Jarred by a nightmare, a middle-aged man wakes up in a panic. He’s in a hotel, an empty bottle next to him and a passed-out woman sharing his bed. Obviously distressed, he puts his hand on his chest and takes some deep breaths before returning to the unconscious woman behind him. He scans her body – certainly unsure who she is in the daylight – before pausing to admire the purple nail polish on her toes. Suddenly amused, he seeks out the bottle of polish in her purse, giggles while admiring it, and takes a seat on the end of the bed to paint his own toenails.
Upcoming scenes in Richard Shepard’s 2005 comedy The Matador will tell us this man’s name is Julian Noble and will let us know he’s a globetrotting assassin. Without any of that, we recognize him. His scruffy chest used to be hidden by a tuxedo, and his bushy mustache and wild hair wouldn’t have been acceptable at his most famous job, but he’s clearly Pierce Brosnan, the actor who spent most of the previous decade playing super-spy James Bond.
Casting Brosnan as an assassin doesn’t seem like a stretch. Even when he wasn’t Bond, the previous five years featured him as a suave art thief who seduces Rene Russo (in The Thomas Crown Affair) and a morally bankrupt spy who seduces Jamie Lee Curtis (in The Tailor of Panama). His image could have been described as fashionably manly all the way back to the early 1980s when he got a big break on TV playing fake detective Remington Steele.
Many successful actors do a midlife crisis movie or two – their female counterparts are generally expected to stay classy and glamorous, while their unkempt turns are welcomed as humorous departures – but most of these focus on the man finding romance or acclaim. The Matador is not that kind of movie, and the approach it takes to solving Julian’s problems is what sets it apart as a meaningful investigation into repairing unhealthy masculine behavior.
Aside from the impulsive pedicure, nothing we learn about Julian early in the film is surprising. He’s on a job in Mexico City, only connected to his handler (Philip Baker Hall) who makes the mistake of reminding Julian it’s his birthday. Shaken by the reminder, we see Julian alone in his hotel room, drinking heavily and calling up “friends” who don’t remember who he is. The bottle runs out and the phone calls don’t provide a connection, so Julian wanders to a back alley sex club instead. He’s immediately established as a depraved character through his words (more on those later) and actions.
At the same time, we’re introduced to Danny Wright, an everyday guy in town on business. Played by Greg Kinnear – an actor who never sniffed the type of hero roles Brosnan was known for – Danny is Julian’s polar opposite. He’s wild about his wife, Bean (Hope Davis), and he’s desperate to land a big deal that could lead to personal and financial gain.. And he just happens to be in the hotel bar late at night as Julian returns from his night of debauchery.
Julian immediately tries to stop Danny from making a connection, replying to small talk with a crude homosexual comment, despite his need for attention earlier in the evening. Danny takes the rejection in jest, which leads to Julian apologizing and sitting down to chat with Danny – avoiding his profession, for now – before things get too real for Julian once again. We’re obviously into odd couple movie territory here, but the film first makes sure to establish how vulnerable both of these men are.
Danny’s sensitive side comes out when asked about children, and he shares that he and Bean lost their son a few years earlier. Death is nothing new to Julian, but when Danny begins to share his feelings the tone becomes too uncomfortable for him. Julian cuts Danny off mid-sentence, launching into a crass joke that’s offensive on multiple levels. Danny is insulted, as you might expect, and ends the conversation in shock.
(You’ve surely already picked up on the trend of Julian relying on sex in his life and in his humor. His frank approach to bringing up taboos repeats throughout the film, indicating his inability to connect with others. It’s worth mentioning that Julian makes a few comments that could raise eyebrows about his sexual orientation, but the film offers no judgment on this and seems to intentionally write these behaviors off as one part of his struggle to let anyone in.)
This hotel bar conversation is the first moment in the film where it would make sense for Julian and Danny to forever go their separate ways, and it’s both parties’ consistent refusal to take those opportunities that becomes the heart of our story. Julian stumbles upon Danny the following day and apologizes again, admitting he enjoyed chatting with Danny and was too uncomfortable to deal with the topic at hand. Julian works a lie into his apology, which sets up one of the film’s best jokes in the second act, but does come off sincere and convinces Danny to join him at a bullfight in an attempt to make amends. The bullfight setting provides a conversation about that sport that gives the film its title but more importantly gets us to the point where Julian reveals his job to Danny.
This section is the most playful comedy in the film, and wouldn’t be out of place in some of the movies I’m about to discuss. Danny doesn’t really believe what he’s told, so Julian walks him through the steps until it’s clear. Danny is shocked, but plays along and continues to have an open mind as Julian’s skills become more and more obvious. This builds to another moment where Julian uses shock tactics to make his point, and Danny’s ability to recover from this shows us that he’s accepting Julian’s truth. Julian picks up on this and continues to push the envelope, leading to another moment where the two men separate on uncertain terms.
The assassination game has been an easy target for Hollywood comedy. In Grosse Pointe Blank, John Cusack plays a hitman who tackles his midlife crisis by going home again. The Whole Nine Yards establishes that Bruce Willis’ hitman can’t escape his past by moving to Canada (and then brings the past back again in a dreadful sequel). The Big Hit provided an over-the-top action comedy where Mark Wahlberg realizes he’s too nice for the job. Mr. & Mrs. Smith pits hitman Brad Pitt and hitwoman Angelina Jolie against each other, and ups the stakes by making them husband and wife.
All five of those films were released during Brosnan’s tenure as Bond, and they’re just some of the examples of this trope in cinema. In true Hollywood fashion, all of them focus on romance as at least part of the solution to the hitman’s problem. When Danny & Julian’s story resumes six months later, it’s quickly established that this is not the approach The Matador will take.
When they meet again, Julian is finally open to discussing his problems. He uses terms like “burnout” and admits the things we’ve seen to Danny. He specifically calls out his reliance on sex as a coping skill and opens up about his professional failures due to his mental state. Danny, still as open-minded as he was at the bullfight, is the perfect sounding board for all of this. He forgives Julian’s shortcomings and offers valid feedback with no judgment of Julian’s career. This is one point where the film varies from those listed above because while Danny is opposed to helping Julian personally he never tries to tell Julian he’s wrong for doing what he does.
Several online criticisms of the film have called out the friendship between these men as unrealistic, and I think that’s one of the more damning commentaries on masculine relationships in film. Some may expect Danny to be painted as a coward, the type of guy whose manhood could be questioned by others. Meanwhile, we’re conditioned to expect our alpha male to be more like James Bond than Julian Noble. The disparity between those expectations and what the film offers is what I find most refreshing about how The Matador handles Julian’s internal conflict in the final act.
Even the best comedies of this type (Grosse Pointe Blank, by a large margin) wield love as a magic wand that can fix the issues our death merchant is facing, but The Matador is intent on repairing the masculine traits Julian has become dependent on before changing anything else in his world. His relationship with Danny is as fortuitous as any meet-cute in any romantic comedy; there’s no reason to think it’s more unbelievable than those screenwriting tricks. The catch for viewers may be that it’s just not what we’re trained to expect when we see an actor who played James Bond, or any other iconic male character.
The film also plays as an obvious metaphor for impotence, which is supported by the lack of violence found in the film. That metaphor is often used in other films of this sort, where white men go around shooting their shots, without connection, before leaving for their next conquest. But those films usually make sure to show us our lead engaged in a warehouse gunfight, or at least a knife fight with a martial arts star near their high school locker. Their filmmakers want us to know that, deep down, these “bad” men are still heroes.
Julian is never given that moment, perhaps in an attempt to keep focus on the despicable things he’s said and done with no regard for others. Writer/director Shepard has commented that “it’s a film about doing the right thing,” though I’d reword that by saying it’s a film about learning why you *should* do the right thing. There are plenty of reasons Danny should abandon Julian, but the film avoids making him a male savior and instead builds to two shockingly tender final scenes that show us just how much these men have done for each other – simply because it was the right thing to do for each other.
Speaking of despicable men, The Matador has been the victim of misguided advertising throughout its existence. The film was initially picked up by The Weinstein Company for theatrical release, with a studio-produced trailer that framed it as a zany comedy in line with every expectation I’ve just asked you to abandon. It did manage positive reviews and got Brosnan a Golden Globe nomination, but faded from the public eye quickly. Worse, the most recent physical media release – from the same company in 2017 – was as part of a men-with-guns triple feature DVD marketed as the “Drain the Swamp Collection,” thanks to one of Donald Trump’s nonsensical campaign slogans.
(If anyone wants to try to explain to me how The Matador aligns with Trump’s vision – please don’t.)
If they can avoid the marketing errors, those who seek out The Matador today will find a well-drawn portrait of a man trying to shake free from the damaging expectations placed on men in this world. Julian is a farcical alpha male cliche when we meet him, but he’s a reminder that men need to be aware of the harmful ways they behave and the toll words and actions can take on them.
Paired with Danny, Julian becomes a reminder of what we can do if we seek to support and are open to change. And if we follow their lead and tell more stories like The Matador, maybe we’ll get to the point where we recognize doing the right thing for your others can be just as manly as James Bond is. ★