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Sundance #2: 'The Matador' springs a sunny surprise

PARK CITY, Utah -- "The Matador" sounds on paper like a formula film, the kind of generic dreariness you expect Sundance to avoid.

On the screen, it's another matter altogether -- funny, quirky and sad, and wonderfully well-acted. The Sundance premiere audience walked out astonished by a film so much better than they'd expected.

Well, what did we expect? The movie stars Pierce Brosnan as a professional hit man, and Greg Kinnear as an unemployed Denver executive.

They meet in a bar in Mexico City, become unlikely friends, and find themselves sort of in business together. When Kinnear's wife (Hope Davis) meets the assassin she's heard so much about, she gets right to the point: "Did you bring your gun?"

Everything I have described could perfectly well add up to a mediocre comedy destined for the video shelves. But it adds up to so much more.

Writer-director Richard Shepard finds an eerie balance of the macabre, the delightful and the sentimental; the movie is so nimble it sometimes switches tones in the middle of a sentence.

Everything centers on the best performance Pierce Brosnan has ever given. He's a loner with no home and no friends, a man who uses booze and prostitutes to distract himself from killing people for a living. He's coming to pieces when he meets Kinnear in a hotel bar. They have a series of conversations so pitch-perfect, even in the way they can't agree on the same pitch, that just to listen to them is a delight entirely apart from what it leads to. Kinnear can hardly believe Brosnan actually kills people, and there is a virtuoso sequence at a bullfight when Brosnan demonstrates how easy it would be to kill -- well, almost anyone. But he's beginning to fall apart, and botched a job in the Philippines.

Now his employers are planning to kill him. The problem with "The Matador" is that no description can do it justice, because its elements sound routine, but its direction, writing and acting elevate it into something very special. It's "Sideways" with death instead of wine, someone said after the screening. I think it was me.

Three more screenings

Of the other films I've seen, one I particularly admired was "Rory O'Shea Was Here," an Irish film by Damien O'Donnell, with James McAvoy and Steven Robertson as young roommates in a home for the physically handicapped. McAvoy plays Rory, paralyzed from the neck down, except for two fingers, by muscular dystrophy. Robertson is Michael Cunningham, whose cerebral palsy makes him almost impossible to understand -- except for Rory, who acts as his translator.

Rory hates institutional life. Michael is OK with it, but agrees it would be good to move into an apartment. They wage a campaign against a well-meaning supervisory board and win the right to move out on their own, recruiting a pretty young blond (Romola Garai) as their caregiver. The strength of the film is in the way it neither sidesteps the severity of the heroes' disabilities nor allows itself to be depressed by them.

Two other films -- the opening night film "Happy Endings" and the British crime drama "Layer Cake" -- are both accomplished exercises in interlocking plots and intersecting characters. Don Roos' "Happy Endings" tells a labyrinthine story about several couples, some of them gay or lesbian, and a tangled web of adoption and sperm donation. Maggie Gyllenhaal is especially effective as a girl without visible means of support who successfully seduces a kid she is pretty sure is gay and uses him as a springboard to his rich dad (Tom Arnold). Sounds cynical until you see the film and realize all these people basically mean well, in their own sometimes very specialized ways.

Matthew Vaughn's "Layer Cake" is another in the recent genre of hard-boiled British movies about gangsters who are too clever by half, or not half clever enough; it amounts to the same thing. Daniel Craig stars as a man who thinks he can run a sane and rational drug distribution business; Colm Meaney once again shows a disconcerting ability to be the most likeable and hateful of characters.

We shuttle from one Sundance screening to another on the tirelessly circulating Park City buses, which function as an instant buzz network. You get on board, and by the time you reach the next stop you may have been talked out of the film you were going to see, and into a film you hadn't even heard about. I now know, for example, that I absolutely must see "Murderball," a documentary about wheelchair rugby players. How do I know that? I heard it on two different shuttle buses. That constitutes a quorum.

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