Directed by Richard Shepard, starring Pierce Brosnan, Greg Kinnear, Hope Davis, Philip Baker Hall and Dylan Baker.

A former James Bond can never, ever, escape comparisons to his interpretation of Ian Fleming's most famous character. It is especially difficult when that actor is generally considered to be the best Bond since Sean Connery.  

In the most high-profile of his other efforts, 'The Tailor of Panama' and 'The Thomas Crown Affair', Pierce Brosnan seemed to fall into the trap of simply reprising his Bond role: a cool, clean hero, never ruffled and always in control. But in 'The Matador' he plays a deeply disreputable hitman called Julian Noble; pot-bellied, scruffy, and with a penchant for schoolgirls and bellboys. Julian is a million miles from James Bond.

Julian meets struggling businessman Danny Wright (Kinnear) while both are on business in Mexico City. Both men are at a low ebb. Julian, having carried out a hit, has been reminded that it is his birthday and, without a friend to help him celebrate, stumbles into Danny. Danny is on a business trip to make a last-chance pitch to save his business, his marriage and his life. The two men hit it off. But when Julian asks Danny to help him with his next hit, the businessman is horrified and the brief friendship appears to end acrimoniously, with Julian telling Danny to "just consider me the best cocktail party story you ever met".

The film shoots forward by six months, and Julian and Danny are thrown together again. The ensuing story is funny, exciting and, most unexpectedly, very touching. The audience is presented with two characters that could in less capable hands be difficult to warm to, but director Shepard helps Brosnan and Kinnear to tap into the humanity of the characters. The chemistry between Julian and Danny helps the audience to gloss over the one or two minor plot holes that would otherwise distract.

'The Matador' is a genuinely funny film. Both Brosnan and Kinnear are skilled actors, both of whom possess a flair for comedy. While Brosnan plays the lascivious assassin, Kinnear plays the straight man, a devoted husband and businessman. The humour and the drama grow out of the fundamental differences between the two characters, and the factors that drive them into an unlikely friendship. It is all built on the bullfight scene, during which Julian reveals the nature of his business to Danny and sets about proving it to him. What would otherwise be an incongruous relationship - and one on which the rest of the film hangs – is made entirely plausible.

The only flaw is that the film's morality is somewhat skewed: the audience could be excused for thinking that the ending does not fit smoothly with the story which precedes it. But the relationship that has developed between Julian and Danny, and between them and the audience, is sufficient to make 'The Matador' one of the most entertaining and engaging films of the year so far.

Barry J Whyte