Pierce Brosnan will likely always be most famous for his quartet of performances as James Bond. That’s understandable, given how effectively he captured that character’s assured confidence and made the part his own, even while working in the shadow of actors like Sean Connery. Since he closed out his days playing Bond, Brosnan’s taken on a handful of roles in projects like The November Man or After the Sunset that are directly nodding toward his time spent as the man with a license to kill. If you’re curious about seeing Brosnan run opposite that image and deliver the best acting of his career, though, then the 2005 comedy The Matador is a must-watch.
Hailing from writer/director Richard Shephard, The Matador at first seems like it’s right in the mold of Brosnan’s older work since he plays an assassin-for-hire named Julian Noble. However, there’s a key difference between this character and 007: Noble is not good at interacting with people. At all. This is made clear in an opening scene where his intent to observe that his car bombing goes off properly is interrupted by a nosy kid. Noble has a short temper and absolutely no tact with this youngster, inadvertently making it clear he’s up to something suspicious in the process. There’s immediately enjoyable dark comedy emerging in seeing a guy who can put together a car bomb but struggles to deal with a persistent third-grader.
This is just a tease for the kind of socially inept and lonely guy Noble is. Sure, can be counted on to take out any target you give him without an issue. But the time Noble isn’t spent killing people sees him drinking his worries away, paying for temporary sexual companionship, and being miserable. From the start, the audience isn’t meant to see Noble as a badass worth emulating, but rather a broken-down husk of a human. He’s as pathetic as James Bond is meant to be cool.
Going in the total opposite direction of Brosnan’s most famous role ends up serving this performer beautifully. He takes to Noble like a fish to water and immediately makes scenes of this guy lingering in empty hotel rooms pulsate with interior tragedy. There’s a pent-up woe to Brosnan’s portrayal of Noble, one that communicates that this is a man aware that something big is missing from his life, but he has no idea how to pursue it. It’s such a contrast to Brosnan’s earlier work, not to mention a compelling personality as a standalone entity, that you can’t help but get invested.
Much of this gripping nature comes from how unflinchingly Brosnan approaches the most desperate and lonely parts of Noble as a character. These aspects become especially apparent once Noble encounters businessman Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear) during an assignment in Mexico. This is where Noble begins navigating the labyrinthine world of just striking up a conversation with a random person for the first time in ages. Brosnan tosses himself head-first into portraying this character as a man completely out of his element in doing something as simple as small talk or delivering the proper response to somebody talking about their dead child.
This commitment becomes even more enjoyable once Noble latches onto Wright as his one potential buddy. All of a sudden, Noble becomes like an attached puppy, following Wright around and begging him to go to social events with him or other bonding activities. There’s never a sense of hesitation in Brosnan’s performance here, he just lunges into acts like Noble downright pleading with Wright to come with him on a critical assassination assignment in Arizona. Brosnan plays it all with a straight face and the kind of resolve that you’d find in a dramatic performance, which, ironically, work super well at making this schmuck of an assassin an extremely humorous creation.
The success of this performance also speaks to how Brosnan has untapped gifts in the world of comedy. He didn’t get to show that off as much when he was foiling world domination plots in his James Bond outings, but here in The Matador, Brosnan’s onscreen work requires him to be good at physical comedy as well as humorous line readings. The performer turns out to be gifted in both areas, particularly in how he wrings moments where Noble is caught in a lie by Wright for maximum awkward comedy. It isn’t just the vulnerable personality that Brosnan works well with, it’s also the inherently comedic nature of the role that he manages to ace.
Even better, it turns out Brosnan has remarkable chemistry with, of all people, Greg Kinnear. While Brosnan is known for playing cool guys who remain cool as a cucumber under pressure, Kinnear was often the go-to guy in the 2000s to portray embodiments of traditional suburban masculinity. Sometimes that means playing someone with a darker soul, like in Auto-Focus or Little Miss Sunshine, other times, like in The Matador, it means clinging to that archetype so that he can serve as the perfect companion to Brosnan’s performance.
Kinnear’s straight-laced personality proves to be the perfect foil for Brosnan’s endlessly vulnerable onscreen work. Not only does their rapport bring out the best in the former James Bond actor, but it allows them both to occupy varying comedic models. Sometimes Brosnan is the straight man to Kinnear when they’re engaging in activities related to assassination. Other times, the roles get reversed so that Brosnan can be pathetic and needy much to the chagrin of Kinnear. No matter what the scene calls for, playing off Kinnear brings out the absolute best in Brosnan’s work as Julian Noble.
Perhaps most importantly, Brosnan’s Julian Noble works because of his commitment to portraying this guy as totally spineless and awful. He’s not without some niceties, like his sincere affection for Kinnear’s Wright, but Noble is still a guy who leers at young girls and makes offhand racist comments while murdering people. Rather than try to find details in his performance that would dull these unpleasant edges, Brosnan’s performance becomes a vessel for great dark comedy by just leaning into all the nastiness. This doesn’t make Noble someone good or worth emulating, but it does make this character something akin to main performances in your average It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia episode. In other words, the unabashed unpleasantness from Brosnan’s comic conviction can’t help but inspire both laughs and admiration.
The Matador is far from the first time Pierce Brosnan has opted for a role that runs counter to his 007 image but rarely has he managed to hit a bullseye quite like he did with playing Julian Noble. He’s committed to this role down to a tee and imbues this character’s tormented loneliness with such hysterical and fascinating details. There’s no need to send out an S.O.S. here, Pierce Brosnan is in rare form when it comes to portraying Julian Noble in The Matador.