The Limey ***
Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Written by Lem Dobbs. Photography, Ed Lachman. Editing, Sarah Flack. Production design, Gary Frutkoff. Music, Cliff Martinez. Produced by John Hardy and Scott Kramer. Cast: Terence Stamp (Wilson), Lesley Ann Warren (Elaine), Luis Guzman (Ed), Barry Newman (Avery), Joe Dallesandro (Uncle John), Nicky Katt (Stacy), Peter Fonda (Terry Valentine), Amelia Heinle (Adhara), Melissa George (Jennifer), et al. An Artisan Entertainment release. 89 minutes. R ( violence, lan guage)
Last May I saw "The Limey" at its world premiere in Cannes. I watched it again locally seven months later. Now, I have always believed that the better understanding and the value or non-value of many a film, require a second screening, if possible much later. A major problem with most critics is that deadlines allow them to give only their first, quick impressions. With some movies, even more than two screenings are called for. Lacking this, my evaluation of "The Limey" is still somewhat guarded.
Terence Stamp is Wilson (no first name), a Limey (slang for British) petty career criminal just released from his latest, 9-year prison stay for armed robbery. He flies from England to Los Angeles to investigate the suspicious death (nominally in a car a ccident) of his estranged daughter Jenny. --and to avenge her.
This leads to sleuthing and extreme violence, and to record producer/drug dealer tycoon Valentine (Peter Fonda) and his henchmen. Jenny was Valentine's girl.
On the face of it, "The Limey" falls in the most familiar sub-genre of revenge/retaliation movies which can be found among crime films, westerns, war movies and tutti quanti. However, behind this deja vu are the novel approach and stylistics of the movie .
>From the very beginning and through the finale, Wilson is a special character. Taciturn, unconfiding in others, he speaks economically with a Cockney accent and pronunciation (e. g. "I was finking about this") yet on at least one occasion he showers hi s listener (a puzzled DEA agent) with a long, vivacious speech in Cockney rhymes.
All along too, the movie bathes in an ocean of flasbacks in every possible direction and of every possible type. These include the leitmotif of Wilson playing in his head home-movies of Jenny as a child, visions of Wilson as a young man, visions of what was, what could have been, might have been, may not have been, and so on. It is a large puzzle plus non-puzzle of genre deconstruction which may or may not confuse the viewer (hence one reason for a third screening of the movie).
Throughout, and among all characters, the dialogue is terse,. The exceptions involve Valentine rather than Wilson.
Flashes as a stylistic device are the most obvious aspect of the film's techniques, yet other procedures are used so that what we learn of Wilson (and others) is based on the iceberg principle -- you really see or perceive only the tip.
The procedures have been compared to those of the French New Wave and to the non-French films they influenced in the 1960s. Indeed, the 1960s and their ethos, updated to the late 1990s, are another constant here. In clear terms, the two major roles of this movie are held by movie icons of the hippie years, with clever twists. Peter Fonda (Valentine) was once Wyatt (aka Captain America), the biker (with his pal Dennis Hopper) in the landmark "Easy Rider" (1969) where doing drugs was within a state o f strange innocence. Decades later, Valentine's drugs then are a savage by-product of capitalism at all costs, including human.
A good touch Terence Stamp, in "Billy Budd" (1962) was a revelation as the sweet-faced innocent victim in the eponymous movie. Four films later, he had a smallish role as a thief called Wilson in the first feature by Ken Loach, "Poor Cow" (1967).
In what may be a first in film history, the flashbacks of "The Limey" repeatedly go to the young Stamp-Wilson without any need of faking, special effects or a digitally created Stamp.
Both actors, born in 1939, are sexagenerians now. Stamp looks younger than his age. Fonda could pass for a young 40-something. He is fashionably garbed, is face is unlined, he is seriously preoccupied with his looks, checks them (and his gums) with nea r-obsessive frequency. He is also a near-Lolita fancier, but without prurience. Jenny has been replaced by Adhara, a young, live-in beauty. We know nothing about her beyond her bare minimum, in a bathtub.
We know very little about anyone else, including the interesting Avery. He is Valentine's lieutenant, middle-aged, chic and "soigné," has authority, delegates the dirty work and looks more like a "consigliere" than a killer. It is characteristic of the movie that while, in principle, treading familiar ground, it avoids stereotypes. Clichés too but not all.
There is more subtlety around than meets the eye initially. In devious, insouciant-seeming ways, Valentine tries to hold on to the decorative Adhara by courting and admiring her openly. Beneath his sophistication there are crypto-pathetic efforts to imp ress a lover who is a fraction of his age. The girl is impressed --in fashion corresponding to that of young cinephiles today discovering great older films-- by the mythical 60s. Yet in a debunking, anti-cliché Valentine tells her that the whole 60s th ing happened only in 1966 and the early 1967.
Where the movie does not resist clichés is in its action scenes. Wilson is tinged by Superman-ness a la Charles Bronson or Dirty Harry. He survives a horrible beating by lowlifes nearly unscathed. He then gets his improbably hidden revolver and kills t hem dead. Wilson disposes of a Valentine guard with ease and no witnesses during a reception. A car chase gets his pursuer vanquished. A major fusillade has the few good guys eliminate the many bad 'uns. The finale employs the far too familiar mano a mano between hero and arch-villain.
A third viewing is in order.