‘The Matador’

Times Staff Writer

In “The Matador,” a delightfully sly diversion, Pierce Brosnan breaks the mold and turns in what might be considered the performance of his career, the kind of witty, relaxed star portrayal that recalls those of Cary Grant and other Golden Era legends. Setting him up to perfection is Greg Kinnear, every bit as amusing and assured. As if this weren’t enough, Hope Davis, one of the most protean young actresses working in films, lends further sparkle and drollery. “The Matador” marks a fine feature debut for Richard Shepard, who exhibits that precious gift of being able to work in the mainstream yet maintain the utmost sophistication in his point of view and in dialogue that crackles with inspired wit and humor.

Imagine that James Bond, the role from which Brosnan has just graduated, has begun to lose his nerve and started to go to seed. That’s a rough description of Brosnan’s Julian Noble, who has arrived in Mexico City for reasons not immediately clear. Unshaven and mustached, he’s raffish, with a roughneck quality, and given to knocking back quite a few drinks and smoking heavily. Attractively weathered, he knows full well he’s still devastatingly handsome, can turn on the charm like a faucet and has a gift of outrageous gab. Indeed, his mileage may actually heighten his appeal.

His frayed-around-the-edges aura also bespeaks an undeniable vulnerability, even desperation and instability, as he determinedly latches on to Kinnear’s Danny Wright, a Denver businessman who has a lot riding on a pending deal. They cross paths in a Mexico City hotel bar, and Julian just won’t let go of Danny, even though Julian’s sudden outbursts of crudeness and insensitivity threaten to drive Danny away. But Julian’s persistence and innate charisma prevail with Danny, and pretty soon Julian, a crack marksman, reveals that he is on assignment as, he likes to call himself, a “facilitator of fatalities.” At first Danny is struck with disbelief, then horror.

“The Matador,” in which a bullfight becomes a metaphor for Julian’s profession and his romantic view of it, deftly moves ahead six months. Now Julian is on a job in Budapest in what his controller, Mr. Randy (Philip Baker Hall), tough-minded yet compassionate, reminds him is a make-or-break situation, since Julian is clearly shaky after 22 years in the racket. A couple of plot developments later, Julian knocks on Danny’s front door late one snowy night. The stage is set for one final adventure for the two men.

Julian offers Brosnan a great comic role with crucial dark undertones. An aging loner with no friends outside his brief acquaintance with Danny, Julian is a man who has no permanent address, has indulged in all the sex any man could possibly crave, but has never known love. By contrast, Danny and his wife are a couple whose deep love has been strengthened by tragedy and adversity, regular folks on the surface yet highly intelligent, humorous and open-minded. There is no question that Julian is a dangerous man, especially as he comes apart. Danny’s kindness and hospitality to Julian is undoubtedly an invitation to potential disaster, and at this point, suspense kicks in in earnest, along with the humor.

Shepard, however, is a genuine high-wire artist, and although Julian may be losing his grip, “The Matador,” which manages to be stylish without ever seeming slick, never does. It is contemporary in tone but has that combination of sentiment and worldliness of beloved Hollywood classics with their confident effortlessness and throwaway humor -- Billy Wilder comes to mind. “The Matador” is a late entry into the year-end sweepstakes, but now that hoopla surrounding the holiday blockbusters has peaked, audiences will have a better chance at not overlooking this poignant comic gem.

‘The Matador’

MPAA rating: R for strong sexual content and language.

Times guidelines: Adult entertainment with blunt language, some sex

A Weinstein Co. and Miramax Films presentation. Writer-director Richard Shepard. Producers Pierce Brosnan, Beau St. Clair, Sean Furst, Bryan Furst. Cinematographer David Tattersall. Editor Carole Kravetz-Aykanian. Music Rolfe Kent. Costumes Catherine Thomas. Production designer Rob Pearson. Art director Marcelo Del Rio. Set decorators Carlos Gutierrez, Patrice Laure.

Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes.