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Pierce Brosnan may have turned in 007s license to kill but hes still playing deadly high stakes games in the new dark comedy, The Matador (opening January 6 at Edwards Mira Mesa Cinemas and AMC Mission Valley 20).

The Matador works on a similar premise to The In-Laws, the 1979 comedy that starred Peter Falk and Alan Arkin. The premise involves taking an average guy living a rather conventional suburban life and pairing him up with a loopy man of intrigue whose wild tales of adventure may or may not be true. In The In-Laws, Alan Arkin was a dull dentist forced into covert action by Peter Falks CIA agent, as their children are about to be married. In The Matador, Pierce Brosnan plays a globetrotting hired killer who strikes up barroom small talk with an American businessman played by Greg Kinnear. Both films get comic mileage from the incongruity of their mismatched characters.

In The Matador, Pierce Brosnan plays Julian Noble, a high-priced hit man going through something of a mid-life crisis. Hes still in high demand and getting the top priced gigs but hes been a little off his game. While on a job in Mexico City, Julians sense of order and professionalism is further shaken when hes forced to rush a job. Thats when he meets Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear), a businessman trying to close a big Latin American deal. But Danny is prone to bad luck. Just before leaving on his trip to Mexico City a tree crashed through his kitchen, and on a more serious note, he and his wife Bean (Hope Davis) lost their young son to tragedy. But despite these catastrophes, Danny is a cheerful guy and he tries to strike up a casual conversation with Julian since they are the only English speakers at the Mexican bar. Their small talk leads to Julian revealing his clandestine profession and taking Danny along on a hit. Danny, of course, thinks Julian is only joking and he reaches an intense level of panic when it appears that Julians about to make him partake in a real murder. From this chance encounter there evolves an oddly profound relationship which prompts each man to act in ways neither one would have ever expected.


The Matador is a cleverly written film that exploits the dark comic potential of its central odd couple, playing Julians ease under pressure against Dannys initial terror and panic. But whats surprising is that writer-director Richard Shepard also extracts some genuine emotions from the unlikely friendship that develops between this down-on-his-luck businessman and a lonely killer. Shepard, who has worked in TV and gone largely unnoticed for his feature film work, proves to have a good ear for sharp, sassy dialogue and a knack for creating absurd situations. He takes the film on an unexpected turn by having Julian show up at Dannys suburban home where he quickly charms Dannys wife Bean. Bean immediately wants to take the killer under her wing and takes delight in the cosmopolitan turn her life has taken.

But Shepard has the most fun with Julians character, giving him some of the funniest and raunchiest lines in the film. There are hilarious scenes where Julian tries to show off for some Catholic schoolgirls at a carnival-like shooting gallery and when he dons a Speedo, boots and a drink to walk through the crowded hotel lobby to the pool. The only problem is that Pierce Brosnan is not fully up to the task of playing Julian. He gets the surface comedy and physical humor with some success. But no matter how hard he tries, Brosnan remains self-conscious in the role, and you constantly feel that he is working against type. So each time he uses Julians favorite expletive deleted, it sounds like some foreign word hes just learned. In addition, Julian may make an overt show of interest in young girls and women, yet he alludes to the fact that his sexual preferences may be more diverse than that. But again Brosnan comes across as a macho lead actor who makes gay references all the while winking at the audience and saying but you know Im really straight. Brosnan is enjoyable in a cartoonish way but he doesnt inhabit the character in the same way that Kinnear and Davis do. As Danny and Bean, Kinnear and Davis never pull us out of the film and remind us that we are watching actors perform. They make us believe in their characters no matter how absurd the situation becomes. I wish Shepard had been able to cast someone like Rupert Everett as Julian. Everett, who has displayed his dark comic skills in films like Cemetery Man and his subtlety in recent works such as Separate Lies, might have been better able to embrace the contradictions and ambiguities of Julians character. But since Brosnan was one of the films producers, he obviously had the role locked up from the start.

As a director, Shepard invests his film with a fun visual flair. He and cinematographer David Tattersall make clever use of the frame and especially enjoy presenting Julian in disorienting angles. Production designer Robert Pearson employs bold colors and nifty sets for the south of the border locales, and then tones things down for Dannys conservative home.

The Matador (rated R for language, some violence and sexual situations) is an entertaining tale about an unlikely friendship. It boasts a fresh, lively style and avoids clich.