Edgy and hilarious, Richard Shepard’s raucous vaudevillian comedy “The Matador” manages to revive a near-dead art form with just the right twist of irony to make it fresh. But don’t look too hard between laugh attacks for any meaning behind the humor; this is a case study in frivolous entertainment.
A product of the “Pulp Fiction” school, Shepard’s movie is set in the colorful Pop Art world of violence and machismo. But unlike Tarantino, who is interested in the exhilarating magnification of all things cinematic, Shepard’s surrealism rests squarely in the realm of character interaction. No one behaves as he or she should in “The Matador” — every word, gesture or grimace is exaggerated to comic effect. This stylized, stagy humor might not have worked in the hands of lesser actors, but the casting here couldn’t be more inspired.
Julian Noble (Pierce Brosnan) is a lewd and crude hit man at the top of his professional game. But despite his success, when his birthday hits he can’t help feeling lonely; his personal life is one big blank filled with whores and booze, and he doesn’t have a single friend to celebrate with. Enter Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear), an American businessman with a heart of gold. Struggling to secure a contract for his fledgling business in Mexico City, Danny is desperate for a successful deal. These two opposites meet at a hotel bar as Julian turns Danny’s friendly small talk into an opportunity to forcibly befriend him. Surprisingly, the two eventually hit it off, and Julian, in a fit of affection, reveals his profession to the startled Danny.
This leads to high comedy as Julian begs Danny to help him with an assassination. Danny barely manages to resist this temptation, and the two part ways. Little does he know that five months later, their paths will collide once more.
Shepard does nothing to mitigate the artificiality of this setup; rather he pumps in some wild Mexican music (and tequila) and lets his two leads have at it. Pierce Brosnan and Greg Kinnear are up to the challenge, forming the greatest comic duo to be paired since black-and-white films went out of style. Both have a keen sense of slapstick humor, especially Kinnear, who manages just the right balance between sincerity and stupidity. Their no-holds-barred repartee generates a breathless excitement with Brosnan, leading as the ultimate wild card, yanking the rug out from underneath Kinnear and the audience with glee. Shepard matches their routines with a kinetic sense of pacing, interjecting each scene with a colorful roulette of random shots that devilishly fly in the face of common sense.
The wiliest of bullfighters, Shepard even breaks the coherence of his narrative and characters, delighting in bewildering audience expectations. He calls attention to his cast by playing with the expected personas of Brosnan and Kinnear, both well-known actors. Julian seems at first glance like another James Bond, so his lack of grace and boorish attitude become all the more hilarious. Same with Kinnear, who takes his usual nice-guy persona and amplifies it to the point of ridiculousness. Set against the backdrop of their careers, “The Matador” is at once debunking the characters we expect to see and creating jokes driven by our familiarity with them. The humor lurking below the surface of characters like James Bond and Simon Bishop (Kinnear in “As Good As It Gets”) all these years has finally been let out to play.
“The Matador” proves the indispensability of good acting, but even that isn’t quite enough. Though Brosnan and Kinnear steal every scene, the film stumbles in its last 20 minutes, by which point it has very little left up its sleeve. Shepard isn’t really that interested in the heavier story of an assassin regaining his lost honor, and, as the film sobers up, he wraps it hurriedly, without the climactic finish such a frenetic movie deserves.
The ingredients of a sublime film are all here: great acting, cinematography, and a sharp artificial writing style that recalls the acidic comedy of Brecht. But without a plot to pull them all together, “The Matador” is merely a quick and dirty bit of popular entertainment.