The Limey – 1999

Director Steven Soderbergh
Screenplay Lem Dobbs
Starring Terence Stamp, Lesley Ann Warren, Luis Guzmán, Barry Newman, Peter Fonda, Bill Duke, Amelia Heinle, Joe Dallesandro, Nicky Katt, Melissa George

“You tell them I’m coming. I’m fucking coming!”Wilson

One of the most intriguing things one notices when watching Soderbergh’s The Limey is the incessant images of Terrance Stamp’s Wilson looking like he is deep in thought. The key to these scenes is some of the most incredible editing of any film in the ’90’s. The film is a tight 89 minutes, but once you’ve seen the film, it feels like you’ve been watching for at least twice that time. This is a miraculous feeling.

The story is written by Lem Dobbs, who claims it to be a much deeper character study than he he sees in the film. The curse for Dobbs is that he wrote it and the characters continue to live on in his memory.

The audience have no such memory to labor over. We get to see Wilson come to Los Angeles after receiving evidence that his daughter has died in an accident on Mulholland Drive at night. Wilson does not agree. He thinks that his daughter Jenny (George) died of foul play and now he is back in town to exact some revenge on her killer as soon as he figures out who is responsible.

The person responsible Valentine (Fonda) has money, friends and a brand new girlfriend whom he helped the parents to name Adhara, after a constellation. It was a real hippie thing to do back when he was her age, decades ago.

Wilson meets up with a few of Jenny’s friends (Guzmán and Warren). They help him find clues and avoid meeting an untimely demise himself. One of the best scenes of this kind involves an ambush that Wilson is entirely unprepared for, yet still survives.

Its moments like these, giving our protagonist some skill in violence, but also an amount of luck to keep them alive, that make The Limey better than films that copied it later. Pick any Liam Neeson film, you won’t find him lucking his way out of certain death.

Wilson is not some James Garner character, though, He is intensely disturbed. We get to see this through the flashes that happen whenever we focus on Wilson. He isn’t happy go lucky, because that would require an emotion he does not possess.

Soderbergh is too intelligent a filmmaker to give his protagonist an emotion range in line with the daisy air rifle. Stamp has an vast range as demonstrated through the remarkable editing of Sarah Flack. They even work in imagery from an earlier, unrelated film, “Poor Cow” to give the memory sequence an incredible resonance. It allows for a type of visual poetry which gives a kaleidoscopic effect and a fullness that linear storytelling prevents.

Stamp is as good as I have seen him here. He has a sense of guilt that rides with him throughout his quest. He rages through the first two acts like a runaway train. He obliterates anyone dumb enough to jump on the rails. His life has been a waste in order to earn money offshore when he is to get older. He had no idea how much he would lose as time behind bars accumulated.

Fonda is perfect as the symbol of American excess. In losing all of the vision he seemed to have back in the 60’s he gains all the money and prestige in the process. His protector Jim (Newman) gives cover legally and otherwise. Some of the other protection (Katt and D’alessandro) are funny as well as incompetent.

If you can make it through the commentary track on the dvd (yeah, I have had this movie for a while) you will discover a simmering tension between Dobbs and Soderbergh. Dobbs issues stem from a seeming lack of development on screen that he colored for the page. Soderbergh calmly addresses the shift as a necessary move to keep the story from stalling.

Dobbs reluctantly agrees that if he shelves his interest as screenwriter, the film does work. No matter the disagreement, this is one he would go on to work with the director a third time.

The synthesis of story for purposes of brevity works well here. Stamp is the prime beneficiary of the style, as they manage to fill his performance with deep expression with little exposition. The times he really lets loose with the storytelling – like his incredible cockney yarn he gives the commanding Bill Duke – the result is magic.

This is one of Soderbergh’s best. Coming directly from Out of Sight and just before Ocean’s 11, it’s easy for The Limey to get lost in the shuffle. Don’t let too this one pass you by.

(***** out of *****)

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