The Limey (1999, Steven Soderbergh)

The Limey is all about the foreshadowing. It’s about flashbacks, flash-forwards, and flash asides, but the foreshadowing figures into all of those devices. It’s got a “twist” ending, which then informs previous scenes but not like figuring out Terence Stamp is a ghost or whatever. Instead, it’s knowing something about why he half-smiles—and only something, another thing about The Limey is it’s Stamp’s story. To the point of excluding the audience. There’s a lot we don’t see in The Limey, but it happens. Arguably the most interesting aspects of Stamp’s character development occur offscreen. We get to see the action, which is the MacGuffin.

Juxtaposed against Stamp is Peter Fonda, and we get to see all his character stuff on screen, even though he’s an utter twerp from his first scene and will continue to be throughout the film.

Stamp is a recently released career criminal from the UK, come to Los Angeles to find out what happened to his daughter, Melissa George. Before the present action, George dies in a car accident. Not suspiciously enough for the cops to care, but enough for Stamp to fly over to find out what happened.

Fonda is George’s boyfriend. He’s a successful music producer, rich enough to be oblivious to reality, dim enough to make bad decisions, a sixties leftover who hasn’t done anything worth talking about since then. He’s already moved on to a new girlfriend—Amelia Heinle, who’s his friends’ daughter; he suggested her name to them when she was born. At first, it seems like he’s a major creep instead of just a weak one.

The juxtaposition is Stamp and Fonda living their respective legacies of the late sixties, Stamp a seemingly unstoppable old man vengeance, Fonda a narcissistic jackass.

The film’s first act is Stamp getting to Los Angeles and meeting George’s friends, Luis Guzmán and Lesley Ann Warren. Guzmán is an ex-con gone straight and sticking to it (very much unlike Stamp, who we learn spent most of his life and George’s in the nick), and Warren is a functioning LA action coach. Her sixties dreams didn’t come true, but she’s at least contributing to the world, not sucking from it (like Fonda).

Guzmán quickly becomes Stamp’s sidekick in the movie sense, but there’s a deeper emotional bond between the men the film doesn’t let us see. The Limey’s got a very detached narrative distance; director Soderbergh and writer Lem Dobbs forcibly push the audience away too. They make an effort to keep the viewer off guard, to keep The Limey in an almost dreamlike state, which then ties into Fonda’s wistful remembrances of the sixties.

Well, 1966 and some of 1967.

When Stamp meets Guzmán and Warren, the film flashes forward to different settings and activities, their conversations bopping forward and back until the conversation flows through the time and place jumps. Because The Limey’s all about memories; well, foreshadowing and memories.

Stamp’s investigation will eventually get him some attention from Barry Newman, who’s Fonda’s fixer. Newman brings in local psychopaths Nicky Katt and Joe Dallesandro to deal with the problem, which has some unexpected results. The acting in The Limey is incredibly measured and restrained. Stamp loses his temper at most twice and possibly then only in a daydream. Fonda has his freak-outs, but he’s usually trying to impress Heinle, so he keeps it in check. Newman’s restrained too, because as long as he can hire Katt, there’s nothing to get worked up about.

So Katt and Dallesandro are then Limey’s wild cards and where Soderbergh lets the performances get the loosest. One of Katt’s scenes is just a series of jaw-dropping but mundane observations from a psychopath. It’s momentarily funny, quickly becoming very concerning, with Katt establishing himself not just a clear and present danger to the good guys but to everyone standing near them. The Limey runs a confined ninety minutes and wraps its main story up with a tidy bow, but Katt and Dallesandro’s presence does a whole lot implying the world that story takes place in.

Ditto uncredited Bill Duke, who shows up at one point for a fantastic scene.

Speaking of uncredited one scene cameos, The Limey goes out of its way to include an “Entertainment Tonight” interview with George Clooney—after he and Soderbergh had made their first movie together—it goes on so long it seems intentional. But then even the shortest sequences in The Limey are fully intentional.

After the first act, after Stamp’s mission and compatriots are set up, the film introduces flashback footage to a young Stamp (as Limey is pre-obsequious CGI- de-aging, it’s footage from Ken Loach’s Poor Cow). Stamp occasionally talks through the clips, though sometimes they’re presented without context; they’re limited because they’re not really for this story. They’re about being young and making bad decisions—Stamp’s didn’t pay off, Fonda’s did. They’re presented without audible dialogue, just like flashbacks to George’s life in Los Angeles before her death, and also with Stamp’s memories of her as a child. Again, it’s all about the memories.

And regrets.

So, foreshadowing, memory, and regrets.

Soderbergh and editor Sarah Flack cut the hell out of the first act, presenting The Limey as a jumble of Stamp’s thoughts, with Fonda’s half of the film eventually leading to it calming down a bit. But while The Limey always looks good (photography by Edward Lachlan) and sounds excellent (Cliff Martinez’s score is terrific, and the sixties pop soundtrack is outstanding), it’s how Soderbergh and Flack use the editing to guide the narrative and establish the distance.

It really makes you wonder how Dobbs’s script worked; was it fragmented, or did Soderbergh break it up later.

Great performances from everyone. Stamp’s mesmerizing. Fonda, Newman, Guzmán, Katt, Heinle, and Warren are all excellent too. Warren gets the least to do, active character-wise, but is phenomenal doing it. Heinle gets the least character (she could be a figment of Fonda’s imagination for her first two scenes) but makes herself an essential insight to Fonda.

The Limey’s spectacular. Soderbergh and Stamp take it seriously but also not too seriously, and then once everything’s revealed, it’s more affecting than seemed possible. So good.

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