Beneath its self-consciously arty facade, The Limey is the kind of run-of-the-mill revenge fantasy that Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson specialized in during the 1970s. Director Steven Soderbergh tries to pump up the lackluster story (written by his Kafka cohort, Lem Dobbs) with an array of jittery camerawork, baffling jumpcuts, and logic-defying continuity shifts that only call attention to how little is really going on.
After the coolly assured Out of Sight (as well as an earlier foray into film noir, The Underneath), Soderbergh should be comfortable enough with the crime genre to effectively create tension and suspense. But here, the narrative comes in second to the director’s aesthetic antics, which make this veteran look more like an overeager film school grad anxious to show off his second-hand Godardisms.
Perhaps what’s most amazing about The Limey is that the film isn’t undone by all this fussy tinkering. It’s anchored by the grave, yet slightly mischievous, presence of Terence Stamp as Wilson, a British ex-con who comes to Los Angeles to avenge the death of his estranged daughter, Jennifer.
"I watched her grow up in increments," Wilson wistfully tells her friend Elaine (Lesley Ann Warren), referring to his unconventional livelihood as an armed robber who served numerous prison sentences. A lifetime’s worth of emotions cross Stamp’s expressively worn face when he remembers Jennifer, his pride and unconditional love tempered by haunting regret. (For flashbacks to Wilson’s criminal youth, Soderbergh utilizes footage from Ken Loach’s 1967 film, Poor Cow, featuring Stamp in his angelically handsome matinee-idol days.)
With the help of Jennifer’s ex-con confidante, Ed (Luis Guzman), Wilson goes hunting for Terry Valentine (a deliciously smarmy Peter Fonda), a music promoter tied to LA’s drug underworld, who was his daughter’s lover and – Wilson suspects – killer. In Wilson’s way is Avery (Barry Newman), Valentine’s right-hand man, whose dogged efficiency keeps his wealthy employer high above all their dirty dealings.
The Limey is chock-full of characters and dialogue that would be right at home in an Elmore Leonard novel. Too bad Steven Soderbergh made this pale imitation to follow up the real thing.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.