Steven Soderbergh may have had some rocky times after his 1989 breakthrough with sex, lies, and videotape, but these days he's on a roll. Last year he produced Pleasantville and directed Out of Sight, two of the year's most praised films. This year he has The Limey, a complex, introspective thriller starring Terence Stamp as an aging British gangster named Wilson.
The Limey opens with a black screen, over which we hear Wilson say, "Tell me. Tell me. Tell me about Jenny." Cut to LAX, where the protagonist walks into focus as the credits roll to the tune of The Who's "The Seeker." Wilson has just been released from an English prison after serving nine years. He has come to L.A., we soon learn, to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of his only daughter, Jenny (Melissa George), an aspiring actress who was killed in an auto accident on Mulholland Drive. Nothing seems particularly fishy about the circumstances, but Wilson, for reasons more subliminal and instinctive than rational, is suspicious.
Wilson may be sixtyish, but he's determined and still tough as nails. He locates Eduardo (Luis Guzman), the only one of Jenny's L.A. friends he knows about. Eduardo finds himself playing Virgil to Wilson's Dante as they descend into the Los Angeles underworld. In the movie, the moral corruption in the hills is just as bad as the blatant violence at street level, though better disguised. It's not long before Wilson knows in his gut that Jenny's final boyfriend -- wealthy music-industry weasel Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda, perfectly cast) -- is somehow responsible for her death.
Terry is one of those innocuous, self-deluded fat cats who think they can dabble a little with Big Crime without really doing anything wrong or getting their hands dirty. In his own mind, he's still a good guy. (His easy charm and shallow self-absorption are so reminiscent of Terry Lennox in Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye that it wouldn't be surprising if screenwriter Lem Dobbs borrowed the name from that classic L.A. slimeball.) Terry's pipeline to ugly reality is Avery (Barry Newman), his lawyer and chief fixer. In his less-than-subtle campaign against Terry, Wilson brings himself to the attention of Avery, the feds and a variety of thugs.
The plot may sound straightforward, even overly familiar in outline, but much of what makes The Limey effective -- outside of several perfectly tuned performances -- is the unusual style Soderbergh applies to the material. While the basic scenario is presented in standard chronological order, there are jump cuts, flashbacks, and even flash-forwards within scenes. (Some of the flashbacks show Wilson as a young gangster back in the '60s, courtesy of black-and-white footage from one of Stamp's earliest films, Ken Loach's 1967 Poor Cow.) Soderbergh dismantles and reassembles the basic elements of normal film grammar in order to reflect the point of view of a character whose mind is haunted and charged with anger. There are times when the dialogue doesn't match the visuals, as though a conversation is being recalled as a jumble of impressions. It's a style that has its roots in the films of Jean-Luc Godard, Nicolas Roeg and Richard Lester, whose work Soderbergh has previously paid homage to. The combination of The Limey's crisp look, with its fractured continuity, is especially evocative of Lester's Petulia.
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The director has played with these stylistic devices before. In his previous exercise in noir, 1994's The Underneath -- perhaps his least satisfying feature -- he used them to a lesser degree. In Out of Sight, he used a similar approach to cut together the scenes of George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez meeting in a bar and later making love. His wacky, underappreciated "personal" film Schizopolis (1996) was practically a catalogue of deconstructed narrative devices. In The Limey, he takes what he played with in that movie and applies it to a more conventional, even commercial, story.
The result is a film approximation of stream of consciousness, and though it can prove confusing and disorienting to audiences at first, it is not nearly as confusing as most skittish studio execs probably think: Even if it isn't an inherent ability to adjust to nonstandard visual language, years of watching commercials and MTV have instilled us with it. In the case of The Limey, it certainly works, in part because the odd narrative style is anchored by the simplicity and directness of the central story.
While the relationship between the style on the one hand and the story and characters on the other is a central pleasure in The Limey, the movie has other, more familiar virtues. Much in the tradition of L.A.-based noir -- John Boorman's Point Blank and Jacques Deray's The Outside Man -- the film has an amusing time skewering the town's social fabric.
There are a very few minor missteps: Wilson's constant use of Cockney rhyming slang serves little purpose and grows quickly irritating. And the song selection on the soundtrack -- mostly classics from the '60s and early to mid-'70s -- sometimes comments on the action too closely. But these are quibbles. The Limey is more involving and intriguing than any by-the-numbers studio thriller. In large part, it holds our interest because of its stylistic boldness, not despite it.