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Criticwire Classic of the Week: Steven Soderbergh’s ‘The Limey’

Criticwire Classic of the Week: Steven Soderbergh's 'The Limey'

Every now and then on the Criticwire Network an older film gets singled out for attention. This is Criticwire Classic of the Week.

“The Limey”
Dir: Steven Soderbergh
Criticwire Average: A+

Steven Soderbergh closed out his first decade as a filmmaker with an absolute masterpiece. “The Limey,” a fractured meditation on regret disguised as a revenge thriller, features Soderbergh’s populist and experimental modes coming together with assured confidence, but he’s not solely responsible for the cumulative effect of the film. The credit also belongs screenwriter Lem Dobbs’ inhabited script, cinematographer Edward Lachman’s sun-drenched photography that masks deep wells of melancholy, the stunning performances of the entire cast but especially Terence Stamp, and finally, Sarah Flack’s cut-up editing style that almost single-handedly elevates a B-movie noir to a Proustian recollection of past mistakes, missed opportunities, and the futility of revenge. Soderbergh’s collaborative spirit is the foundation of “The Limey’s” stylish veneer and emotional potency.

The plot is simple: Wilson (Stamp), an ex-con, travels to Los Angeles to investigate the mysterious death of his daughter Jenny. After consulting with two allies and friends of Jenny, Eduardo (Luis Guzman) and Elaine (Lesley Ann Warren), he discovers that Jenny was seeing this famous record producer Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda), a guy who not only “took the whole ’60s Southern California zeitgeist and ran with it” but who’s also involved with drug trafficking through his right-hand man Jim Avery (Barry Newman). Wilson plans to avenge his daughter’s death by killing Valentine while dodging Avery, two hit-men (Nicky Katt and Joe Dallesandro), and the DEA, all the while haunted by his absence in his daughter’s life and his many years spent as a criminal.

On paper, that may sound like an enjoyable albeit formulaic revenge thriller in the vein of John Boorman’s “Point Blank,” but as the old maxim says: “It’s not what it’s about, but how it’s about it.” Though the revenge plot drives the film forward, Soderbergh and co. privilege the more pensive, ruminative qualities of Dobbs’ script over all else. Soderbergh frequently films Stamp in close-up, capturing his pain and heartbreak underneath his grizzled, menacing visage, while his character is forced to reckon with his past in the harsh light of day captured by Lachman’s blue- and yellow-heavy palette. But it’s Flack who makes the most valuable contribution with her unorthodox editing. She completely fractures the narrative, shattering past and present time, as well as blurring the line between memory and reality, but it’s more than that. Flack constructs “The Limey” as disjointed memory with sounds and dialogue from one scene bleeding into another, or superimposing future conversations over present ones. She juxtaposes images that relate but don’t necessarily connect in order to suggest melancholia without exactly engendering it. It’s a crucial technique that allows “The Limey” to embody the actual process of recollection, the way in which memory renders time a free-flowing river rather than a linear path.

However, Soderbergh’s ultimate decision to cut Dobbs’ script to its absolute essential elements is arguably “The Limey’s” raison d’être. The film’s DVD commentary track features Soderbergh and Dobbs arguing over the finished product; Dobbs laments Soderbergh’s butchering of his script, cutting away the political subtext and the deep backstories of the supporting cast in order to focus more heavily on Wilson’s relationship with his daughter. The result is a film that traffics in small gestures and bare characterization rather than relying on many details. But it’s Dobbs’ script that provides “The Limey” with history and experience; the characters and the world they inhabit feel inhabited, like they’ve always been there and we, the audience, are just catching a glimpse of a moment in their lives. It’s silly and reductive to claim that characters like Eduardo and Elaine are just “sketches” when it only takes a minute of screen time for them to communicate their personality, their motivations, and their perspective. Every minor character in this film makes a mark, and it’s entirely because Soderbergh was working from an initially dense script. He kept all of Dobbs’ human details but just relegated them to suggestion and subtext.

“The Limey” is pure cinematic poetry, creating ineffable feelings with quick shots or brief montages, like the “King Midas in Reverse” sequence near the beginning that perfectly introduces Valentine, his lifestyle, and his associates without missing a beat. The film’s emotional power lies in facial expressions, like Stamp’s look of horror when he realizes he shares the blame for his daughter’s death. It engages in offbeat techniques that never feel like gimmicks, i.e. Soderbergh’s seemingly inexplicable decision to include scenes from Ken Loach’s 1967 debut “Poor Cow,” featuring a young Terence Stamp, that functions as back story for Wilson; it’s an intertextual allusion for sure, as Stamp’s character in “Poor Cow” is a young thief, but it also just works on its own as glimpses of a more quaint, but no less complicated period of time. So many sequences in “The Limey” have endless staying power, like the offscreen shoot-out that concludes with Wilson’s most indelible line (“Tell him I’m fucking coming!”) or the long shot of Wilson throwing one of Valentine’s bodyguards over a cliff, but the moment that stays with me is a brief exchange between Eduardo and Elaine as Wilson walks ahead of them. “You ever even understand half the shit this guy’s saying?” Eduardo asks. “No, but I know what he means,” Elaine replies. That’s “The Limey” in a nutshell.

More thoughts from the web:

Roger Ebert, RogerEbert.com

Soderbergh makes full use of the screen history of both Terence Stamp and Peter Fonda. We get flashbacks of Wilson as a young man — actually Stamp in the movie “Poor Cow” (1967). The first time we see Fonda, a song tells us “he’s ‘Easy Rider’ with a curse.” We learn the Valentine character “took the whole ’60s Southern California zeitgeist and ran with it.” What is “The Limey” about? Drugs, girls, guns and revenge? Not at all. It’s about retirement. It’s about tough guys who talk big but are past their sell-by dates. They’re not fast enough for the ageless limey, who was cured in prison like beef jerky, and comes in low and fast. Soderbergh’s visuals place them in the eternal world of California wealth and sun, heaven’s waiting room, where the old look young until they look dead. When Wilson gets off the plane from London, they might as well take their zeitgeist and stick it where the zeit don’t geist. Read more.

Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly

Like Pablo Picasso thrillingly exploding old notions of how we perceive faces and wine bottles, director Steven Soderbergh thrillingly splinters time and action in “The Limey,” a small cubist masterpiece about crime and punishment set in that most split-level of environments, Los Angeles. “Tell me. Tell me about Jenny,” a Cockney voice demands before the picture even rolls. The yoiky vowels belong to Wilson (Terence Stamp), the down-market Briton of the title (limey being old slang for British sailors who sucked citrus at sea to prevent scurvy). Jenny was Wilson’s daughter, who lived with oil-slick record producer Valentine (Peter Fonda) high in the Hollywood Hills and died under circumstances her father doesn’t believe were accidental. The ice-eyed ex-con’s assault on the scurviness of Jenny’s adopted town, the steady focus with which he tracks ever-shifting Hollywood sleaze in pursuit of whoever harmed his girl, is the whole story. Read more.

Wesley Morris, San Francisco Examiner

Both Fonda’s reserve and the anguished fury brewing beneath Stamp’s chill veneer are the products of Soderbergh’s interest in style becoming a film’s substance. There’s a dismantling, satirical bent to the post-idealist casting here, but it’s the movie that informs the joke, as opposed to the other way around. Bells and whistles are eschewed in favor of whispers, and if you’re laughing, you’re doing it dryly and – once Soderbergh applies his vice-grip to the tension in Dobb’s roomy script with handsome dialogue – nervously. The film’s imbued with a ’70s sense of manual style, when cuts jumped because a Moviola made them. And “The Limey” is dizzied with cuts that jump as readily as they’re peeled and folded over each other and it’s soused on catch-it-if-you-can hand-held shot-making that movies about thugs deserve – even one as petty, but as driven as Wilson. Read more.

Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader

Many of Steven Soderbergh’s better films seem to exist in the shadow of their predecessors. For all its freshness, “Sex, Lies, and Videotape,” his first feature, was a replay of many self-referential movies about movies dating from the ’60s and ’70s. “The Underneath” was a more direct remake, of the ’40s noir “Criss Cross,” and it was an interesting variation rather than any sort of improvement. Yet part of what’s so good about “The Limey,” a contemporary thriller starring Terence Stamp as an ex-con avenging the death of his daughter, is the way it evokes “Point Blank,” which is still John Boorman’s best movie. The complex play with time, the metaphysical ambiguity, the stylish wit and violence, and the cool sense of LA architecture all evoke that singular Lee Marvin vehicle. For that matter, a lot of flashback material about the hero as a young man comes straight out of Ken Loach’s 1967 “Poor Cow.” But with or without a sense of where it all comes from, this is a highly enjoyable and offbeat thriller — better to my taste than Soderbergh’s “Out of Sight,” though similarly quirky in how it sets about telling a story. Read more.

Fernando F. Croce, CinePassion

In times of mindless postmodernism, Soderbergh distinguishes between the reductive appropriation of an era (stunt casting, or a Che Guevara shirt, say) and the tenderly analytical embodying of it. The young Stamp of Loach’s “Poor Cow” is a remembrance faded and lovingly integrated, his aged façade of cool crumbles slightly before Bill Duke’s nonplussed federal-agent Buddha. “The old faces. They’re nowhere. Different characters nowadays.” Luis Guzman’s grubby nobility and Leslie Ann Warren’s worn swan force deserve films of their own, Nicky Katt and Joe Dallesandro are what Angelenos would be like if written by Pinter. There’s a Tati long-shot gag involving a hefty henchman and a cliff, “Magic Carpet Ride” finally given the proper treatment, and some of the most profound visions of regret and loss on film. This is assuredly Soderbergh’s masterpiece — the ache of missed chances and bad choices, the loneliness of vengeance, the search for true emotion in an ocean of ruthless fragmentation. Read more.

Scott Renshaw, IMDB

For all its moodiness and somber tones, “The Limey” really isn’t terribly interested in the complexities of its characters. Terence Stamp does a nice job as Wilson, mixing a bit of introspection into the standard issue tough guy, but the introspection isn’t as deep as all the mournful close-ups of Stamp would suggest — he’s just, as they say in the self-help biz, looking for closure. Guzman and Warren are flat-out wasted as supporting players who barely have a chance to register, while Fonda gets one or two decent moments as the fading tycoon. When Nicky Katt appears mid-way through the film as a hired killer, igniting the screen with his seething disdain for absolutely everything, it’s startling. And you have to credit Katt, because screenwriter Lem Dobbs doesn’t seem otherwise keen on vivid personalities. Read more.

Mike D’Angelo, The Man Who Viewed Too Much

It’s probably not a coincidence that Soderbergh’s two weakest films to date were both written by Lem Dobbs; like their previous collaboration, “Kafka,” this is little more than a dubious exercise in style, its under-baked narrative garnished with generous dollops of visual brio. From the opening shot — the usual fade-in and/or “so-and-so presents” titles eschewed in favor of an abrupt explosion of blurry color; the title character coming gradually into focus as he approaches the lens; “THE LIMEY” suddenly superimposed in huge, clunky block letters — Soderbergh gives the film a deliberately old-fashioned veneer: specifically, a mid-’60s, vaguely “Point Blank”-ish vibe involving lots of obscure flashbacks and flash-forwards, dialogue frequently out of sync with picture, etc. Not entirely inappropriate, given that both pro- and antagonist are played by notable ’60s icons (most of the Stamp-related flashbacks involve footage from Ken Loach’s “Poor Cow,” in fact); I didn’t even much mind that both actors were used strictly iconically, which is to say that neither one was actually required to act. (Stamp scowls; Fonda frets; that’s about it.) That the movie offers nothing more than a mildly pleasant nostalgia for a bygone cinematic era, however, eventually proved somewhat irksome. It’s possible, I suppose, that Dobbs’ scripts are eloquent and poetic and make for superlative reading — Soderbergh’s a smart fella, and he’s been raving about the guy for a decade now — but whatever’s special about them doesn’t seem to translate to the screen, at least so far; the revenge plot that ostensibly drives “The Limey” is about as inventive and gripping as that of “The Crow,” with the eponymous Englishman and Super(anti)hero equally implacable, equally tormented, equally tiresome. Read more.

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