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Having already played rough-edged guys in The Mother and Enduring Love—not to mention Munich—Daniel Craig may be the first James Bond who won’t someday feel compelled to prove he’s not an empty tuxedo. Sean Connery and Roger Moore both tried to divest themselves of 007, though only the former succeeded—despite the latter’s appearance in Spice World. But no Bond has turned against the persona as aggressively as Pierce Brosnan. First came The Tailor of Panama, in which he played an unprincipled, self-serving British agent. Now he stars in The Matador as a world-traveling assassin who’s too coarse for his license to kill.
Although it features an engaging little turn from Hope Davis, The Matador is basically a two-hander. Julian Noble (Brosnan) is a hit man with no friends, a big mouth, and only two hobbies: booze and anonymous sex, the latter preferably involving girls who aren’t old enough to drive. Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear) is as Middle America–average as the protagonist of an antacid commercial, save for a persistent gloominess that writer-director Richard Shepard’s backstory more than justifies: Danny and the wife he calls “Bean” (Davis) lost their only child in a school-bus crash, and now Danny is afraid that his sales job is next.
The two guys meet at a Mexico City hotel bar, where the hired gun’s lack of sensitivity quickly repulses the salesman. Improbably, they make up the next day, and Danny yields to Julian’s insistence that they attend a bullfight together. Either because he decides that Danny is too innocuous to pose any threat or—more likely—because he needs to advance the plot, Julian confesses that he is “a facilitator of fatalities.” The assassin’s tutorial in bullfighting, which includes such macho metaphorical blather as the notion that a bull is “honored” to be killed by a great matador, soon leads to lessons in dispatching human beings. Eventually, Julian asks Danny to help with a hit. He refuses, and the story is terminated before the Mexico City episode is complete.
Some months later, Julian arrives unexpectedly at Danny and Bean’s suburban Denver home. It seems that Julian is losing his nerve and has decided to retire. But he needs to do one last hit, and he requests the aid of “the only friend I have.” (Being a professional killer, at least Julian has an excuse for the friendlessness that’s endemic among American-movie characters.) This time Danny agrees to help and the two set off for a deadly rendezvous—and for a chance to reveal just what happened in Mexico City. When it finally comes, the disclosure doesn’t exactly propel this amiable but insubstantial movie to a higher level.
As a movie director—he’s also worked frequently in TV—Shepard has made a string of forgettable films since 1988’s Cool Blue. His sense of style is undistinctive, and his use of music in The Matador quickly degenerates from the thematic (the Jam’s “A Town Called Malice”) to the meaningless (Asia’s “Heat of the Moment”). Without Brosnan, who also signed on as a producer, the film would probably draw no more notice than such predecessors as The Linguini Incident.
The actor has great fun with Julian, supplanting Bond’s cool sophistication with brash tastelessness to give us a man of no apparent redeeming value. Alas, the character doesn’t quite add up: An assassin who starts blabbing to every Kinnear-esque dweeb he meets in a bar wouldn’t last long, and Julian’s sudden inability to complete his assigned hits suggests a submerged conscience that’s established by neither Shepard’s script nor Brosnan’s performance. The Matador may aspire to psychological comedy, but it skims its characterizations as if it were, oh, a James Bond flick.
With Derailed, The Matador is the second movie in two months from the Weinstein Company to pack the same essential message: There comes a time when the innocent suburbanite must learn how to kill. Bob and Harvey Weinstein, who founded Miramax but recently had to cede it to Disney, don’t seem to be in a Merchant Ivory mood these days. Perhaps there’s no hidden warning here for Michael Eisner, but even if there is, the Disney boss shouldn’t worry that the Weinsteins are really gunning for him. The two films clearly indicate that turning the American Everyguy into an executioner is a more plausible premise for a comedy than for a docudrama.
Among the many claims in Naked in Ashes, a rapt look at India’s gurus, yogis, babas, and sadhus, there’s one of particular interest: “Today, the population of yogis is going down,” a commentator confides. “In another 50 years, you will hardly hear the word.” This is bad for ingenuous Western documentarians but probably just as well for mystically inclined Indians. After all, the various holy men (and occasional women) in this film include one who’s been standing nonstop for years, another who sometimes sits with a stack of burning cow patties on his head, and a guy who professes to pull a Range Rover with his penis.
For the record, he doesn’t really. Although his flaccid appendage is involved in the procedure somehow, the guru actually pulls the vehicle with his hands. The “Standing Baba” has done far more violence to his anatomy, as close-ups of his ravaged legs reveal. And the Aguris, who eat human flesh during cremation rituals, could get something much worse than a bad case of ghosts, the affliction commonly attributed to the practice. If such stunts pass from fashion, it probably wouldn’t be at any great cost to man or Krishna.
The flamboyant forms of self-mortification documented by director Paula Fouce may be specifically Indian, but the philosophical rationales aren’t especially exotic. One yogi explains that human eyes see not the world but only illusion, a proposition known to the West at least since Plato’s Republic. A 14-year-old novice is shaved and covered with ashes in preparation for a dip in the Ganges that will bring “a new birth,” an idea that parallels the Christian tradition of baptism. And a Western woman who became a sadhu explains that her dead guru’s soul is still with her, a fancy shared by every religious person who wishes that all his or her loved ones were still alive. Given the universality of such notions, maybe it’s appropriate that Tony Humecke’s chiming, cooing score is generically world-ly.
Even more gullible than the makers of last year’s Shortcut to Nirvana: Kumbh Mela, which claimed that 70 million people attend the Kumbh Mela festival, Fouce accepts that 100 million take part in the event. (Other estimates place the figure at somewhere between 15 and 60 million.) Viewers who know something about India or religion will be able to salvage a few moments from Naked in Ashes, despite the filmmakers’ failure to provide anything more than the flimsiest of contexts. For most other people, however, the documentary will look exactly like what we must assume Fouce hoped to avoid: a freak show.CP