Retro Review: The Limey (1999).
The Limey is a gripping crime thriller about loss and revenge told out of sequence.
Director Steven Soderbergh is famous for the slick Ocean’s Eleven heist series and returns to the world of quirky crime flicks this weekend with the upcoming Logan Lucky. One of my all time favorite crime films was Soderbergh’s cockney revenge thriller, The Limey. The story of a hardened ex-con who is looking for trouble, this film grabbed my attention right away with its unique style. The film plays with the notion of cause and effect, placing visuals and dialogue out of sequence. In a genre where tension relies on who knows what and when, this was a daring innovation.
The Limey (1999)
Wilson (Terence Stamp) is a career criminal who has just been released from a decade long stint in a British prison. As he’s getting out, he discovers that his estranged daughter has been killed in an accident in Los Angeles. Wilson smells a rat and hops across the pond in order to shake down anyone connected to his little girl’s death, and he’s not adverse to doing bad things to bad people if the need arises.
Sequence and Tension.
The Limey is a tense drama that doesn’t rely on the usual methods of the revenge quest. There isn’t an escalation of the stakes or the violence. The bloodiest scene in the film happens in the first half hour where Wilson iconically walks into a mechanic’s shop that he suspects has connections to his daughter’s death and kills all but one person there as a warning to the people he is after. There also isn’t a labyrinth of clues to follow and decode. Wilson gets his man’s number in that same sequence and all that’s left is for him to walk down his target.
The way Soderbergh keeps the pot boiling in this film is not by making the plot uncertain but by making the whole narrative uncertain. While the story unfolds in a straightforward manner, the film transitions in a way that makes you guess where the pieces fit into the chronological story. We get dialogue that is dissociated with what is happening on the screen and shots that cut away to images that seem to have either happened earlier or not yet occurred. There are flashbacks that are clearly the main star, but they’re taken from another film altogether, making the continuity even more convoluted.
On the Outside.
The disjointed visual sequences work hand-in-glove with the dialogue to obscure the proceedings. Wilson speaks in a cockney slang at times which makes his exact meanings difficult to parse, though you never lose the general point. His opponent, an aging record exec named Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda) who is a relic of the 60’s counter culture, also speaks in a hodge podge of southern Californian colloquialisms and shibboleths from his own sub-culture. It all works out that while the drama is very personal, nobody is really speaking the same language or sharing the same understanding of the events – just like the audience.
The glue that holds all of the pieces together is the strong performances. Terence Stamp manages to portray Wilson as a man who is completely straightforward on the outside and surprisingly complex on the inside. As a career criminal and lower class stiff, he tends to see things in black and white and to move in a straight line towards his goals. He pretty much literally walks down his target, climbing over any obstacle like a robot.
Beneath his hard skin, though, we get a man who is grappling with tough issues, perhaps for the first time in his life. His troubled relationship with his daughter and his increasingly conflicted feelings about the man who caused her death show us a man who is used to life being tough and cruel, but predictable. Now he’s a man at sea with no compass besides his ingrained habits of violence.
The supporting cast is mostly great as well. I love Louis Guzman in almost every supporting role he takes. He’s charming while being down to earth and he instantly makes exposition feel natural with his easy delivery. Leslie Anne Warren plays a former confidant of Wilson’s daughter, and she provides a nice foil to him. She doesn’t so much challenge his views as provide the audience insight into how he ticks through her attempts to get past his armor. The only weak spot for me was actually Peter Fonda, who I think played his villain as a tad too much of a yellow bellied varlet.
Steven Soderbergh is sometimes criticized for making either breezy popular films or navel-gazing indie films. With The Limey, you get the best of both worlds. The central conflict can be viewed as a grand clash of ideologies between the post modernist Valentine (representing the essential lack of meaning or truth to nature) and the neo-modernist Wilson (truth is real, we’re just really bad at knowing it on more than a personal level) which is mirrored by the film blending techniques from modernist and post-modernist schools…but you can also just enjoy this movie as a tough-as-nails revenge story with a great cast.
Like the best art, this film has layers. I remember being mesmerized by the unorthodox cinematography and sound work. I didn’t get a lot of the subtext back then (and maybe not most of it now!) but I knew I was watching something really different. I also knew that this was a great little crime thriller where Terence Stamp murders a whole garage full of dudes while yelling “Tell him I’m fucking coming!!!” There’s a whole lots of ways to enjoy this movie, is what I’m saying. Oh, and don’t mess with Terence Stamp, dude will mess up your day.