THE MATADOR — *** 1/2 — Pierce Brosnan, Greg Kinnear, Hope Davis; rated R (profanity, violence, vulgarity, sex, partial nudity, ethnic slurs).

One of the first film roles Pierce Brosnan accepted after his final 007 appearance in "Die Another Day" was Julian Noble, a hit man and the apparent title character of "The Matador."

Julian Noble couldn't be further removed from James Bond. In fact, the sight of matinee idol Brosnan as a foul-mouthed, boozy, crass killer will probably come as a bit of a shock to fans.

But freeing himself from the Bond baggage may have been a good thing for his career. His work in those films had gotten as stale as the material itself, while his performance in this wry, dark comedy is perhaps his best to date.

As played by Brosnan, Julian fancies himself a successful "facilitator of fatalities," as he puts it. His most recent assignment has taken him to Mexico City, which is where he meets Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear).

Danny, who's been laid off from a high-paying job and hopes to pull together a big business deal to boost his failing career, meets Julian in the hotel bar, and they develop an unlikely friendship.

But when Julian reveals his line of work to his new chum, Danny is horrified and cuts off all contact. So he's surprised when, some time later, Julian turns up on his doorstep in the middle of the night, asking for a favor.

From there, things don't go in quite the direction you're expecting, which is refreshing. In fact, this script, courtesy of director Richard Shepard, features some extremely clever dialogue and is one of the smarter films out right now. (However, it also contains a peppering of four-letter swear words and some crude sexual dialogue.)

Shepard has also discovered a great on-screen duo with Brosnan and Kinnear. The evolution of their friendship, which begins quite tentatively, is very believable. So, too, is Brosnan, whose performance reveals surprising vulnerability. And Kinnear and Hope Davis, as Danny's wife, are also terrific.

"The Matador" is rated R for occasional use of strong sexual profanity, some strong scenes of violence (including shootings and a bullfight), crude sexual talk and use of sexually suggestive slang terms, simulated sex (some of it done for laughs), partial female nudity and use of some ethnic slurs. Running time: 97 minutes.