Brosnan plays the assassin Julian Noble (note the sly names in this flick). Julian has been an international man of mystery his entire life. The only things we learn about his background are lies, fabrications he employs either to divert or suggest a desired compatibility. An ad in the paper leads Julian to meet with his handler, Mr. Randy (Philip Baker Hall) who gives him a new assignment and packs him off across the globe to his next destination. Julian never meets his real boss, Mr. Stick (William Raymond). If we can believe him, Julian specializes in hits on greedy businessmen and stays away from the more messy terrain of political assassinations.
Shepard's script fails to examine what causes Julian to crumple, but we do see his burnout's manifestation in a yearning for the kind of human contact most people take for granted but which Julian has evidently never really known. Julian normally celebrates the completion of an assignment with a bottle of pricey whiskey and the physical attentions of the best prostitute in the city. He enjoys bullfights and fine cigars. His money allows him the casual acquisition of expensive things. But his job requires isolation, and though he lives in hotels and dines in restaurants, he is nonetheless almost utterly alone.
Then one night in Mexico City, Julian sits down at a hotel bar and strikes up a conversation with Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear), an American in town to make a business pitch. In the course of the conversation Danny tells Julian about losing his young son in a school bus accident. In response Julian bizarrely launches into a dirty joke. Danny is so offended, he denounces Julian's insensitivity and returns to his room. In Julian's long history of bar chats, that would probably be the end of matters. But something about Danny has struck a chord in Julian, and the next day he looks up Danny and apologizes. A little unconvincingly the two hang out together for a couple of days and become pals. Julian even confides in Danny what he does for a living and provides him a demonstration on how he might stage a hit in a public place. I kept waiting for Danny to get spooked by all this, but he doesn't, and before the two men depart Mexico City they have formed a bond and shared a secret that drive the picture's plot.
Mr. Stick and Mr. Randy don't take Julian's desire to retire very well and determine that he needs to be killed. Julian takes refuge with Danny and Danny's loving wife Bean (Hope Davis). After 14 years of marriage, the Wrights are still so passionate that they stage impromptu bouts of lovemaking on the washing machine or the dining room table. While he's living with them Julian stares at the Wrights as if they are scientific specimens. He's fascinated, even exhilarated by the concept of love.
The considerable pleasures in The Matador are substantially divorced from the film's plot. We never get over the ease with which Danny and Hope let Julian intrude into their happy life. And though the film strives to justify why Danny would help Julian try to get Mr. Stick off his back, the explanation makes less sense the more what happened in Mexico City is revealed. Still, this film has a spate of delicious moments. A tender scene in which Danny and Hope talk about how they fell in love is beautifully executed. Throughout, with all three main characters, Shepard has included passages of exquisite daffiness. When Julian shows up in the middle of the night, Hope decides that the occasion warrants her using the F-word as often as possible. In an earnest aside she wants Danny to affirm the appropriateness of her desire to ask Julian to show her his gun.
The most abiding pleasure here, though, arrives in Brosnan's performance as a man with no conscience whatsoever who is contradictorily falling to pieces because of a hungry heart. Striking this balance is no mean feat. But Brosnan makes Julian charming, cuddly and scary all at once. Like Sean Connery before him, Brosnan had the privilege and the burden of playing James Bond. And like Connery before him Brosnan has the chops to move far beyond 007. He's proven that before, particularly in The Tailor of Panama. Here he's even better.