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A nasty flick for a dreary time


Once asked why he had forsaken sportswriting, the novelist and playwright Paul Gallico replied, succinctly, "February." Although the response dates from the olden times, when hockey entertained a scant few fans, the steady tom-tom of basketballs echoed in only a few arenas, before the Super Bowl, before fabricated sports like arena football and box lacrosse, Gallico's feelings about the dreary months of winter remain valid, and in these times certainly apply to the cinema.

In that chilly interregnum between the holiday flicks and the December Oscar deadlines on the one hand, and the blossoming blockbusters of spring on the other, all sorts of odd movies turn up, offbeat films that to distributors might initially seem financially unpromising.

The release of The Matador suggests an attempt to shoehorn an unusual and rather nasty little movie into the dead space of winter, perhaps for lack of any other place to put it. It also may exist for the primary purpose of transforming the suave, handsome Pierce Brosnan's screen image --- he is listed as one of the producers --- into something very different from his recent roles. His part in this picture emphasizes his public renunciation of James Bond, a sure money maker, for other, less heroic sorts of work.

In The MatadorBrosnan plays Julian Noble, a professional assassin who works for some unspecified organization specializing in knocking off important people for corporations threatened by any formidable competitor, a job he performs most efficiently in cities all over the world. A moderately odious person, Julian drinks and smokes excessively, empurples the air around him with vile language, and gratifies his sexual appetites at every opportunity, frequently with pubescent girls.

In the sort of situation beloved of comic writers, Julian encounters a stranger, his complete opposite, in a bar in Mexico City. The naive, eager Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear) is celebrating a successful business deal after some years of misfortune and even tragedy, while Julian is relaxing after the murder of a Mexican female executive. Thanks to his powers of persuasion and a certain seedy charm, Julian prevails upon Danny to accompany him to a bullfight, the only instance of the title's relevance, where, coinciding with the famous moment of truth in the arena, he reveals his profession to his new friend.

After the assassin shows Danny just how he operates, the movie abruptly shifts its focus from the incipient friendship to a series of scenes of Julian's work around the world. As he progresses from victim to victim in a variety of cities, the killer's psyche crumbles and he discovers in himself a fatal (for him) compassion, apparently arising from his own guilt; he experiences an existential crisis and can no longer carry out his assignments. (The Assassin With Qualms seems almost as common in the cinema of today as the Clergyman With Doubts in the novels of the 19th century.)

Now a target instead of an assassin, Julian flees Budapest for Denver, seeking refuge with his old friend Danny Wright and his wife Bean (Hope Davis). There he persuades a most reluctant Danny to assist him in his final assignment, a climactic killing at an Arizona racetrack that, if successful, will win back his employers' approval and save his neck.

The Matador betrays a quantity of misjudgments, including a combination of inept writing and clumsy editing. A number of inexplicable fades and blackouts, as well as plot points that never develop or fizzle out disappointingly, suggest that the writer-director lost control of his script. The flaws in continuity even extend to Pierce Brosnan's stubble, which frequently varies in length and density within the same scene.

Although The Matador often treats Julian's predicament, character, and dialogue comically, it bases most of its action on an odd mixture of troubling material. Despite a certain shabby glamour and sheer effrontery, Julian Noble, the professional killer, hardly qualifies as a comic hero. The script also includes references to a family tragedy, the death of Danny's young son a few years earlier, which not only makes little sense in the plotting, but offends any standard of taste. Its meanness of spirit and emotional confusion probably account for its appearance in the dead of winter, often an empty time for film.

The Matador (R), written and directed by Richard Shepard, is playing at Henrietta 18, Pittsford Cinema, Tinseltown, Webster 12.