Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Limey: Unlike its washed-up characters, it stands the test of time

'Tell me about Jenny!'
The last time I saw The Limey was on an Artisan Entertainment screener tape during its art-house run 10 years ago. Steven Soderbergh's superb follow-up to the beloved Out of Sight was one of many highlights of a great and still-unsurpassed movie year (1999), and after stumbling into the film on IFC the other night and stopping whatever I was writing on my computer to watch it for the second time, it still is a highlight of '99.

I noticed a few things in this second viewing. The hot gangster's moll (played by a pre-daytime TV Amelia Heinle) spends a lot of time getting wet during the movie; Lesley Ann Warren is one of the finest-looking untouched-by-plastic-surgery sixtysomething actresses; Bill Duke must have been hired to play the marshals' disabled boss in the Out of Sight spinoff Karen Sisco based on his now-classic reaction to Terence Stamp's long speech from his DEA office desk ("There's one thing I don't understand. The thing I don't understand is every motherfuckin' word you're saying."); and some of the themes in Cliff Martinez's eerie score appear to have been an homage to equally eerie scores from late '60s/early '70s thrillers like Klute and Point Blank (which The Limey is often compared to, and Soderbergh is such a fan of the John Boorman classic that he recorded a commentrak for it).

I've read about the Limey DVD's infamous Soderbergh/Lem Dobbs commentrak--in which Dobbs argued with Soderbergh about the changes the director made to his script--but never listened to it. Now I'm itching to hear the commentrak.

My year-long postings of past or long-buried writing continue with a piece I wrote about The Limey at the time of its release.

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The Limey's cool-looking poster by Pulse Advertising
The Limey
Artisan
Starring Terence Stamp, Peter Fonda, Lesley Ann Warren, Luis Guzman, Barry Newman, Joe Dallesandro, Nicky Katt, Amelia Heinle
Music by Cliff Martinez
Photographed by Ed Lachman
Written by Lem Dobbs
Directed by Steven Soderbergh

If Sarah Flack never gets an Oscar nomination for her ingenious editing of Steven Soderbergh's witty, melancholy revenge thriller/character study The Limey, then the members of the Academy ought to be taken out. The story of a British ex-con named Wilson (Terence Stamp) who tries to reconnect with his murdered daughter while searching the streets of L.A. for her killer, The Limey is told in a jigsaw-puzzle narrative style that shuffles past and present events. For instance, whenever Wilson discovers an important clue about his daughter's whereabouts before she was killed, the film cuts to a shot of a pensive, brooding Wilson, alone in a motel room or on an airplane. Are we watching him before he embarks on his journey through L.A. or are we seeing him on his way home to England, reflecting on his trip?

The nonlinear technique will befuddle some viewers, especially those expecting to see a "TBS Movie for Guys Who Like Movies." But it's a crucial--and inspired--device because it underscores how time makes very little sense to Stamp's title character, who, when the film opens, has just been released from a nine-year prison sentence that has messed with his concept of time, like it would do to any long-term inmate.

Wilson isn't the only character in The Limey who's disconnected from time. Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda) is a faded Hollywood record producer who never got over the end of the free-spirited '60s. This uneasy rider has gone to seed and turned to the drug trade to stay wealthy as he lures young starlets half his age with his hedonistic lifestyle and with stories about the '60s. One of these aspiring actresses is Wilson's daughter Jenny (Melissa George), who dated Valentine and lived with him before her death. Wilson's trail leads him to Valentine, but is Jenny's former lover really responsible for her tragic fate?

Stand-up comic Mark Pitta used to do a hilarious bit about the way his mom watches action movies. She's the kind of viewer who doesn't pay attention to the gunplay during the climactic shootout in Scarface and says, 'My, that's a lovely house.' For some reason, I kept thinking of that Pitta bit while watching The Limey.
Stamp and Fonda are compelling as older, wearier versions of their '60s screen personas. Luis Guzman has an amusing and poignant supporting turn as a friend of Jenny's who assists Wilson on his manhunt, despite the language barrier between the two (the Angelenos' inability to understand Wilson's cockney slang is a running joke that fortunately isn't overused). Soderbergh calls The Limey "a very simple revenge film with a lot of '60s baggage." Although the plot may be a bit on the thin side, The Limey is anything but a simple revenge film. The characters are hardly the automatons of Charles Bronson shoot-'em-ups. Soderbergh and screenwriter Lem Dobbs refuse to paint them in simplistic strokes. The seedy Valentine, sort of an underworld Humbert Humbert with his taste for younger women, may be the villain here, but like Humbert, he's more pathetic than malicious; the film empathizes with his yearning for his younger, less desperate days. It's Valentine's associates, volatile, snarky hitman Stacy (Nicky Katt) and his older partner Uncle John (Joe Dallesandro), who are more greedy and evil than Fonda's character. As for Wilson, he's a man of contradictions. He has regrets about the life he led before prison (cleverly depicted in flashbacks composed of footage taken from Stamp's 1967 film Poor Cow, in which he also played a criminal named Wilson), most of all because it severed his relationship with his daughter. Yet he finds himself reverting back to the criminal life that drove her away in order to find her killer, which leads to another explanation for the jigsaw-puzzle storytelling: it suits the story of a man who's a puzzle, even to himself.

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