The Limey (1999)

D: Steven Soderbergh
S: Terence Stamp, Peter Fonda

Disappointingly slight follow up to Out of Sight from Steven Soderbergh, who, despite an earnest attempt to juggle narrative elements with the help of playful editing, has little to offer a very familiar story of revenge and redemption in the world of crime and punishment. Cockney career criminal Terence Stamp heads for L.A. following the death of his daughter to find out what happened to her. He fixates on sixties sellout record promoter Peter Fonda, her former lover, and begins to work his way towards his foe through a horde of underlings and assassins out to stop him. Yes, it's Get Carter with a U.S. setting and a lot less grit. Despite the deliberately grainy cinematography and the use of a variety of filters and stocks, the grit here is all superficial, as underneath, it is a rather soppy story of paternal loss and father/daughter resolution, in many ways more Hollywood than Out of Sight, which Soderbergh apparently felt was a tad too commercial.

To be fair, the style does cover up for a lot. Stamp is a commanding presence and Fonda is given a subtle character which cannily links elements of the actor's familiar screen persona with traditional gangster film iconography. The fragmented timeline, the flash back/flash forward cutting, the slippage between speculation and physical action, the gradual exposition of Stamp's motivation: all these are interesting. It moves quickly, is generally entertaining, and has one or two great scenes and memorable character vignettes. But it all adds up to all too little, and it becomes a matter of how much the audience appreciates style over content, as there is ultimately not as much to it as there seems once the story is disentangled from the editing.

Stamp's character is clearly modelled on the kind of laconic antiheroes which dominated the genre films of the late 60s and early 70s. There's a touch of Michael Caine in Get Carter, but also echoes of Lee Marvin in Point Blank. He is a singleminded, driven individual with little regard for etiquette, the law, or people who prevent him from achieving his goal, and though he is obviously doing this for personal reasons and the film ultimately turns not so much on revenge as on a realisation of his own failures as a father, this character without a first name is ultimately less interesting than either Carter or Walker, though Stamp adds the dimension of age to his characterisation which neither Caine nor Marvin had at their disposal. Though he comes off better than Mel Gibson's attempt at this in Payback, the character is actually less intriguing than his nemesis. Fonda is very good as a 90s tycoon whose success and wealth have been built on the exploitation of the 60s, but who has still found himself struggling with capital culture and gotten embroiled in the underworld. His preference for sleek young ladies offers a counterpoint to Stamp's obsession with his daughter, and this link is made explicit in the final confrontation between the two, where it becomes obvious that this has been a drama of displacement and abandonment. It is great to watch two such powerful yet subtle actors going head to head, but somehow the result is less rewarding than it promises to be. There's game support from Lesley Ann Warren, Luis Guzman, and Barry Newman, but the characters feel too much like scaffolds for the leads for them to emerge fully fledged.

There are things to admire about the film and it is more or less successful in doing what it sets out to do. It simply lacks the richness and invention which Elmore Leonard's story gave Out of Sight, and as a pale imitation of the 70s and 80s British crime thriller, it has nothing to offer but echoes of something which once had substance but now comes to us as ripples and shadows.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 2000.