The Limey

(Steven Soderbergh, USA, 1999)


Revenge is one of cinema's great themes.

There are three ways of delivering a revenge tale: as a righteous action story, where we are meant to cheer the hero's dishing out of personal justice against the villain; as an implosive art film, where the revenge quest brings into question the acts and motives of an anti-hero; and as a thoughtful character study, where the revenge impulse leads to a deeper, forgiving redemption.

Two roughly contemporaneous films offer virtuosic variations on the revenge template: Memento (2001) and The Limey. Steven Soderbergh's intricate, busy piece – which he made before Erin Brockovich (2000) and Traffic (2000), although in Australia it was only released after – suspends us gracefully between all three classic scenarios of what happens when an aggrieved man takes revenge. We can never be too sure of where his movie will finally land.

Terence Stamp has the role of his life as Wilson, a British ex-con who makes his way to Los Angeles to investigate and set right the mysterious death of his daughter. He picks up, almost serendipitously, a few sympathetic helpers, Ed (Luis Guzman) and Elaine (Lesley Ann Warren). And he also quickly accumulates enemies, especially the creepy music executive, Terry (Peter Fonda).

Reduced to its essentials, The Limey is not a terribly interesting or involving narrative. Soderbergh and his talented writer Lem Dobbs (Kafka [1991], Dark City [1998]) have transformed it into a triumph of cinematic embroidery. Soderbergh takes the fiddly technique he inaugurated in his previous crime thriller, The Underneath (1995) – flashing back and forth in time, filling every pause with strange cutaways and eccentric details of setting and gesture – to trippy heights.

Soderbergh cites John Boorman's Point Blank (1968) as a major influence. But where the scrambled chronology in that film had a true meaning and resonance, here it is essentially playful and exhibitionistic. At its beginning, The Limey seems like a music video gone mad (a trap into which his Out of Sight [1998] largely fell), but once one becomes accustomed to its odd buzz, it becomes uniquely entertaining.

Soderbergh has a great deal of fun with his actors – something which was to become a trademark of his lighter films, such as Ocean's Eleven (2001). Dobbs takes the Tarantino effect – characters rapping off-plot about small, everyday stuff – and invents some splendid riffs for the cast.

Soderbergh regularly clears the stage for little circus turns, like Wilson's splendid monologue about criminal logic to a bemused law officer. Only the grim hero's incessant rhyming slang comes across as contrived and forced.

Ultimately, the film is not about very much. Soderbergh sketches a curious and somewhat perverse father-daughter theme that also surfaces between the cracks in Traffic, but as usual he dances past the darker implications.

The Limey is best appreciated as a cinematic equivalent to a high-flying piece of modern jazz: effortlessly cool and endlessly inventive, an exercise in crafty pyrotechnics that is completely charming.

MORE Soderbergh: Full Frontal, King of the Hill, Solaris, Fallen Angels, The Underneath, The Knick

© Adrian Martin May 2001

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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