Uptight suburbanites feel edgy when they befriend a killer. That shallow but funny joke in The Matador shouldn’t work at all — the target is both easy and exhausted. Movies that poke fun at middle-class values are mostly based in the experience of watching other movies. Kids who grew up in the suburbs develop an artistic perception that city kids don’t share. David Lynch and Spielberg have it; Thumbsucker director Mike Mills and The Matador director Richard Shepard only approach it through condescension.
The mainstream’s infatuation with serial killers is still worthy of satire — especially after it was badly fumbled in The Whole Nine Yards. What elevates The Matador’s take on the phenomenon is the chemistry between its leads. Pierce Brosnan, as assassin Julian Noble, is idolized by Greg Kinnear, as businessman Danny Wright. Julian brings Danny to a bullfight, where he shows him the steps he’d go through to assassinate someone. This scares the crap out of Danny, who thinks Julian will really go through with a murder. When he finds out it was a charade, Danny laughs as though he’d just been on a rollercoaster.
The fascination with watching elaborate executions planned and pulled off in The Matador is reminiscent of Munich. Both movies also feature explosions and gunshots at such volume you feel like your spine has exploded through your scalp. The killings are also easier to take, and less exciting, with The Matador’s glibness about death. The dumbest scene: Danny and his wife (Hope Davis) reminisce on the anniversary of their son’s death as Shepard drowns the moment in a deliberately sappy score — the mere idea of sorrow is mocked as the antithesis of cool.
But Julian also envies Danny’s life. At its most ashamedly sentimental, it’s a story of men characterized by their professions (treated in a more questioning manner than dopey Annapolis), discovering that they’d now like to have friends. Julian’s realization that his work isn’t always fulfilling causes his dependability at murder to slip up.
It takes a while for Shepard to have much fun with this; The Matador’s first half is directed with such formal significance it barely has room to breathe. It’s the unlikely clash of two great comic performances that sets it off.
When is a movie just an elaborate recruitment video? How ‘bout when its characters are defined entirely by their will to succeed in the Navy, and the final spoken line is, “Come join me in the Marines.”
Annapolis, named for the United States Naval Academy, operates like SWAT, Top Gun, Stealth, Ladder 49 and Space Camp, loosely building a narrative on an inside look at an institution. Not only is there an absence of sustained conflict (the characters join the Navy and then try not to get kicked out, OK?), you get a sense these people would diserse into particles and blow away if the Navy wasn’t in their lives.
In the most dramatic moment, a heavyset black kid who’s the pride of his hometown attempts suicide — because he was expelled for being too slow at a training exercise. It’s shameless, but also the only time Annapolis acknowledges these kids’ inner lives. The superficial treatment only views them as cogs on a wheel. Director Justin Lin, who made the “Asian teens can do bad things too” film Better Luck Tomorrow, glorifies the elite school with a multicultural cast. Yet everybody is the same colour of boring.
At first it seems as though Lin will play this as a boarding school drama. Hero Jake (James Franco) acts eternally tormented about something unexplained. But he slowly gets along with his roommates, romances a superior (Jordana Brewster) and convinces his strict drill instructors that despite their sins, the cause is still important. This mandates push-ups in the rain and a desire to be “the best.” Motivation doesn’t count for much when your movie’s a two-hour training montage.
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