“Always plan an escape route.”
Good advice, coming from Pierce Brosnan’s Julian Noble, a veteran “facilitator of fatalities.” Ceding his signature role as 007 to a younger, blonder Bond (Layer Cake’s Daniel Craig), Brosnan couldn’t have planned a better escape route from the clutches of SPECTRE than with his portrayal of this profane, boozy hitman. It’s the best performance he’s ever put on film.
Sporting an unflattering moustache, hair that’s graying around the temples, a gold chain, and a moderate potbelly, Brosnan, who also produced, could have made this a reverse-vanity project. Instead, these physical traits seem to have freed him of the burden that was Bond. Within the film’s first 10 minutes, Julian has bedded a hooker, stolen her nail polish (to paint his toes), killed a man in a fiery blast, and — gasp — sworn at a child, relishing every last minute. Still, this witty reprobate manages to hit rock bottom after one of his contracts finds him in Mexico City on his birthday. A loner without family, home, or friends, he seeks solace from the local whores (of questionable gender) before a chance meeting changes his life.
At first you can almost hear the pitch (“A hitman and a salesman walk into a bar . . . ”), but writer/director Richard Shepard’s film surprises with its tonal and narrative shifts, even as it loses dramatic momentum in the final third. Fate seats Denver businessman Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear) beside Julian at the bar, and Danny, his marriage and finances on the verge of ruin, forms a bond with the “psychopathic but not psychotic” killer. Kinnear proves the perfect foil for Brosnan, who remains likable as Julian leers at underage schoolgirls (“all blushy-blushy, no sucky-fucky”) and tells a filthy joke to divert Danny from talking about his young son’s recent accidental death.
The initial exchange between these two establishes the film’s unpredictable nature. Julian offers Danny a margarita, because they “always taste better in Mexico . . . margaritas — and cock.” The gay joke leaves Danny shaken, not stirred, but soon the pair’s vulnerability paves the way for a tentative friendship. Then during a taut sequence set at a bullfight, Julian confides the true nature of his “corporate gigs.” Danny doesn’t believe it for a second, but Julian demonstrates how easily he could kill someone by cornering a man in the stadium’s restroom. (“I’m a big fan of the ‘gotta pee’ theory of assassination.”) At first, Danny is mortified, and then . . . curious.
“Six months later,” a rejuvenated Danny discovers that what happens in Mexico doesn’t necessarily stay in Mexico. On the run from his employers, a haggard Julian shows up unannounced at the home of Danny and his wife (a priceless Hope Davis), who’s thrilled to be host to an assassin. (“Did you bring your gun?”) “You owe me,” Julian tells Danny. Exactly what, and why, I’ll leave for you to discover. Grab this bull by the horns.