*The Matador (R)
Cinemark 16, Tinseltown
If we took our cues about the world strictly from movies, we'd have to believe that no line of work produced more conflicted souls than that of hit man.
From Jean Reno in The Professional to John Cusack in Grosse Pointe Blank to Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction, the ranks of cinematic killers-for-hire are a sea of introspection and sensitivity. Writers are fascinated with what makes assassins tick, and refuse to abide by the simple equation, "killer = evil." Take that, Red State America.
It would be easy, then, to look at the concept for The Matador and think, "Hell, I've seen that movie before. And aren't you cinema-reviewing types always the ones bemoaning the lack of originality in movies? Take that, Mr. Liberal Critic Guy."
Well, guilty as charged, sort of, only the real matter is this: Originality is wonderful, but anything can feel fresh with the right approach. And you haven't seen this premise pulled off with the smarts and style demonstrated by writer/director Richard Shepard.
At first, hired gun Julian Noble (Pierce Brosnan) seems comfortable with his immorality. But when he realizes while on a job in Mexico -- on his birthday, no less -- that he is completely alone, his thinking goes a bit fuzzy. Soon, he's stuck in a full-fledged existential crisis, even though he doesn't have the emotional vocabulary to realize that's what it is.
At a hotel bar in Mexico, Julian meets Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear), a businessman whose run of bad luck -- career setbacks, a family tragedy, a tree falling through his kitchen roof -- has reached epic proportions. Julian reveals his trade to Danny, and at first, Danny just thinks he has landed himself the mother of all cocktail-party stories. But six months later, Julian is in trouble -- and ready to call in a favor.
There are conventional buddy-picture rhythms to the odd coupling of Julian and Danny, but the performances never allow The Matador to sink into predictability. Brosnan has a much showier role -- he gets to polish his toenails, berate a schoolboy and wander through a hotel lobby in his skivvies -- and he bites into it with relish. But Kinnear doesn't fade into the background.
One standout sequence finds an incredulous Danny asking Julian to prove he is what he says he is, leading to a meticulously staged targeting of a random crowd member at a bullfight. While Brosnan digs into Julian's glee at sharing his craft, Kinnear finds the perfect anxiety and excitement of a sadsack experiencing the biggest rush of his life.
Shepard finds similar energy when Julian turns up on Danny's doorstep in Colorado. Hope Davis has a relatively tiny part as Danny's wife, but her line readings -- with an almost turned-on hitch in her voice as she asks Julian about his work -- give every moment a zing.
The Matador never becomes a fish-out-of-water farce about a hit man in the suburbs; it's as finely observed a character piece as you'll find. The operative term here is "execution," and not just as it relates to Julian's profession.
-- Scott Renshaw