Julian Noble looks like James Bond. But Pierce Brosnan's turn as a career assassin reveals a character whose similarities to the famed British super-agent end with the fact that they both occasionally kill people and enjoy wine and women. Noble, a hit man slipping into a mid-life crisis, might, in fact, best be described as the anti-Bond.
After 20-plus years of knocking off unsuspecting targets, Julian is lonely. Anonymous sex and lots of liquor temporarily take the edge off his isolation, but he still has no one to talk to. Enter Danny Wright, an earnest salesman from Denver, Colo., struggling to close a business deal on a trip to Mexico City. When Danny wanders into the hotel bar after a long day of negotiations, he gets more than he bargained for as the drunk killer strikes up a conversation. An unlikely friendship is born.
Before Danny returns to the Rockies and Julian sets his sights on his next mark, the odd couple spends a day at the bullfights—a day in which Julian confesses what he really does for a living. Danny's disbelief turns to admiration after Julian proves he's an assassin by showing Danny exactly how he'd kill a man they randomly select (but don't actually kill).
Fast-forward six months. Danny's suburban bliss with his wife, Bean, is interrupted by the unexpected late-night arrival of one Julian Noble. The hit man has botched several jobs and is no longer able to pull the trigger on his assigned targets because of fainting spells and flashbacks to his childhood. His former employer now wants him dead unless he can do one more job ... a job that requires Danny's help.
Danny and Julian develop a genuine friendship. The braggadocio that at first embellishes their camaraderie gradually gives way to both men sharing who they really are. Thus, Danny and Julian move past barroom banter and develop a sincere interest for one another's welfare.
A subplot involves Bean's faithful commitment to Danny in the wake of business failures and painful losses (including the accidental death of their child). Julian's complete relational isolation makes him the perfect character to help Danny see that his mundane, suburban life with Bean is in fact a tremendous blessing. He tells Danny that his marriage to Bean makes him the luckiest man in the world.
[Spoiler Warning] To cement a business deal that's going the wrong way, Danny discusses the possibility of Julian taking out his rival. To his credit, Julian tells Danny that he couldn't handle the crippling guilt that would result if he agreed to do the job. Though the film doesn't connect the dots explicitly, this conversation perhaps relates to the fact that Julian himself can no longer kill people without being emotionally debilitated.
Before each assassination attempt, Julian removes a ring with a picture of Jesus being crucified.
Illicit sex (sometimes with prostitutes) is Julian's primary "leisure time" activity. One scene depicts him waking up with a naked woman in bed (her bare back and breasts are partially visible); later, Julian looks through her purse while she's still sleeping and several wrapped condoms are shown. Another graphic shot depicts a partially clothed Julian having sex with a woman who also has some clothes on. No nudity, but no question about what they're doing; a dog attacks Julian's leg at the end of that scene. Twice Julian visits brothels. One trip shows a topless woman and a very brief shot of two enmeshed, shirtless people. Julian walks through a hotel lobby wearing only a black Speedo and boots.
Danny and Bean are about to have sex in the kitchen (they've got bathrobes and pajamas on) when they're interrupted. Later they have sex on the washing machine (again, bedclothes obstruct nudity but not their activity).
Julian makes repeated, extremely crude sexual references about having sex with teens. In his first conversation at the bar with Danny, he tells him that he's very tired because he's been "fornicating for the last two hours." A conversation with his supervisor, Mr. Randy, implies Julian may be bisexual.
Julian's successful assassinations include a man who gets in a sports car that explodes and a woman who's shown in his rifle scope with crosshairs on her head (we don't actually witness the shooting). Julian aims his rifle at other targets but is unable to shoot. Near the end, it's implied that Danny helps Julian work up the courage to pull the trigger one last time.
The bullfight at the Mexico City arena shows a bull after it's been speared by several small sticks. It's implied that the bullfighter stabs the bull with his sword. (Julian's philosophical musings about the skill of the matador in dispatching the bull parallel his own life as a trained killer, forming the basis for the movie's title.)
Drug and Alcohol Content
Characters drink alcohol like it's water. Julian drinks and smokes continually; half-empty bottles of hard liquor can be seen next to his bed. Julian and Danny both have several margaritas at the bar the night they meet. At the bullfight they drink beer and smoke cigars (Danny never actually lights his). When Julian arrives at the Wrights in Denver, they break out a bottle of whiskey, and all three get drunk. Smoking is also prevalent, though Julian is the only main character who indulges that vice.
Other Negative Elements
To initially connect with Danny, Julian tells him he lost his wife early in their marriage, a story that's later revealed as a lie. Danny then confronts Julian's dishonesty, and Julian replies, "I lie when I need to, and I tell the truth when I can. It's mostly been the truth with you." Julian also flirts openly with Bean (Danny seems to think he's harmless; Bean seems quite taken with the suave assassin, though nothing comes of it).
The Matador builds its story on the time-honored Hollywood conceit of two extraordinarily dissimilar characters discovering common ground. Danny, the desperate salesman and Julian, the neurotic assassin, have little in common—except the fact that they're both lonely, away from home and under pressure when they meet. As it turns out, Julian really has no home. Which is, of course, why Danny's life is so appealing to him.
Their friendship—not Julian's faltering skills as an assassin—is what this movie is really about. Both Danny and Bean accept Julian's career choice as if he were a guidance counselor or used-car salesman. They don't much probe the moral implications of such a violent vocation (though Danny does have to decide whether he's willing to help his friend do one last job in order for him to survive). Thus, Julian's career as a killer is apparently intended as a curiosity, not something to be contemplated too deeply.
But even if we could suspend moral judgment about Julian's job (as we're asked to do), it's impossible to ignore this buddy film's other serious flaws. Like 2004's dark comedy Sideways, the characters in The Matador engage graphically in behaviors that are anything but funny. Julian's life as an assassin is devoid of real human connection, and we witness the compulsive addictions that result. Whatever entertainment value or instruction his friendship with Danny might provide, it's overwhelmed by the accompanying hard R-rated content.