The Limey

© 1999 Artisan Pictures Inc., all rights reserved. Distribution Paradiso Entertainment Nederland photos courtesy of MVSP Public Relations

The East End meets the West Coast. No sooner is the title figure released from prison (after a nine-year sentence) than he's on his way to unravel the facts from the fiction behind his daughter's death. Wilson (Terence Stamp) arrives in Los Angeles with one thing on his mind: he intends to find out who is responsible for his darling Jenny's untimely death and take whoever it is down in a suitably similar fashion. The only tangible evidence he has is a newspaper article that reads, "Woman Dies On Mulholland." Her death is reported as the result of a car accident in which her neck was broken and her remains were burnt.

"Tell me. Tell me. Tell me about Jenny," a voice says in the darkness.

Assisted in his acclimatization to the New World and its seamier side by American ex-con Ed Roel (Luis Guzman), Wilson manages to crudely uncover the details of Jenny's last days. ("Who done it, then?" Wilson asks. "Huh?" Ed answers. "Snuffed her," Wilson retorts.) Ed sent Wilson the clipping reporting her death. One might wonder how a low-life like Ed came to know Jenny, but the answer is simple: they attended the same acting classes.

The name Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda) shines out as the obvious perp. To maintain solubility and a high-flying lifestyle, this once renowned record producer's desperate financial situation forced him to the edges of gangsterland and money laundering. Convinced of Valentine's culpability for his daughter's death, Wilson winds his wily way through the smoggy city's criminal milieu and gathers sufficient details to embark on his private crusade. Once in action, he leaves a kind of personal calling card by surreptitiously and silently removing a photo of his dearly beloved and dear departed from among the trophies on her ex-lover's wall. Not a man of many words, this gesture speaks volumes. He intends to let nothing get in his way.

Valentine is a weak, idle, arrogant, cowardly figure who keeps himself fueled with memories of his glory days. An occasional leisure-seeking ingenue also helps him pass the time. His present squeeze is Adhara (Amelia Heinle), an attractive young woman who enjoys being surrounded by the better things in life while also possessing a sufficiently ironic viewpoint to be entertained by Valentine's demeanor. Surrounded by old posters of days gone by in his domestic castle in the sky on Crestview Terrace, Valentine is not really equipped to deal with the new earth shaking reality beneath his feet ("He's King Midas with a curse, he's King Midas in reverse"). His associate Avery (Barry Newman), however, is more than equipped to do whatever dirty work proves necessary in order to keep matters under control. Valentine ("magic carpet ride") prefers to keep his head safely buried in the California sand.

The generation gap seems apparent between Valentine and Adhara, who luxuriously soaks in the bathtub while Terry reminisces about '66 and '67 as a lost time that no longer really seems to have existed. When he finishes his nostalgic monologue and leaves the room, she smirks among the bubbles. His world is a reflection of the past, shimmering like the rows of shining gold records hung upon the wall. He and his entourage thrive thoughtlessly in a world where trays of drinks are served to guests as a body is retrieved from the ravine.

Avery regards Wilson as an insignificant problem from "Some wink-a-dink country the size of Wyoming where the cops don't even carry guns." Two sleazy roughs named Stacy (Nicky Katt) and Uncle John (Joe Dallesandro) are contracted by him to take Wilson out for a piece of change. However, the plan of hiring these two-bit gangsters backfires. Continuing on his private warpath, despite being hunted by hitmen, Wilson is unexpectedly confronted and interrogated by drug hunting feds. As each new barrier appears, he deals with it accordingly whenever it blocks his aggressive steamroller stride. Revenge is his moving force and the past has equipped him for the vigilante justice he now seeks. The feds aren't too bothered by the Englishman's quest, also believing that the end justifies the means. Since their separate ends seem to meet at a mutual point, they let him go about his personal business. (After all, he's only trying to find out about Jenny.)

Stamp as the hard-faced, hardened ex-con with a heart of gall is the star attraction of the film, supported by the solid talents of Fonda, Guzman, Warren, Newman and Katt.

Director Steven Soderbergh's eighth film makes frequent stylistic use of jump cuts, where thoughtful silent faces are intercut with talking film takes, as well as mixing a variety of flashbacks for memories, thoughts, and reflections in order to reveal the personality of Wilson, keep the tempo afloat, and tighten the tension throughout. This strengthens the script and enhances the private experiences of the man relentlessly on the hunt. (There are also refreshing splashes of humor to be found in the dialogue at the most unexpected moments.) Scenes from Ken Loach's film "Poor Cow" (1967), in which Stamp portrayed a character named Wilson, are cleverly interspersed to show earlier days with happier episodes in the life of a man gone sour. (Screenwriter Lem Dobbs supposedly suggested the specific film chosen for earlier footage of Stamp, but there have also been unofficial reports that Soderbergh envisioned his film as a sequel to the earlier Loach work.)

Unfortunately, the forced use of cockney slang sticks out obtrusively in the dialogue as a forced phraseology relating only to the title of the film. It neither passes easily through Stamp's lips nor does it seem extremely suitable when it appears in the script. American audiences may experience some difficulty while listening to Wilson's English dialect (as pointed out by the head fed), but the dialogue is delivered with a subtle perfection which is missing whenever the cockney slang phrases suddenly pop out. For clarity (?), scriptwriter Dobbs seems repeatedly forced to have another character respond, "Huh?" to which Wilson replies with a word of explanation (tea leaves = thieves, china plate = mate, butcher's hook = look). More awkward than enhancing, it would have been easier to let the dialect suffice in letting us understand that he's a limey.

Without a doubt, the perpetrator ultimately bears responsibility for his crime, but any further investigation into the passive responsibilities of the daughter herself are left aside, undoubtedly for the sake of screen time, plot line, and hopeful box office success. The insurmountable earlier effects of her father's lifestyle upon her, on the other hand, are dealt with to a demolishing degree in the final sequence. There is an attempt, early in the story, to let ex-soap star and aging acting teacher Elaine (Lesley Ann Warren), who befriended the daughter while teaching her, push the father toward a self-confrontation with his misplaced machismo ("What's the deal, man? You and Terry Valentine at twenty paces?"). This is quite a useless approach on her part, since the man has obviously spent a good deal of time in his cell consumed with self-reproach and thoughts of vengeance. Although he appreciates her concern (naturally, without showing it demonstratively), her psychology of dramatic character interaction is lost on him completely. This is a quiet man who doesn't discuss things openly. He only opens his mouth and his emotions to threaten the villains. From the very beginning when he shouts, "You tell him I'm coming. Tell him I'm fucking coming," he shows that his usual quiet intensity camouflages a Schwarzenegger-like revenge pattern. The images and editing must suffice, for the most part, to reveal his inner turmoil. This works superbly because the turmoil is subtly written all over Terence Stamp's face throughout the film. The unspoken questions posed curiously along this resolute trail manage to keep the viewer involved with one man's personal pursuit while, at the same time, the intense persistence of a fixed goal help to prevent the film from ever becoming too overshadowed by gratuitous violence.

Revenge seems to be an attractive option to many nowadays. Discontent with lackluster investigation (Wilson himself did time for others' crimes), the rules of an ineffective legal system and the faulty justice frequently meted out by the courts, people seem more often to be on a trajectory seeking their own methods. By appealing to humanity's dark side, even a hardened criminal like Wilson will most likely find a soft spot in viewer's hearts for the plight of a vengeful father. Wilson is a kind of bad man version of Paul Kersey from the "Death Wish" series. Whereas Kersey knows why he's out for blood, Wilson is trying to find out whose blood he's after. Instead of a mild-mannered New Yorker, we find ourselves dealing with a quiet Cockney tossing a burly bodyguard from a tall building with a single bound. One moment he's being bashed into a state near death, only to return seconds later and extinguish his attackers. Nothing is going to stop this man in his tracks. He doesn't quite know where he's heading or how he's going to get there, but he's on his way. His hate and fury blind him to the possibility that he might encounter things along the way that he doesn't expect. He is more prepared for retaliation than for revelation.

The only remaining question is: will there be a sequel? (Probably only if Michael Winner picks up the option.)

© 1994-2006 The Green Hartnett