraordinary level and Brosnan carries the film. 
Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear) has had a couple of bad years. He was laid off, his son died in a tragic accident, and a tree falls through his kitchen on the day he’s set to fly to Mexico City to secure a big deal that could lift him out of his slump. Things could be worse. Danny could be a middle-aged lounge lizard / international assassin, like the man he meets at his hotel’s bar after a bender.
Julian Noble (Pierce Brosnan) has changed identities so often for so many jobs that he hasn’t made any lasting friendships. While on assignment in Mexico City he and Danny meet and seem to connect over Margaritas. What begins as just a few semi-coherent bar-side conversations develops when Danny stays over to finalize the deal.
The two loosen up at a bullfight over cigars and beer. Danny is drawn to Julian’s coarseness – his no-nonsense masculinity – and the killer seems genuinely interested in Danny’s domestic life. They plan a mock execution and Danny is thrilled with his new, exotic friend, but he bristles when Julian asks for his help on a job.
On one level The Matador is about ambiguity over masculinity. Having lost their only child, Danny and his wife are unable to produce another, and his unemployment has left him feeling shaken. His life seems beyond his control and Danny wants desperately to regain his composure.
Julian, on the other hand, is all about control. He is the man, even when he’s drunk and whoring in the city; even when the film suggests he’s bisexual. His job demands nerve and unwavering discipline and there’s almost a Hemmingway-esque quality to the hit man’s philosophy of the bullfight.     
It’s natural for Danny to feel attracted to the power of this army of one. Julian is the embodiment of all things macho: He is a loner, seeks females only to satisfy his sexual hunger, and is id incarnate. The assassin is able to cut a swath of bodies in a world that seems overly complex and arbitrary to Danny.
From Julian’s perspective, however, Danny’s life seems simple and straightforward. A life of debauchery has left him feeling exhausted and he’s begun to fray at the edges. The last straw comes a day before he meets Danny, when he celebrates his birthday alone in a hotel room, making calls to former contacts using fake accents and names.          
It turns out that it’s difficult to make friends when you kill people for a living. Something about being a globe-tripping gangster puts people off, but Julian would be alone even if he was a career philanthropist. He’s a pervert, for starters, and ogles catholic school girls, but there’s something even more unpleasant about the guy.
Like Billy Bob Thorton in Bad Santa, Brosnan has tapped into something truly loathsome in the human animal with Julian, something so repulsive and undignified that we all find him vaguely familiar. 
Playing against type, Brosnan has created a character so icky that you can almost smell him when he enters a room. Julian is a callous killer, sure, but he’s also a creep, the type of guy who kills his body odor by covering it in cheap cologne and tosses out phases like, “I’m as serious as an erection problem” without any self-consciousness. The only thing more amazing than “007 Pierce Brosnan” pulling this off is the fact that we somehow grow to like Julian.   
And so does mild mannered Danny.
Whatever else The Matador is, it’s most certainly a buddy film. And like all great buddy movies – Sideways comes to mind – the point is really to reveal why we stick with pals who are basically jerks. It’s amazing how the bond of friendship allows us to forgive personality defects in those closest to us when we judge strangers so harshly.

 

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