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Maybe the hit man just needs a hug

As James Bond, Pierce Brosnan performed from the eyebrows up. In ''The Matador," he makes a spirited effort to act in the opposite direction. He does a sendup of his life as 007, but only halfway. There's a person under all the preening.

Julian Noble, the rude yet amiable bisexual hit man he plays, is a slob, a drunk, and a loser. In the funniest sight in the whole picture, the camera tracks him staggering drunk through a posh hotel lobby in Mexico City wearing skimpy black underwear. He kicks off his cowboy boots and plops into the pool, sounding the typical movie alarm for midlife crisis.

Julian has been assassinating people for years, and he's feeling burned out. But his bosses won't let him quit. And besides, what else does he know? One night at the hotel bar, he begins to share his misery with Danny (Greg Kinnear), a happily married, thoroughly average Denver salesman south of the border for the business deal of a lifetime.

The contrast in demeanors between these two has its amusements. Danny tells Julian about his dead son. Julian interrupts with a sex joke. Danny is appalled, and Julian is contrite: He needs a friend.

When Julian tells Danny, at a bullfight, what he does for a living and Danny later winds up involved in Julian's work, the two men are bonded to each other. And once Julian shows up at Danny's front door, the movie seems up for twists that never happen.

Hope Davis plays Danny's uptight wife, and when Brosnan arrives, her performance heats up with carnal wonder. (Her disappointment that Julian is packing only a .38 is hilarious.) Yet the movie doesn't give her, or anyone else, a shot at real mischief. It's all talk.

This is unfortunate, as Julian and Danny's relationship could head anywhere. They could go into business together. They could hop into bed. But ''The Matador" is not that bold, even though it more or less shares a title with Pedro Almodovar's wildly vulgar 1986 screwball comedy.

Writer-director Richard Shepard's movie is just a sweet, broadly made buddy picture that happens to look a lot like an Almodovar production. The film has a vibrant pop style: The colors burst off the screen, the editing rhythms are precise and absorbing, and you could almost cha-cha with the camera's movement. Shepard's ''Matador" demonstrates what an Almodovar picture would feel like without his gonzo sensibility. It's Almodovar for heterosexuals.

Wesley Morris can be reached at

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