'The Matador' is not the movie I anticipated, nor is it the one advertised. Glancing at the key art on the HD DVD box cover (which features Pierce Brosnan holding a gun next to a Maurice Binder beauty in silhouette) I expected some sort of James Bond take-off, or at least a serious caper film. To my great relief, that is exactly what 'The Matador' is not.
It is hard not to feel for Pierce Brosnan, the most recent ex-007, and an actor certainly at a crossroads in his career. For every Sean Connery, there are more than a few Timothy Daltons, so it's easy imagine this fine actor confined to cheesy made-for-video spy spoofs, or bad television movies preceded by the words "Danielle Steele Presents." But a few more movies like 'The Matador,' and Hollywood may finally see Brosnan for the fine, underrated and underutilized actor he has always been.
What is so much fun about 'The Matador' is that it is not only a nifty comedy-thriller that effortlessly crosses multiple genres, but it is also the rare occasion where its lead actor's close association with an iconic character actually improves the film's effectiveness rather than hindering it. Washed-up, aging hitman Julian Noble has hit rock bottom. Think James Bond approaching Hugh Hefner irrelevance -- a life spent chasing booze and babes, of endless hedonism with no trace of consequence -- and someone who's about to to collide head-on with a Dudley Moore-like mid-life crisis. No longer able to shake off the moral dregs of the job, Julian is beginning to suffer an intense depression that even cheap thrills can't cure (this never happened to that other guy!). The lack of any concrete family or personal relationships in his life certainly doesn't help.
Ironically, it is a chance meeting during a botched hit in Mexico that will turn this sad sack's outlook around. In walks Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear), a devout if utterly boring family man, and as Middle American as you can get. Danny is married to a bland but supportive lifelong sweetheart (Hope Davis) and desperate to save his failing business (which might as well be aluminum siding). Bonding over drinks, this unlikely pair strike up a conversation despite Julian's increasingly boorish behavior. The meek Danny is strangely repulsed/attracted to this inebriated, slobbery cross between Al Bundy and James Bond. Meanwhile, Danny is just the friend Julian been looking for -- someone he thinks must admire him and his empty lifestyle. Suitably, Julian decides that the greatest gift he can give his new buddy is an initiation into the wonders of contract killing.
Aside from its sharp dialogue, clockwork pacing and tight direction by Richard Shepard, 'The Matador' really works because of its performances. If the film's story sounds like a bad male menopause version of that great Jonathan Demme '80s flick' Something Wild' or some whiny Brosnan piss-take on Bond, it is anything but. That the actor is able to so slyly but still affectionately satirize the excesses of his most famous character while simultaneously creating a rich and wholly believable portrait of the walking wounded is an amazing tight-wire act. Kinnear has, in some ways, the tougher straight-man role, but because he makes Danny's conflicting feelings for Julian so earnest and palpable, it's touching rather than off-putting. Even Davis refuses to trivialize what could have been a one-note, shrill character. She has a terrific scene where she seems just a bit too fascinated with Julian's gun -- and in just one single exchange, her eyes reveal a little girl with big dreams lost, betrayed by a life most ordinary.
In the end, 'The Matador' is just plain hilarious. For that reason alone, it is a must-rent. Alas, I'm afriad it is the kind of film that some may still decline to see. That would really be a shame. This is one of those true sleepers that you want to tell all your friends about -- it is such an underdog of a movie you can't help but want to root for it. Despite its bad title and an utterly misleading marketing campaign, 'The Matador' is a total original in a genre dismissed long ago as cliched and conventional. If you have ever wondered what would have happened to James Bond if forty years on he was still played by Sean Connery, then you've gotta see 'The Matador.'
Out of all of the Weinstein Co.'s four launch HD DVD titles -- including 'Scary Movie 4,' 'Derailed' and 'Wolf Creek' -- none have been without glitches. Each suffers from horribly long boot-up times on my HD DVD player (the Toshiba HD-XA1 HD DVD player with the latest firmware upgrade), and the occasional image freeze up (though never in the same place twice -- weird). But glitch-wise, 'The Matador' was by far the worst of the bunch. I would have reviewed it sooner, but my first copy was a disaster -- the disc only played for the first three minutes or so, and the main feature (though not the opening Genius logo and FBI Warning screen) looked as if the frames were all mismatched -- absolutely unwatchable. Luckily, my replacement copy arrived and was normal, although still its boot-up time sucked.
Defective discs aside, 'The Matador' looks great. Presented in 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 video and correctly framed at its theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1 (the packaging is incorrectly labeled as 16:9), it is a shame the boot-up problems with the Weinstein discs might dissuade some from checking this one out. The source material is in tip-top shape, with an intended thin veneer of grain, but no blemishes or print anomalies. Blacks are dead-on, and contrast smooth and supple. The image is not over-tweaked yet colors remain wonderfully robust. The film's Mexico City locations are particularly well-served, with the rich reds and lush greens vibrant, but free of noise and fuzziness. The only weak point is fleshtones -- either they dabbed a bit too much makeup on Pierce Brosnan or he was left out in the sun too long to tan, as the transfer renders most other faces rather pasty. That aside, detail is up there with the better transfers on HD DVD, and the image almost always looks three-dimensional. Without a doubt, 'The Matador' benefits from the best transfer of all four Weinstein launch titles.
Despite generic labeling on the back of their HD DVD boxes, Genius again gives us a full Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround track. It is a pretty good effort, though the film's tight budget shows with the rather uneventful sound design.
I felt the surrounds were weak: there is one big, explosive scene that stands out, although it is so out of place with most of the rest of the film that I found it distracting rather than exciting. The rears work better, ironically, with atmosphere. There are some nice and subtle discrete effects, such as minor people noise in crowded locations and the score. The film's use of songs, though, is also disappointing, as are the dynamics. Dialogue is balanced a bit too low in the mix, and low end is weirdly at odds with the higher ranges -- the mix felt somewhat too bassy. 'The Matador' sounds far from terrible and is certainly listenable, but at the same time I certainly wasn't bowled over.
Judging by their quartet of HD DVD launch titles, the Weinstein Co./Genius are committed to delivering a wealth of extras on the format. 'The Matador' is no exception, with the supplements matching those offered on the standard-def DVD release.
Unfortunately, the two audio commentaries amount to a case of overkill. Director Richard Shepard appears on both tracks -- the first solo, and the second with Pierce Brosnan and Greg Kinnear. Though the tone is quite different (the first is straight-forward and serious, the second jovial and good-natured) a good deal of info is replicated. The group track is better at dissecting the characters, especially Brosnan, who continues to be game and unpretentious about his James Bond stint, and his desire to make 'The Matador' a different performance to both 007 as well as the thief he played in the underrated 'The Thomas Crown Affair.' Kinnear is a bit quieter, but a fine time was still apparently had by all. Still, I'd pick just one commentary to listen to, and I recommend the second.
The "Making 'The Matador'" featurette is a disappointment. Running just seven minutes, it is merely a glorified commercial. Better are the 11 Deleted Scenes running 16 minutes. Shepard offers optional commentary, which is for once interesting as these are actually pretty good scenes. I wouldn't have minded some of them reinstated, though Shepard makes a good case for their excision. The quality of the material is fair, and presented in 2.35:1 windowboxed 480i video.
Given the lame making-of featurette, coming to the rescue are two extended interviews with Shepard, both originally produced for radio. "Director Richard Shepard on 'The Treatment Radio Show'" (28 min.) is a bit too close to the commentaries to really warrant a full listen; much fresher is "Director Richard Shepard on 'Sundance Rollercoaster Radio,'" where the director describes his experience debuting his film at the festival, as well as the surprising number of hurdles he had to surmount to land a distributor despite strong audience reactions.
The extras conclude with the film's theatrical trailer and a TV spot, but in 480i video.
'The Matador' is a true sleeper. Whether it was because of the presence of Pierce Brosnan, or the poor marketing campaign, most stayed away, expecting either a James Bond rip-off or an inaccessible arty flick. Don't make the same mistake on HD DVD. Despite some continued mechanical issues with Weinstein discs (namely the horrendous disc boot-up times), 'The Matador' may be the best of their launch titles -- great transfer, and a solid enough soundtrack and extras. At the very least, give this one a rent.