Limey, The (1997): Soderbergh’s Crime Thriller, Positioning Two Icons of 1960s Cinema, Brit Terence Stamp and American Peter Fonda

Steven Soderbergh’s new crime picture, The Limey, continues the artistic renewal that was evident last year in the superbly realized Out of Sight, demonstrating again what a consummate filmmaker Soderbergh is and how easily he overcomes the limitations of his material.

The slim, underdeveloped script by Lem Dobbs, who also wrote Soderbergh’s disappointing sophomore effort, Kafka, promises more than it delivers and is occasionally pretentious and not very engaging dramatically.

Picture’s major achievement is positioning two icons of 1960s cinema, the very Brit Terence Stamp and the very American Peter Fonda, as long-time enemies in what’s basically a routine revenge thriller.

Artisan release lacks the playful mood and deliciously romantic angle of Out of Sight, but with the right marketing pic will play reasonably well with mostly mature viewers due to the age of the characters–and thesps.

Precisely 10 years after he won the Palme d’Or for his superb feature debut, sex, lies and videotape, Soderbergh is back in Cannes with an Out-of Competition selection that shows again his ability to take a routine crime meller and make it an accomplished piece of filmmaking that easily overcome the routine elements of a familiar generic item. If technically Out of Sight employed stylistic devices associated with 1970s cinema, The Limey pays homage to and is full of allusions to 1960s international cinema, a feeling accentuated by the casting of Fonda, still best known for Easy Riders, and Stamp, who burst onto the film scene with Billy Budd and later Blowup and The Collector.

First line heard on a black screen is Wilson (Stamp), a middle-aged man, saying “Tell me about Jenny” Leaving London for the first time, after 9 years behind bars, Wilson arrives in L.A. to unravel the mystery surrounding the death of his daughter. Stamp portrays him as an outsider out of place in both time and space, an ex-con who’s totally out of touch with the new world, including the crime milieu, its lingo and its subculture.

Early scenes are excellent in establishing Wilson’s alienation. A solitary figure in a lousy motel, he spends his time chain-smoking while watching at newspapers clips and photos of his daughter, who died under mysterious circumstances, according to a letter he received from a man called Ed (Luis Guzman).

After initial hesitations, Ed, also a former criminal, becomes Wilson’s partner and buddy. The only clueWilson has is that Jenny was involved in a love affair with Valentine (Fonda), an affluent record producer, who owns a spectacular house in the Hollywood Hills, where he now carries an affair with Adhara (Amelia Heinle), a young beautiful girl who’s roughly Jenny’s age.

In an early set piece, Wilson, dressed entirely in black, goes to a warehouse in an empty downtown L.A., where he is brutally beaten and kicked out, with the honchos removing the gun. Nonetheless, he coolly pulls another gun hidden under his belt and returns to the spot, shooting most of the people in a visually gripping scene, in which a stationary camera waits outside while shotguns are heard on the soundtrack.

Later episodes link Wilson with the graceful Elaine (a splendid Lesley Ann Warren), an aging actress who has met Jenny. A relationship (but no romance) evolves, during which Wilson has to face his irresponsible conduct as a father. When Wilson demands to know how Jenny felt about him, Elaine says, “Jenny was not ashamed. She was disappointed.”

At first, it seems that The Limey is yet another variation of Hardcore, in which a Calvinist Midwesterner father (George C. Scott) journeys into the sleazy netherworld of porn in search of his missing teenage daughter. But Soderbergh is too smart and modernist filmmaker to follow that path. Helmer must have realized that the script lacks much dramatic momentum, for he structures the whole film around his two central characters.

Narrative actually resembles a Western, in which two aging criminals must face the rapidly changing conditions around them and must come to terms with their own identity–and mortality. The problem with the script is that it lacks secondary characters and subplots to enrich the unraveling of the chief mystery. It was the large, diverse ensemble of Out of Sight that made it so thrilling to watch. Film also suffers from unfolding as a series of set pieces that don’t build much continuity or excitement.

Similarly, there is no emotional payoff in the final confrontation, when Wilson and Valentine meet and wrestle mano a mano, and Valentine reveals how Jenny was killed.

It feels as if Soderbergh has used Dobbs’ script to make a quiet, contemplative, character-driven drama that underplays the familiar crime genre and underworld milieu in favor of a more resonant and reflexive drama about family and intergenerational issues. In this respect, The Limey is a crime revenge thriller almost in spite itself. Hence, obeying the genre’s surface dictates, midway there’s the obligatory chase scene, which is not particularly thrilling–or necessary.

Early on, Wilson says, “Oh, the 1960s, there was only 1966 and early 1967,” a key scene that alludes to his landmark movies during those years: Wyler’s The Collector, Antonioni’s Blowup and Pasolini’s Teorema. Indeed, the two lead performances mirror key roles Stamp and Fonda have played in the past 30 years that brought them international reputation and defined the zeitgeist of an entire era.

Extensive footage is used from Ken Loach’s 1967 film, Poor Cow, in which Stamp played a young thief named, perhaps not so coincidentally, Wilson. Soderbergh inserts shots of Stamp into the yarn during Wilson’s introspection, which, visually, accounts for the most striking images. And while there is no explicit reference to a particular Fonda picture, watching him here inevitably brings to mind all of his oeuvre, including his latest triumph in Ulee’s Gold.

Whatever deficiencies critics may find in the overextended monologues (mostly by Stamp) and terse, often oblique dialogue (mostly Fonda and his entourage), one has no problem praising the bravura acting of the entire ensemble and the impressive technical aspects of moviemaking. Lesley Anne Warren, Guzman, and Barry Newman all give maturely restrained performances in line with the film’s dominant texture.

Ed Lachman’s subtle use of light and inventive framing of space and Sarah Flack’s astute cutting and smooth transitions between past and present elevate The Limey way above its writing. Supporting turn by Joe Dallassandro, Andy Warhol’s and Paul Morrissey’s regular, accentuates The Limey’s reflexive nature as commentary on a bygone era of filmmaking.