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Friday, January 6, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

Brosnan and Kinnear do a bang-up job in dark comedy "The Matador"

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3 stars


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"The Matador," with Pierce Brosnan, Greg Kinnear, Hope Davis, Philip Baker Hall, Dylan Baker, Adam Scott. Written and directed by Richard Shepard. 97 minutes. Rated R for strong sexual content and language. Meridian, Metro.

In the central sequence that gives "The Matador" its name and main metaphor, two newfound friends attend a bullfight in a Mexico City arena. They watch the quick, decisive moves of the matador, his ballet-slippered feet never hesitating as he slips in and out of the bull's path. Danny (Greg Kinnear), an uncertain businessman in town for a deal that may not work out, envies the matador's sureness; Julian (Pierce Brosnan), a hit man, appreciates the ceremony of it all. "They want the bull to die with honor," Julian tells Danny, admiringly; death without honor is something he knows too much about.

Unevenly paced yet darkly funny and consistently intriguing, "The Matador" is the story of Danny and Julian's odd friendship. And it focuses on a phenomenon common in life but rarely shown in the movies: the same-sex grown-up crush. Danny isn't in love with Julian; he's perfectly happy with his sweet-natured wife, Bean (Hope Davis). But he's dazzled by Julian's air of weary glamour and wants to be like him, even growing a mustache in imitation of his friend. (Alas, it looks more jaunty on Julian.)

Writer/director Richard Shepard divides his film into two halves, six months apart. The first takes place in the sun-splashed streets of Mexico City, in and around an ultra-modern hotel decorated with bright colors and oddly ill-defined spaces, each room bleeding into the next. The two men meet in the hotel bar for one of those drunken, disoriented conversations that happen between people who find themselves far from home. Danny, alarmed upon learning what Julian does for a living, has his guard up, but he's intrigued.

For the remainder of the trip, they become something resembling friends. They part, and Danny assumes that Julian will become (in Julian's own words) "the best cocktail-party story you ever met." Six months later, Julian turns up at Danny's home, late at night. He needs a favor; the sort of favor that hit men often need.

Though Davis is a charmingly wry presence, this is essentially a two-man movie, and Kinnear's and Brosnan's performances carry "The Matador" through its occasional slow patches. Kinnear, squinting through his rimless glasses, has a regular-guy likability to him; he eyes Julian with an incredulous pleasure, like he's watching a movie from a really good seat.

And Brosnan, who's got impeccable comedic instincts (he nearly saved the otherwise dreadful "The Laws of Attraction" not so long ago), saunters through the film with a vaguely sinister ease. His near-naked stroll through the hotel lobby, clad only in black briefs and cowboy boots, is wonderfully deadpan; as is his delivery of lines such as "I'm as serious as an erection problem." As a "facilitator of fatalities," he's a fantasy figure and he knows it; you never know how much of Julian is a put-on, and that's part of his appeal. As he tells it, he's been everywhere, done everything. "I once found a whore with a heart of gold," he tells Danny and Bean, twinkling with pleasure at his own charm.

That Julian makes a living as a murderer gets forgotten for long stretches, and intentionally so; Shepard occasionally jolts us with the violent truths of Julian's life. We watch him as if through Danny's eyes, both charmed and horrified. The idea of a hit-man friend is rather rakish; the reality, as Danny learns, is something infinitely darker.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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