Playing a near-sociopathic deadeye dick in Richard Shepard's new dependie, Pierce Brosnan is a creepy wonder—the Bondian sangfroid is visible in midcurdle, the gears of his Don Juan–istic bravado are rusting to a dead stop, the macho cocktail-pro hedonism is revealed as a lonesome abyss. Brosnan has always been best used as a self-satiric figure, a man whose insouciant looks and manner are so polished and seduction schooled that they demand to be mocked from within. On top of that, the inevitability of either mortifying age and/or the idiotic effort to combat it are implicit in his type of stardom; as his 007 days receded, would Brosnan dissipate into character roles or string out his résumé as a hapless, surgically spiffed leading man in straight-to-video rip-offs? In The Matador, as an instant-gratification contract killer, Brosnan does a little of both, masquerading as an agent of action while his self-possessive plaster crumbles in fistfuls. Graying, socially oblivious, boozed up, braying at his own jokes, aiming deliberate eye crinkles at Mexican schoolgirls, Brosnan's Julian Noble is a witty but often unpleasant portrait of amoral masculinity in decline. You may not have known any pro assassins, but you've met this asshole.
The film around him is, relatively speaking, a modest contraption built with familiar Coen-Tarantino spare parts: Julian meets Danny (Greg Kinnear), a struggling post-dot-com-boom consultant, in a Mexico City bar, and their mutual desperations dovetail. The hit man and the salesman go to a bullfight, bicker, make up, drink, share problems. ("Just because we shared a laugh doesn't mean I'm not unsavory," Julian assures his in-above-his-head cohort.) The Something Wild–ish arc you anticipate is subsumed by a subtler series of twists—can Danny rescue Julian in his midcareer crisis and help him out with one last job?—climaxing in a flash-forward months later, when Julian drunkenly drops in on Danny and his wife (Hope Davis) for Christmas.
Taking the medium slopes and never venturing into extremities, Shepard gets all of his laughs if not the ironic heart tugs, and his cast is perfectly in tune. (Davis in comedic-observant mode is funnier than most American actresses in fifth gear.) But the general details and color of The Matador fade quickly from memory while Brosnan's gamy, inscrutable libertine is still exhaling Scotch vapor in your face. (R)