Screenplay : Lem Dobbs
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1999
Stars : Terence Stamp (Wilson), Peter Fonda (Terry Valentine), Lesley Ann Warren (Elaine), Luis Guzman (Ed), Barry Newman (Avery), Joe Dallesandro (Uncle John), Nicky Katt (Stacy), Amelia Heinle (Adhara), Melissa George (Jenny)
Steven Soderbergh is a tough director to put your finger on. He exploded onto the scene in 1989 with the indie groundbreaker "sex, lies, and videotape," and his career since then has been a journey of stylistic experimentation across numerous genres. In 1998, he made a bold move toward the mainstream with the uniformly excellent "Out of Sight," in which he energized what could have been a routine neo-noir flick with injections of black humor, high retro style, and a throw-back affinity for '60s-era crime films.
In his latest effort, "The Limey," he is treading on similar ground. But this time, his mainstream aspirations are reduced and his affinity for the look of movies from 30 years ago has been heightened (especially in his use of a decadent, high modernist home in the California hills as one of the film's primary locations). By casting two now-aging icons of '60s cinema, Terence Stamp ("Billy Bud," "Teorema") and Peter Fonda ("Easy Rider"), in a movie that has been constantly compared stylistically to John Boorman's "Point Blank" (1967), Soderbergh has once again heightened what could have been the routine into a satisfying, richly nostalgic revenge fable with an moving, moral conclusion.
Stamp stars as Wilson, an aging career criminal from England who has just finished a nine-year stint in prison, and has traveled to Los Angeles upon hearing of the death of his estranged daughter, Jenny (played in vivid flashbacks by Melissa George). Wilson begins tracking down her recent history, and learns that, when she died, she was dating a wealthy record producer named Terry Valentine (Fonda), who, according to one character, got rich by taking advantage of "the whole '60s Southern California zeitgeist." Wilson suspects that Valentine was somehow involved in Jenny's shady death (she drove off a road and her car burned), and he is determined to extract revenge.
Soderbergh plays with the simple narrative in the script by Lem Dobbs (who wrote Soderbergh's 1991 mind-bending "Kafka") by skewing the time frame forward and backwards, and using a host of eye-catching stylistic devices. Much of the film is told in flashbacks (he uses clips from Ken Loach's 1967 film "Poor Cow" to show Stamp's character as a young man) as well as flash-forwards (sometimes we see bits of the action before it actually happens). There are numerous scenes where the visual image doesn't match the soundtrack (for instance, we hear characters speaking dialogue, but their mouths aren't moving). The movie plays a lot with color--some scenes are bathed entirely in a sickish green glow, while the flashbacks are jumpy and bluish. Soderbergh and editor Sarah Flack also made strange, but often effective, decisions in the editing room, such as when Wilson delivers an unexpected monologue, and every time he starts a new sentence, the film cuts to a different angle.
Does all this style make up for "The Limey's" so-so story? For the most part, yes. Dobbs' screenplay isn't going to win any awards, although it does deliver a powerful conclusion that makes a strong statement about Wilson's decision to pursue a life of crime, and how such decisions will affect him all his life, even when he's 60 years old.
Stamp and Fonda aren't required to do any strenuous acting, but they fill the parts well. Stamp's primary job is to make us sympathize with a brutal man, but the sheer fact that he is avenging his beautiful young daughter's death is enough of a narrative conceit to put us on his side (not to mention the low levels the rest of the character occupy on the morality scale). Fonda spends most of the film panicking and making us detest him for constantly hiding behind his hired security expert (Barry Newman), also an aging tough guy who doesn't have quite the touch he once had.
"The Limey" is ultimately an eye-catching exercise in style with a story that is never quite as engaging as it could have been. It is short (less than an hour and a half), which is probably a good thing because there wasn't much more Soderbergh could have done with Dobbs' script. Hopefully for his next film Soderbergh will be able to pair his unique directorial talents with a script of great depth and meaning. Then, he might have a masterpiece.
©1999 James Kendrick