'Matador' raises some red flags

'The Matador" is a very low high concept. Pierce Brosnan, having seen the last of James Bond, plays Julian Noble, a rumpled hit man who prefers to call himself a "facilitator of fatalities." In other words, even though he's a paid assassin in the employ of corporate malefactors, he is still basically licensed to kill - just like 007.

This would be amusing if Brosnan himself didn't look so amused at being cast against type. He practically winks at us from the screen. The truth is, he hasn't changed his persona all that much. As Bond, he was a smoothly engineered piece of human merchandising - he sold suaveness. As Julian he's on the skids. But both men exude Brosnan's sleek nothingness.

Playing opposite Brosnan is Greg Kinnear as Danny Wright, a straight-arrow Denver salesman who runs into Julian one night in a Mexico City bar. Down and out himself after being laid off, Danny is in town to try to jump-start a deal. After a few margaritas (blended, not stirred) Julian lets on that he's a hit man and Danny, who is gullible but not stupid, asks him to prove it. So the next day the facilitator takes him to his first bullfight and Danny jokingly picks out a target.

Julian outlines step by step how he would pull off the job, and the sequence has the frisson of a medium-grade Hitchcock. If only the entire film were as scary and witty as this sequence. But writer-director Richard Shepard seems to be winking at us, too. He just can't get over the idea that Brosnan - Pierce Brosnan! - looks unkempt.

Should we care? When Sean Connery began as Bond, he had the same high gloss as Brosnan, although he carried himself with much greater masculine authority. He was so perfectly cast that, at the time, it seemed impossible for him to ever play anybody else. But it turns out that Connery was a marvelously versatile actor in films such as "Robin and Marian," "The Untouchables," and "The Man Who Would Be King."

Brosnan doesn't have Connery's range or depth but he, too, has attempted over the years to go beyond the swank artifice that seems to come so naturally to him. In films such as "Liam" and, especially, the much neglected "Mr. Johnson" (based on the Joyce Cary novel), he exhibited the inner resources of a real actor. (Both films tanked at the box office.)

In "The Matador," he is trying to have it both ways: He is playing up to his image as an international jet-setting movie star while at the same time lampooning it.

Shepard is trying to have it both ways, too, and as a result the film rapidly devolves into a lame buddy picture, part thriller, mostly goof. Kinnear has a pleasant screen presence, and the film has a few tricky U-turns in its itinerary, but there is only one line in it that made me laugh: Julian shows up unexpectedly at Danny's home and his wife, played by the always fine Hope Davis, exults, "Aren't we cosmopolitan - having a trained assassin stay overnight."

The film's wobbly tone presents a deeper problem. When James Bond dispatched the bad guys, we never gave their deaths a second thought. They had no more human weight than a pop-up target in a computer game.

But in "The Matador," it's difficult to be flip about a lone hit man who stalks his victims. Julian is a sociopath or he's nothing, and Shepard too often opts for nothing. He realizes his "comedy" has grazed into some pretty terrifying terrain, but his way out of the difficulty is to turn everything into a lark. Grade: C-

Rated R for strong sexual content and language.

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