Soderbergh’s eccentric ‘The Limey’ explores fatherhood from the perspective of a bereaved veteran criminal

August 22, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Aug. 22, 2015

The Limey, the 1999 crime drama directed by the prolific Steven Soderbergh, is a quirky movie about a British criminal who visits Los Angeles to investigate the death of his daughter.

Terence Stamp stars as Wilson, who flies to the States fresh off a nine-year prison stint for armed robbery. He initially enlists the aid of fellow ex-con Eduardo (Luis Guzmán), who met Jenny Wilson (Melissa George) in an acting class. Later, Wilson ingratiates himself with Elaine (Lesley Ann Warren), the acting coach who became Jenny’s surrogate mother, due in no small part to her own mother having died when Jenny was a child.

This story could have played out as a straightforward revenge tale, and Wilson certainly isn’t above getting his hands dirty as he pushes for answers about just how and why Jenny died. But Soderbergh and the British screenwriter Lem Dobbs (the screenwriter of the well-regarded science fiction mind-bender Dark City) have a different agenda in mind. What initially seems to be a simple film narrative actually turns out to be a flashback: The entire story is framed as Wilson’s reminiscing as he flies back to England.

And in fact, it’s not entirely clear if Stamp’s iron-willed thief and con artist is really after revenge. Is this man dressed in black — and in navy, dark gray and other somber tones — actually pursuing some kind of resolution, such as a clearer understanding of Jenny’s death? Or is he perhaps after a higher goal, some form of redemption for his life of sinning? Soderbergh and Dobbs leave the matter open to interpretation, even as they stage a bloody climax in which Wilson and a few unlikely allies lay siege to a rich record executive at his luxurious house on a remote stretch of the California coast. It’s a curious ending, one that manages both to fulfill and to undermine viewer expectations.

The executive whose coastal retreat is besieged, Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda), is Wilson’s antithesis: Rich, respectable, famous, popular, handsome, charming, violence-averse and clad in white or whimsical garb. But the two have a few things in common: Both are self-centered iconoclasts, and both have been involved in criminal activities — although Valentine has been much more successful at concealing that fact.

The pair have one other thing in common: Jenny. During Wilson’s last stint in prison, she moved to America and became the girlfriend of Valentine, a man of the same generation as her father. But unlike Wilson, Valentine has moved on; his newest object of affection is the beautiful young Adhara (Amelia Heinle). Everything about this new relationship is creepy: Not only did Valentine himself suggest Adhara’s unusual name to her parents, it’s derived from an Arabic word meaning maidens — a perfect choice given the music executive’s interest in much younger women.

The audience can’t help but wonder how the volatile Wilson will react to the young woman filling the vacancy once held by his daughter. The tension is heightened by the fact that she is bathing and believes herself to be completely alone when the characters cross paths.

The two other main players in the ensemble are Valentine’s smooth-talking security consultant, Avery (Barry Newman), and Avery’s unsavory gunsel, the wise-cracking Stacy (Nicky Katt). An uncredited Bill Duke also has a captivating single-scene appearance as a nameless Drug Enforcement Agency supervisor who has an unlikely meeting of the minds with Wilson.

The Limey is interesting, but I must confess that I’m not properly equipped to apprehend it. The movie is packed with icons of 1970s cinema, Fonda and Stamp not least among them. There are also numerous references to the entertainment industry — one scene, at a location shoot where Elaine must counsel a reluctant child actor, features Stacy spouting one-liners about a variety of topics, including the TV business. (“Wouldn’t you watch a show called Big Fat Guy? I’d watch that fucking show.”) In another scene, Valentine’s bodyguards argue about what the phrase “sliding scale” means, and while Valentine is hiding out, he watches an episode of Entertainment Tonight or something similar. (The segment shows Soderbergh regular George Clooney rhapsodizing about a visit to Italy.) These are mainly cultural references sail right over my head.

That’s the same with Poor Cow, a 1967 movie starring Stamp as a young thief (named Wilson, not so coincidentally) that appears in The Limey as a series of black-and-white flashbacks whenever the main character discusses his marriage. I’m aware that something’s happening, but I can’t really fathom what exactly is going on.

In the end, I interpreted The Limey as a character study, one that delves into a man’s state of mind as he emerges from prison for what may or may not be the last time. The movie works, I suppose, but I can’t help but wonder about some of the things that it’s missing. When Wilson entered prison, in 1990, the computer was a relatively exotic machine in both personal and professional settings; by 1999, thanks in part to the expanding popularity of the Internet, it was well on its way to becoming commonplace, if not quite ubiquitous.

But the only technology that visibly pegs The Limey to a specific time is the cellular telephone phone. In 1999, we were in a relatively brief phase when cell phones were no longer incredibly novel but had not yet become a device regularly used for the exchange of text messages, e-mail, video and social media. Aside from one or two shots, the movie could have taken place in 1989 or even 1979. I’m curious as to what it would be like to see Wilson try to engage with the brave new technological wonders that the West enjoyed on the cusp of the 21st century.

Of course, that’s not what The Limey is about. Instead, what we have is a look at one defiantly individualistic man and his coming to terms with having outlived every other member of his family. The movie’s edge of menace makes it unsuitable for certain viewers, but aficionados of crime dramas ought to find The Limey relatively entertaining.

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