The Matador Review
In an ultramodern bar in a hotel in Mexico city, Julian Noble (Pierce Brosnan) is quietly having a breakdown. The noise of the traffic is silenced under the wash of the fountain behind the bar and only the clink of ice in the cocktail shaker disturbs the silence in the building. There, Julian sips his drink. It's his birthday, something he'd all but forgotten about, and is, rarely for him, at a loss as to how to spend it. Rifling through his book of contacts passed lockpicks, arms dealers and brothel madams, Julian phones the few people he might, at a push, consider friends but what few phones ring are quickly put down. "Fuck it!", he says and heads out into the night where a young woman waits for him in a club for gentlemen of unusual taste.
You see Julian Noble is a killer. An assassin. Or, as he memorably puts it, a facilitator of fatalities. And on this night he returns to the hotel where Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear) is celebrating a good day's business, maybe even an upturn in his fortunes after a few tough years, including the losing of his job and the death of his young son. At first, the meeting goes nowhere - Wright, fumbling around with niceties, tells Julian that Margaritas never taste better than in Mexico, which Julian counters with, "Margarita...and cock!" - but they soon settle into a conversation. Danny talks and Julian listens. But when Danny talks about his son and Julian upsets him, the night draws to a close.
The next day, they meet again and Danny demands an apology. Unlikely though that seems, he gets one and over the next few days, as Danny falls into a slump as his business opportunity collapses, he and Julian become friends. Over a trip to a bullfight, Julian even opens up about what he does, demonstrating his talents as Danny picks out a gentleman in the crowd. And then they part. But Julian's breakdown continues apace and, like a troubled son, his handler, Mr Randy (Philip Baker Hall), tries to lift him out of his slump offering one last job...an easy one. Julian, though, misses the shot. Days later and thousands of miles away, the doorbell of Danny and Bean Wright (Hope Davis) rings and Julian Noble, afraid of death and looking for a friend, accepts the offer of a coffee and lets himself in...
As an actor, one must quietly, or otherwise, celebrate when a role like Julian Noble comes along. Clever, sneaky, trusting, daft, friendly, confident, shambling, trembling, worrying and paranoid, Noble shifts like desert sands through the film but remains underpinned by one trait, loneliness. Even when, as an audience, we celebrate and laugh at his achievements, such as his being hungover and striding through a hotel lobby in swimming shorts and Chelsea boots on his way to the pool, we're aware that they're carried out alone. His venturing into a bizarre sex club in Mexico City demands a bravery that most of us would be unfamiliar with, at least whilst sober, but where such a place rolls off his conscience, he avoids commitment, honesty and openness. He, as he explains to Danny Wright, lives nowhere and knows no one and when Danny tries to talk about the death of his son, Julian, acknowledging his own discomfort, cracks a gag about two Mexicans, one a midget, the other having a 15-inch dick. Danny can't quite believe what he's hearing - used to the pitter-patter of conversations in business lounges, he's incredulous at how far Julian has overstepped what's acceptable - but, for the audience, who've been with Julian from the start, it's another piece of his life, one that looks increasingly pathetic as the film plays.
Of course, Danny doesn't know this yet and being the kind of guy who'll say, "Bada-bing!" and tap the bar without embarrassment, he's somewhat in awe of Julian, particularly as he explains what he does for a living. Scared, for sure, but Danny, having seen Julian in action, leaves the bullfight with a kick and the kind of story that will have him the centre of attention at cocktail parties for the rest of his life. In a wonderful piece of structuring, the film leaves Mexico City on the evening after Julian asks Danny to assist him on a hit. Nothing major, all he has to do is to trip himself up on the street as a distraction but excited though he might be, Danny walks away. The first act ends with Julian and Danny on either side of the door of a hotel room, each holding a bottle of beer. As the scene fades, a bottle smashes and the film leaves a single question hanging, did Danny do the hit or not?
The rest of the film goes some way to answering this but it's not until very late in the movie that writer/director Richard Shepherd offers an answer. In doing so, he makes it clear that the occasional assassinations will not be the making of his film, rather it is the loneliness shared by the three leads. That Julian Noble is alone in this world is obvious but, rather than being mere supporting players, Greg Kinnear and Hope Davis portray Danny and Bean Wright as an ordinary couple whose lives have been dented by misfortune. Though close and still very much in love with one another, the loss of their son and the loneliness from the teenage years tears at them. There's a lovely conversation between the two where Bean talks about being bullied at school, with such a lack of confidence that she believed every insult thrown at her before she tells him that he changed all that simply by showing up at her high school and telling her how pretty she was. Julian, it would seem, sneers at Danny and Bean being childhood sweethearts early in the film but this conversation between the pair, sitting on their bed in their pyjamas, turns Julian's assumption on its head, revealing the love between the two, as well as how much they need one another, in spite of how twee their marriage is to someone outside of it.
And it's that freshness that stops The Matador from stumbling into cliche. If the first half of the film sets up the story, the second allows Richard Shepherd to play with his story. Julian's confidence, for example, unravels into nerve-shredding paranoia whilst the awfully nice Danny reveals a ruthlessness that isn't so much unbelievable but the clutching at straws by someone who is so very desperate. But, more than that, it allows a stylish movie about a hitman to become a well-observed character piece that may well have offered Pierce Brosnan his very best role for the screen. His accent is sometimes a little off - despite his southern English accent, his, "fockin'" suggests that Julian was diverted via Manchester or Dublin for much of his life - but there's such pleasure in Brosnan's playing of Julian that the occasional moment that doesn't quite work can easily be overlooked in a film that lingers in the mind long after it's ended. Not least the rare, but very welcome, sight of defeat in the eyes of Pierce Brosnan.
The Matador has been handsomely transferred onto DVD in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and with an impressive level of clarity in the image, Colours, in particular, are excellent with the disc drawing out the richness of Mexico City and the cool blues of Budapest in an attractive fashion. But the sharpness of the picture also impresses, leaving the viewer better able to capture the subtle expressions in Brosnan's face that, as he contemplates his own loneliness, can change in a flicker.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track is really very good indeed, making good use of the rear channels both for audio and for ambient effects and occasionally explode into life. The clarity of the soundtrack is as impressive as that of the picture with the frequent silences, wherein Brosnan's Julian Noble ponders the state he's found himself in, being completely quiet. All the better to hear the faint whispers of doubt in Brosnan's life.
Commentaries: There are two on this disc, one with Richard Shepherd and the other with Pierce Brosnan and Greg Kinnear joining the director. When on his own, Shepherd proves that he could talk for the States, barely pausing to take breath. Instead, he rattles through his making of the film in a chatty, relaxed fashion jumping from scene to scene and through his memories of the time. He's also honest enough to talk about his past films - he's been directing for the past fifteen years or so - and how much of a struggle it was to control their low budgets compared to the relative riches that he enjoyed on The Matador.
The second commentary, looking over the occasional moment of repetition, is less informative but much more fun as the director and two stars catch up on the months that passed since the shoot wrapped and laugh at the memories of the time. The best stories are kept for both Kinnear and Brosnan showing up on the set with moustaches, the talking Chihuahua and Kinnear keeping a photograph of Brosnan dressed only in his underwear inside his wallet.
Making The Matador (7m20s): Given its length, there isn't a good deal of time to catch up with the production, choosing instead, to throw in the odd interview between behind-the-scenes footage. Richard Shepherd and the three stars feature but don't add much that, with the exception of Hope Davis, isn't in their joint commentary.
Deleted Scenes (16m18s): There are eleven of these scenes, which are a mix of those cut entirely from the feature or were included in a shorter version. Each scene features a commentary from director Richard Shepherd and the longer scenes, such as the delay to Danny and Julian's flight from Denver to Mexico city are the most interesting but give too much away, spoiling later revelations.
There are also two Radio Shows that feature director Richard Shepherd talking about The Matador. The first is a recording of The Business, which is available at http://www.kcrw.com/show/tb/, and features the director talking about the making of the film and its premiere at the Sundance Festival. The second, from KCRW's The Treatment, available at http://www.kcrw.com/show/tt/, sees Shepherd being interviewed by Elvis Mitchell about The Matador. Finally, there is a Trailer (2m32s) and a TV Spot (32s), both of which dwell on the positive reviews received by the film during its North American release.
A surprising film, The Matador is very well presented on DVD with a satisfying set of extras. Largely ignored on its cinema release in spite of a large advertising push, The Matador deserves to have more success on DVD with this R1 release a fine way in which to enjoy this memorably black comedy.
Last updated: 27/06/2018 00:10:00