by Ed Symkus & r & & r & The Matador & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & P & lt;/span & ierce Brosnan had already done strange things to his James Bond image when he starred as Andy Osnard in The Tailor of Panama. He played a troublemaking slacker of a British agent, demoted to a post in Panama, where he finds new grounds to continue in his caddish ways.

Brosnan was quite magnificent as a sort of "anti-Bond," and in The Matador, he gets to go deeper into the psyche of a shady and more dangerous character.

This is an oddball mix of comedy, drama and buddy flick. Brosnan is Julian Noble, a hit man who kills whoever he's told to kill, takes the money, and waits for the next assignment. But he's been doing it for a long time; he's bored, he's lonely, he's burnt out, and bad dreams haunt him regularly. Not even an endless line of hookers -- pretty much his only companions -- can relieve the dreariness that surrounds him. Yet he still manages to walk around with a distinct swagger and a know-it-all expression on his face.

His life changes, though, in Mexico. Julian has a chance meeting in a hotel bar with Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear), a down-on-his-luck fellow who's hoping to land a job there. Friendly (but desperate) Danny and forlorn (and drunk) Julian have a rough start making conversation, yet they do get to chatting, and all goes well till unassuming Danny asks what his new drinking pal does for a living.

"If I tell you, will you keep cool?" asks Julian, who has certainly never gone this far in a discussion about his work before.

And this is the point in the film where the two actors first hit their stride. Brosnan plays Julian as someone who could just be a teller of tales (although we've already seen an example of his handiwork), and Kinnear plays Danny as a wide-eyed little kid who can't -- but wants to -- believe what he's hearing.

The plot turns into a variation on a tale of a master taking on a new student. At first glance, it doesn't make sense that a meek fellow like Danny would ever think of doing such a thing -- but there's all sorts of explaining about his situation in the script. And Julian creates enough complications to make his need for help believable.

Things happen, both men go back to their regular lives, time passes. Writer-director Richard Shepard loads the film up with dialogue that's almost as offbeat as the sex scenes. There's a very tender one between Danny and his wife Bean (Hope Davis), and there's one between Julian and a very wealthy woman that turns into what is best described as physical comedy ... with an animal.

The second half of the film, in which all desperation has been traded off to Julian, has a completely different feeling than the first. Some of the scenes are quite funny, in part due to Davis' flair for comic timing. And some offer revelations about the characters, as when Julian admits, "I lie when I need to, tell the truth when I can."

This is a buddy film we haven't seen before, with freewheeling acting that matches up nicely with a solid, if strange, script, and a memorable ending. Taking nothing away from Kinnear or Davis, Brosnan steals the show. He doesn't need Bond anymore. (Rated: R)

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