Pierce Brosnan and Greg Kinnear walk side by side toward an unknown destination on the poster for Richard Shepard's buddy comedy The Matador—their legs casting long shadows in the foreground, their stride identifiably purposeful even in this frozen instant. Both men are nattily dressed, and they're decked out in identical sunglasses and trim mustaches, but there's also a telling difference: Brosnan, playing a burnt-out hit man named Julian Noble, clutches an impressive-looking metallic briefcase in his right hand, while Kinnear, as mild-mannered businessman Danny Wright, drags a standard-issue piece of air-travel luggage behind him, pulling it along on wheels via a collapsible handle. It's a fantastic image, neatly summarizing the film's odd-couple dynamic, but the suitcase is also something more: the sort of familiar, banal detail that almost never finds its way into mainstream American movies. Who hasn't felt like a complete dork trundling their nondescript bag down 17 miles of corridor to the departure gate, conscious with every step that they've sacrificed a certain amount of dignity in exchange for comfort? The Matador promises an entertaining collision between our own humdrum world and the dangerous, exciting world of James Bond, or at least James Bond gone to seed—and it delivers, too, albeit not in the way you might expect.
Julian and Danny's first meeting takes place in a hotel bar in Mexico City. (We know it's Mexico City because Shepard, in an antic mood, introduces each new locale with a giant red caption that takes up the entire screen.) Julian is in town to dispatch some anonymous exec—"corporate" jobs are his specialty—while Danny, unemployed since a layoff some two years previously, desperately hopes to close a potentially lucrative business deal. After a bumpy start ("Sorry about the cock comment. Kind of a conversation-stopper"), the two weary, anxious travelers take a liking to each other; when Julian, after a great deal of needling, finally divulges his profession, his newfound pal is first politely skeptical, then settles into a strange combination of appalled and intrigued. Julian takes Danny on a dry run for a hypothetical hit (at a bullfight—hence the title), then asks for his assistance on a real gig, which Danny refuses. But six months later, when Julian shows up on Danny's doorstep in Denver and makes a similar request, he has three small words of leverage that we don't yet understand the meaning of: "You owe me."
Frankly, it's not terribly difficult to guess the nature of Danny's debt, though Shepard does give your expectations a satisfying tweak. But as in any good movie, the pleasure lies more in the journey than in the destination. Hit man nonsense aside, The Matador joins a fairly select group of American movies to explore male friendship in any real depth, thanks in large part to the beautiful rapport between Brosnan and Kinnear, each of whom gives a career-best performance here. (Brosnan, who has the flashier role and gets to thoroughly trash his glamorous image, is garnering most of the attention, but Kinnear's goofy everyguyness has never been more appealing.) Specifically, this nimble, elegant comedy of manners touches upon something I can't remember ever seeing addressed onscreen before: the way that friendship is defined as much by how people negotiate discord as by common interests. Julian and Danny might never have progressed much beyond idle chitchat but for an awkward moment in which Julian, unsure of how to respond when Danny mentions the death of his son, quickly launches into a ribald joke. It's Julian's apology, involving the sad story of his late wife, that truly creates a connection between them—a connection strengthened months later, in Denver, when Julian voluntarily confesses that he'd invented the dead wife from whole cloth.
The Matador also has another, more provocative idea about friendship to offer, and the movie's climax, set at an Arizona racetrack, uses Julian's final assignment to explore the degree to which loyalty and commiseration will often trump personal ethics. Unfortunately, Shepard chickens out at the 11th hour, blowing what should rightfully have been a gut punch of an ending. Indeed, the way the film skates right up to the edge of this moment before suddenly fading out suggests that a compromise may have been made somewhere along the line. (Note: This element, which I'd rather not spoil for you, has nothing to do with sexuality, though some otherwise levelheaded critics seem to believe that any tale of male friendship must feature a homoerotic subtext.) The broad strokes are still discernible, but it's a pity that Shepard wasn't willing to strike the final, killing blow.