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The Matador

It's hard for an established actor to escape iconic status on both the big and small screens, but you can't say that Pierce Brosnan won't dress down — and after a successful run on NBC-TV's "Remington Steele" and four turns as James Bond, he appears ready to ditch the tuxedo forever. Brosnan started deconstructing 007 in The Tailor of Panama (2001) as a rogue secret agent, while in the frothy After the Sunset (2004) he hid his good looks under a bit of stubble and sleaze. But in Richard Shepard's The Matador (2005), he gleefully takes himself off the chart altogether. Sure, he's a secret agent of sorts again — this time a contract killer — but with weed-whacker hair, a prolific mustache, and a dash of zinc oxide on his nose, he looks like he belongs in a police lineup more than in a Bond flick. After taking out a target in Denver, professional assassin Julian Noble (Brosnan) accepts his next assignment, in Mexico City — which, as it turns out, is simply one in an endless string of "jobs" the nomadic marksman has taken throughout his adult life. With nothing more than a handler (Philip Baker Hall) and anonymous professional associates as his closest friends, Julian finds himself filled with loneliness on his birthday, leading him to strike up a drunken hotel-bar camaraderie with American businessman Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear), who's in Mexico City to close a business deal that could be big enough to jump-start his stalled career. After a couple of awkward introductions, both men soon find themselves drawn to each other's company as English speakers in a foreign land, but before long an atypically garrulous Julian tells Danny that he's a professional killer — and even stages a mock-assassination to prove it. However, after Julian departs Mexico, he finds that he's losing his touch, leading his employers to take out a contract on him. With nowhere to turn, he thus plans to hide out with his "only friend," Danny, who lives comfortably in a upper-middle-class suburb of Denver with his wife Bean (Hope Davis).

Much of the humor in The Madator exists between legitimate and illegitimate worlds — both Julian Noble and Danny Wright are businessmen, the sort of guys who would prefer to see themselves as cool, resourceful, and ruthless, even if they privately accept that it doesn't take much to crack under the pressure of a high-stakes enterprise. Writer/director Richard Shepard's script delicately traces the intersection between two disparate worlds — and even enjoys the irony of one man who euphemistically "facilitates a fatality" while the other regards closing a deal as going in for a kill. Despite outward appearances — Julian's crude, frat-boy humor and Danny's boyish, gee-whiz outlook — both men are essentially trapped by their careers, specialists assigned to middle-managers, who must continue to deliver results to their bosses or suffer the consequences. Fans of Conrad's The Secret Sharer will appreciate several touches, in particular Danny's mustache in the film's second act and his eventual collaboration in another of Julian's schemes. But there's just as much material to appreciate on the surface, from Brosnan's opening scene (as he inexplicably appropriates a prostitute's toenail poish) to his his bickering with Danny, the "gotta pee theory," and his ability to charm the suburban Bean, who clearly relishes having a contract killer as her secret houseguest. And don't blink or you'll miss it — amidst the fun, Kinnear manages to offer the shortest Robert De Niro impression ever seen.

*          *          *

The Weinstein Company's DVD release of The Matador offers a splendid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Extras include a commentary track by writer-director Richard Shepard, a second track with Shepard, Brosnan and Kinnear, the featurette "Making The Matador" (7 min.), 11 deleted scenes with optional commentary and "play all," two radio interviews with Shepard, and a trailer and TV spot. Keep-case.

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