Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Limey (1999)

by Eric "The Knockout Artist" Beetner

I love it when a gritty revenge film gets the high-gloss treatment and manages to masquerade as an “art house” film. Exhibit A is Stephen Soderbergh’s The Limey.

Terrence Stamp is Wilson, a fresh-out-of-prison career criminal who shouldn’t be intimidating at all given Stamp’s age, but his quiet menace and dead shark eyes manage to both stir up trouble and deal with it as he hunts for answers to his daughter’s mysterious death.

Soderbergh, fresh off the success of that other art house crime caper Out of Sight, pushes his love for time shift editing and British crime/revenge films which gives The Limey that critics-love-it-too free pass. And love it they did. Audiences, not so much.

The film is a slow burn. It doesn’t fall victim to the histrionics that can be so succinctly shorthanded as "Hollywood." For a perfect example of the apples-and-oranges difference, just compare the original Michael Caine version of Get Carter to the Stallone version. Watch them back to back. See what I mean?

Soderbergh doesn’t hide his love of 60’s British cinema and he even uses clips from one of Stamp’s early performances in Ken Loach’s Poor Cow (1968) as flashbacks, and that’s digging deep into the British indie cinema vaults.

Stamp is a marvel as he winds his way up the California coast in search of Peter Fonda’s character Valentine, possibly the last man to see Wilson’s daughter alive. That Soderbergh coaxes a subtle and engaging performance out of Fonda is testament enough to his skill as a director. Of course, he managed to make Jennifer Lopez sexy and human in Out of Sight, so the man may be a miracle worker.

What really puts The Limey over the top in the revenge film canon is the understated grace it exhibits while always being, at the core, nothing more than a simple vengeance story. Wilson has death on his mind: his daughter’s, the men responsible, his own. Revenge drives the narrative, but not the style.

It is too easy for filmmakers to fetishize the violence inherent in a revenge flick (and probably readers of this blog). But my favorite thing about The Limey is the way it humanizes the reasons behind Wilson’s goal. Relying on a simple “They killed my wife/lover, so I’m going to kill them” plot is too easy. Lazy directors like Tony Scott fell victim to it with Revenge (even the title is lazy) and even lazier actors like Mel Gibson draw on a fallback rage=character acting style in crap like Payback (seriously, people? You can’t name your films better than this?).

The Limey earns it’s art house pedigree through thoughtful (yes, code for slow) exploration of a man’s motives. That those motives are ultimately so simple and unburdened by layers and layers of subtext makes it all the more effective. Wilson makes no pretense to his motivation. He simply wants answers and he wants someone to pay. With such single-minded focus, he can do some serious ass-kicking without fretting too much about it. And make no mistake, Wilson is a badass. The man willingly walks into more than one hornet’s nest with no idea how he’ll make it out.

“You tell him I’m coming! You tell him I’m fucking comiiiing!” is one of the better revenge film lines if only because it’s almost the only time in the movie he raises his voice. That and the blood splatter on his face from the four dudes he just shot.

How The Limey hasn’t achieved full-on cult status is a little baffling to me. It ranks among Soderbergh’s best, Terrence Stamp’s best and the revenge sub-genre’s best. See it for the first time or watch it again, either way you don’t have to feel guilty. It’s classy. It even speaks with an accent.