The Limey - Internet Movie Database The Limey - Nitrate Online Review
Contents | Features | Reviews | Books | Archives | Store
The Limey - Nitrate Online Store
Movie Credits Buy It!

The Limey

Review by Jerry White
Posted 5 November 1999


Directed by Steven Soderbergh 

Starring Terence Stamp,
Peter Fonda, Lesley Ann Warren,
Luis Guzmán, Barry Newman,
Joe Dallesandro, Nicky Katt,
Amelia Heinle, Melissa George,
Jim Jenkins, and Johnny Sanchez

Written by Lem Dobbs

Who would have thought that Steven Soderbergh, the man who basically invented the U.S. indie boom, would make films like the weird, deeply fragmented Schizopolis right before turning out the zesty, perhaps brilliant genre films Out Of Sight and now The Limey? He is turning into one of the U.S.'s most unpredictable, consistently interesting filmmakers, and his latest film heartily re-enforces this assertion of mine. It displays the same sense of narrative efficiency that marked Out Of Sight, and also features odd little stylistic quirks that, like the freeze frames and 70s soundtrack of his last film, remind the viewer that it's all just a movie. Both of these films (and I think The Limey has a lot more in common with Out Of Sight than with any of Soderbergh's other films) always threaten to go careening off into the overly arty or pretentious, but miraculously Soderbergh keeps them both under control. He does this, in both films, through keeping a very close eye on his actors, keeping them focussed and never allowing them to "go ironic," allowing the viewer to develop emotional attachment to the situations. The Limey is a clever, stylistically aggressive film, but it never seeks the kind of distance or snideness that so many of the filmmakers inspired by Sex, Lies And Videotape have, to the peril of American film as a whole, embraced.

The film stars Terence Stamp, who plays Wilson, an aging English tough guy who's just gotten out of jail, only to realise that his daughter Jenny has died in the United States. Skeptical of the story that she died in car crash, he journeys to Los Angeles to try to avenge what he assumes is her murder. Once there he goes after record producer Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda), a slimeball record producer who seems to have had a counter-cultural past which he now thoroughly commodified. Valentine launches an elaborate plan to kill Valentine, who he insists must know that it's him who's killed him, and must know that he did it to avenge Jenny. The narrative oscillates between a drama of self-discovery and a shoot-‘em-up crime film (sometimes unevenly). That self-discovery is largely comprised of Wilson re-thinking the way that he lost the chance to raise his daughter because of his time behind bars, a point in his life that's represented by footage from Ken Loach's 1967 Poor Cow, which also starred Stamp as a small-time thief.

This footage is integrated in a seamless way; furthermore, it's melancholy, quietly touching, and not a half-bad indication of why The Limey works so well. These moments break up the film's flow somewhat, since they have a totally different visual texture. The way that the young man look like Stamp, but doesn't quite look like him, is startling (Poor Cow, after all, isn't an especially famous film, and it's easy to imagine that most viewers wouldn't recognise these images). But these moments don't simply take the viewer out of the film, like the self-conscious gesture they seem to be. Instead, their impact is emotional, almost sentimental. The shots from the 60s feel like fragments of lost memories, memories that Stamp badly wants to get back. And Stamp, despite creating a hard-as-nails exterior for Wilson, is careful to show just how broken and sad the guy is. It's more than the old cliche of the tough guy with a heart of gold; Stamp's character is most definitely not a nice guy. But he is old, and he's tired, and the way that Stamp plays this make the viewer feel some real sympathy for him. All the performances work this way; Lesley Anne Warren, for example, plays a washed-up TV actress, and without a hint of condescension she captures the way all of her sometimes ridiculous aspirations have one by one been quashed. Peter Fonda's Valentine is, to be sure, an absurd, sleazy character, and Fonda visualises him as someone defined in equal parts by ambition and cluelessness. He's a totally pathetic character, but he's developed in a surprisingly three-dimensional way that makes his ridiculousness painful, not merely amusing.

Indeed, The Limey works so well because of the way that it so skilfully moves between ironic distance from and total involvement with both the dramatically (and sometimes melodramatically) played characters and the pulpy, genre-based plot. On a certain level this is a quite standard murder-revenge thriller, and it provides all the slam-bang pleasure that such a film is supposed to. It's also a certifiable art film, though, complete with witty dialogue and weird visual and narrative flourishes. Various parts of sequences repeat themselves, and sometimes there are close ups of characters staring off into space with their voice on the soundtrack (it's like Soderbergh's shot-reverse shot machine breaks down from time to time). Like the black and white images of Stamp, though, these moments don't so much pull you out of the film as they do make you uncomfortable and edgy. They add to the crazy crime-film-ness of it all, instead of looking down at the genre by making you remember that this really is an art film.

What I'm trying to explain here might be clarified by thinking back a few years to the awful, pretentious film Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead (1993). This film featured enormous amounts of violence, hysterical characters, and a great deal of gangster-posing. It provided the kinetic pleasure that action movie afficionados would want, but its combination of ridiculous dialogue, out-of-control performances and show-off camera work made it clear that it considered itself much smarter than some grubby little Steven Segal flick. There are moments in The Limey where I began to fear that it might take such a direction, but Soderbergh mostly manages to steer clear of this kind of smarminess. Things To Do In Denver When You're Dumb is a film that tries to have its cake and eat it too; The Limey is a film that does its best to complicate conventional distinctions between visceral and intellectual / aesthetic pleasure. Six of one, half dozen of the other? Perhaps, but try to keep in mind that Soderbergh has built his career on very skilfully complicating just these kinds of simplicities. Out Of Sight is an obvious example, but Sex, Lies And Videotape is just as notable for the way that it both provides the emotional pleasure of a romantic melodrama even though its stylistic and narrative quirks make it clear from the very beginning that it's something more than that too. It could be said that Soderbergh invented the whole idea of the smart, hip U.S. indie film, and that he's partially responsible for the sometimes infuriatingly smarty-pants way that Hollywood has been transformed. And yet, as he's moved into an essentially Hollywood-ish mode of production, he's shown us the exciting possibilities of the genre film / art film hybrid. The Limey, if it wasn't so atypical among filmmakers who have made the indie to Hollywood leap, would serve as an eloquent defense of the wave of young American film making that its director unleashed a decade ago.

Contents | Features | Reviews | Books | Archives | Store
Copyright © 1999 by Nitrate Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.  Copyright © 1996-2005 by Nitrate Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.