The Netflix Report

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Friday, July 07, 2006

The Matador

The Matador is a heartbreaker. It is so very close to being a very good movie, and yet it falls just shy of the mark. Good intentions and earnest effort are evident everywhere, but ultimately the film is sabotaged by a lack of plot development.

The history of the film is a Hollywood Cinderella story of the type that fuels the dreams of thousands of small filmmakers. Independent small-budget writer/director Richard Shepard sent the script of the movie to a production company owned by Pierce Brosnan. He wanted to show them an example of a script so he could be hired as a writer. Instead, the office staff showed the script to Brosnan with a recommendation that he consider it as a starring role. Brosnan called Shepard and expressed interest in not only starring, but co-producing the film. Suddenly Shepard found himself putting together a big screen major release. They scrounged money from every source they could find (the pre-title production company credits go on forever, and IMDB lists 17 producers!). They scored Hope Davis and Greg Kinnear for the other two leads.

Shepard on his enthusiastic commentary track confesses that he knew nothing about shooting in wide screen and constantly learned tricks of the trade from his production crew. They shot for 40 days entirely in Mexico City (as a cost saving necessity). Taking the film to Sundance, they got bought up quickly by the Weinstein Company, which promoted it for major theatrical distribution. With favorable critical reviews and modest box office success (it just equaled its $12 million budget in box office revenues), it should do all right on video rentals, based mainly on Brosnan's name recognition and popularity.

The plot of the movie can be summarized quickly and easily. A professional assassin (Brosnan) is suffering a combination of midlife crisis and job burn-out. He meets a nondescript straightlaced suburban husband and small businessman (Kinnear) and forms a tenuous friendship -- or at least an acquaintance. The two eventually find strength and support in the qualities of the other as they attempt to overcome their own insecurities and fears.

Much of the "buddy picture" aspect relies on a familiar juxtaposition of opposites. Kinnear is one of the "mass of men [who] lead lives of quiet desperation" with his faithful and supportive wife in their little Denver suburban home. Brosnan plays his assassin as a free-living and almost completely amoral iconoclast, doing what he likes to whomever he likes.

Getting Brosnan for the role (remember, it wasn't written for him) adds an automatic layer of fun to the part because of the audience's knowledge of the actor as Remington Steele and James Bond. Both of those characters exuded class and sophistication in their investigations and dealings with "bad guys." Brosnan's Julian Noble in The Matador is the antithesis of class. He wears gold chains and open-necked shirts, looking like a half-shaved lounge lizard. He picks up random women, hookers, and young girls. He is a slovenly drunk much of the time and laughs too loudly while telling vulgar jokes. Kinnear's Danny Wright is justifiably appalled by the man in short order.

But Julian has deeper psychological issues that are eating away at his one area of expertise and functional competence. He is lonely, paranoid, tired, and beginning to suffer from repressed feelings that killing his victims is in effect killing himself. When the bigwigs who call the shots (oops, no pun intended - but I like it!) get nervous about the stability and effectiveness of an asset like this, it can be dangerous for that asset's continued health and welfare.

Julian of course turns to Danny for help. Kinnear runs through the required sequence of disbelief, shock, revulsion, acceptance, and enthusiasm.

All the above works. It's a fine, comfortable story with good competent actors. Brosnan throws himself into the pathetic unlikeable aspects of Julian Noble. But Shephard doesn't go anywhere with it. Scenes play out too long and too repeatedly. We keep being shown how mousy Kinnear is, how brazen Brosnan is, and how unlikely it is that they would ever partner up. After a while, you find yourself looking at your watch and wondering when they'll get to the inevitable crisis point that brings them together. In a film that is only 96 minutes long, that is a problem.

The later scenes in the movie seem to recognize this problem and attempt to inject additional drama, pathos, and intrigue as a way to shake things up. But they feel artificially imposed by a scriptwriter rather than a progression of the story. Hope Davis as Kinnear's wife has about three lines and 15 seconds of screen time in the first half of the movie. Then suddenly we get a focus on her making a long, teary, emotional speech to her husband that sounds like movie writing rather than character-driven dialog. This is a couple who has been married for something like 14 years, and she suddenly unburdens herself with a long expository recitation about her youth and how they met and what it meant to her. Davis delivers it well, but it doesn't feel like a real conversation that a long-married couple would have.

From there, we go to a long scene of revelations and implied secrets between all three characters. Did something happen between Danny and Julian in Mexico that we didn't see? Then we finally get the big payoff where the two men need to work together. What feels like an ending is extended with more revelations that set up and toy with audience expectations. As before, each piece is fun, but it's not cohesive.

From a technical perspective, the movie works. There is a little bit of intrusive cut editing, with inserts that don't quite mesh smoothly enough with the coverage shots. The artistic director did a good job of incorporating colors into the story, so that the Mexico scenes use the bright yellows, pinks, and blues found throughout the country, while locations doubling for Budapest, Denver, and the Philippines feel correct and plausible. The score by Rolfe Kent does a nice job of evoking James Bond theme music for the action sequences while supporting the drama and comedy appropriately elsewhere.

Parents will want to know that while all violence is implied and off-screen, sex and profanities are prominently featured throughout the film.

Bullfighting critics will want to know that all shots of the bullfights were made at regularly scheduled bullfights at the giant arena in Mexico City and no bulls were harmed explicitly for the production of the movie. Brosnan and Kinnear supposedly refused to even attend or shoot during a real bullfight, so all their scenes are matted in and recreated. This may be publicity talk for political correctness or not, but they make a point of it in the end credits and in the commentary. No bullfight violence is shown, only passes.

The movie is enjoyable enough for a home rental. You'll laugh several times and enjoy the performances. But like me, you may be left wishing there was a little more "oomph" to sink your teeth into. If you are looking for other takes on some of the same themes, you may want to take a look at The Memory Of A Killer (the professional assassin at the end of his career) or Walk On Water (the assassin forming an uneasy friendship with a civilian and involving him in his activities).

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