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(2005) (Pierce Brosnan, Greg Kinnear) (R)

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Dramatic Comedy: After developing a midlife crisis that undermines his ability to do his job, a hitman latches onto a businessman in hopes that he'll be his friend.
Julian Noble (PIERCE BROSNAN) is a professional hitman who, despite being older and a bit pricey, is extremely proficient at what he does. Yet, of recent, he's started having some work-related problems that appear to stem from a midlife crisis and/or nervous breakdown. They come to a head while on location in Mexico on his birthday when he realizes he has no friends and no place to call home.

Accordingly, and while intoxicated, he latches onto businessman Danny Wright (GREG KINNEAR) who's left his wife Bean (HOPE DAVIS) back in Denver for several days while he and his partner try to land a lucrative deal with a Mexican firm. Having lost both his job and child (the latter in a bus accident), Danny's been down on his luck for several years and hopes this potential deal might be the thing to break him out of that rut.

The two strike up a conversation at the bar that ends up going bad, but when Danny must stay in town a bit longer to try to close the deal, Julian sees his chance to apologize and perhaps form some sort of friendship. Danny is initially reluctant, but once he learns what Julian does and actually believes it, he becomes somewhat morbidly fascinated with the man and his work.

Yet, as Julian's personal problems continue to affect his work, he finds himself in an awkward situation with his immediate handler, Mr. Randy (PHILIP BAKER HALL), who isn't pleased that his assassin is turning soft. Soon, the hitman is a target and Danny must decide what, if anything, he can or should do to help his new friend.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
Until "The Sopranos" showed that even mobsters can have emotional or psychological issues, most people assumed that criminal types were bad sorts who probably didn't lose any sleep over what they do. After all, if they're such hardened types, they clearly wouldn't feel the need to second guess their actions and certainly wouldn't have any regrets or feel bad about what they do or have done.

But since those in organized crime have essentially made such behavior and activity their chosen vocation, you have to wonder how many suffer from job burnout. After all, coercing, intimidating and whacking others probably does get old after a while, even for those naturally good at it. And that's likely especially true for assassins who usually work alone and are looked down upon by those in their own industry as bottom of the barrel types who kill for pay.

Or so goes the gist of "The Matador," the tale of a middle-aged assassin who's suffering from career exhaustion as exacerbated by a midlife crisis. Currently working south of the border, he's having problems completing his missions and the usual cocktail of booze and loose women isn't alleviating the problem. So when he finally spots a friendly looking fellow in a bar, he strikes up a conversation, thus beginning and unlikely and unusual "friendship" that fuels this film from director Richard Shepard.

Featuring that moderately intriguing set-up, a fun soundtrack, enough directorial flourishes and a strong performance by Pierce Brosnan in the lead role, the film would seem to have everything going for it. And for a while it does, with Brosnan playing the anti-Bond covert agent to a T (filmed before he decided he was not going to return again as 007).

Unfortunately, and much like the protagonist it features, the film loses its focus and aim. Despite some potential-filled plot paths that are introduced, the film - also penned by Shepard -- simply runs out of steam and material before the end credits roll.

Stripped down to the basics, this is a standard, mismatched buddy flick. Brosnan plays the well-trained and efficient assassin (at least until recently), while Greg Kinnear plays the guy who's never caught a break.

Not only did he lose his son -- with his wife played by Hope Davis who doesn't get anything meaty to work with until late in the film -- but the business world also hasn't been kind to him (he's in town trying to make something of himself).

Some have equated this film as "'Sideways' with guns" (with the weaponry replacing the wine). While there are some superficial similarities -- mainly meaning two men bonding while away from home and dealing with their personal issues -- this one lacks the depth and sharp writing that made the former rather good.

That said, it's fairly diverting and occasionally entertaining, even if it cruises to a close when it's trying to be exciting. And it never fully explores the question -- spoken late in the film and thematically bantered about from time to time -- that don't successful people always live with blood on their hands.

The literal title figures certainly do everyday in their ritualized bullfights, but the figurative ones here aren't as convincing, even as Brosnan puts a fitting end to his 007 career and persona. While it might wave its red cape around like a true champion, "The Matador" isn't fleet-footed enough to get out of the way of its own shortcomings. The film rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed October 10, 2006 / Posted January 6, 2006

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