“The Limey,” Steven Soderbergh’s new crime picture, continues the helmer’s artistic renewal, evident last year in the superbly realized “Out of Sight.” Pic’s most interesting element is the positioning of two icons of 1960s cinema, the very British Terence Stamp and the very American Peter Fonda, as longtime 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, mainly with mature viewers.
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 overcomes its routine elements. 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.
While “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 and Stamp.
First line heard on a black screen is from middle-aged Wilson (Stamp): “Tell me about Jenny.” Leaving London for the first time, after nine years behind bars, Wilson (Stamp) arrives in L.A. to unravel the mystery surrounding the death of his daughter. Stamp’s Wilson is an outsider, an ex-con who’s totally out of touch with the new world, including the crime milieu, its lingo and subculture.
First scenes are excellent in establishing Wilson’s alienation. A solitary figure in a lousy motel, he spends his time chain-smoking while reading newspaper clippings about Jenny, 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 clue Wilson 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 on an affair with Adhara (Amelia Heinle), a young, beautiful girl who’s roughly Jenny’s age.
In an early setpiece, Wilson, dressed entirely in black, goes to a warehouse in downtown L.A., where he is brutally beaten and kicked out, with the honchos taking his gun. Nonetheless, he coolly pulls out 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 shots are heard on the soundtrack.
Later episodes link Wilson with the graceful Elaine (a splendid Lesley Ann Warren), an aging actress who knew Jenny. A relationship (but no romance) evolves, during which Wilson has to face his irresponsible conduct as a father.
At first it seems that “The Limey” is yet another variation of “Hardcore,” in which a Calvinist Midwestern father journeys into the sleazy nether world of porn in search of his missing teenage daughter. But Soderbergh is too smart and modernist a filmmaker to follow that path. Helmer must have realized that the script lacks 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.
The 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 between Wilson and Valentine.
Soderbergh has used Dobbs’ script to make a contemplative, character-driven drama that underplays the familiar crime genre and underworld milieu in favor of a more resonant story about family and intergenerational issues. In this respect, “The Limey” is a revenge thriller almost in spite itself.
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 text.
A key scene alludes to Stamp’s landmark late-’60s movies: Wyler’s “The Collector” and Pasolini’s “Teorema.” Indeed, the two lead performances mirror key roles Stamp and Fonda have played in the past 30 years.
Soderbergh uses extensive footage from Ken Loach’s 1967 film “Poor Cow,” in which Stamp played a young thief named, perhaps not so coincidentally, Wilson. While there is no explicit reference to a particular Fonda picture, watching him here inevitably brings to mind all of his oeuvre, including his most recent 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 pic’s impressive technical aspects. Warren, Guzman and Barry Newman give maturely restrained performances in line with the film’s dominant texture. A supporting turn by Joe Dallessandro, Andy Warhol’s and Paul Morrissey’s regular, accentuates pic’s reflexive nature as a commentary on a bygone era of filmmaking.