Flick of the Day: The Limey

Steven Soderbergh is one of that rare breed of film-makers that can very neatly divide opinion amongst cinema goers. While undoubtedly a talented visual artist, there is a tendency in some of his weakest films toward avant garde film making for the sake of it rather than to break new ground as part of telling a story such as the frankly dull The Good German or Full Frontal. You either find his various stylistic flourishes as a necessary part of the storytelling process or else something that is irritatingly superfluous. Think of the  use of yellow and blue filters to signify the difference between the US and Mexico in perhaps his best film, 2000's Traffic. It was smart but it could also be jarring. He is at his best when focusing on character driven drama such as last year's Contagion or today's flick of the day, The Limey, an old-school revenge flick from 1999.
Terence Stamp in one of his best roles in years plays Wilson, a hardened criminal and a man that exudes the possibility of violence at all times is the Limey of the title. An Englishman abroad, he arrives in Los Angeles after being released from his latest stretch in prison in the UK in search of the truth in relation to the recent death of his estranged daughter, Jenny. He soon makes contact with with he friend Eduardo, played by the always useful character actor Luis Guzman. Wilson befriends Eduardo and seeks his help for filling in the blanks around Jenny's death in a supposed car accident. He has his own suspicions however centred around Jenny's long term boyfriend and millionaire record producer Terry Valentine, played by that other 60's icon Peter Fonda. With Eduardo's help Wilson is soon doing battle with some of the most dangerous elements of the L.A underworld as he fights his way to Terry Valentine and the truth about his daughters death.
Soderbergh's Limey is as much about personal redemption as it is about its tale of revenge. While Wilson is relentless in his pursuit of those closest to his daughter's untimely death, he also comes to realise that whatever his actions now in seeking revenge, he was never there for his daughter when she needed him. It is this realisation that he is at least partially culpable for her death which drives the film toward its conclusion. He comes to see that he has wasted away his life and his relationship with his daughter for a life of crime but by the end is prepared to live with the consequences which have made him an angry man. Stamp channels this natural anger into his portrayal of Wilson and gives a masterful performance of a violent man bent on revenge who is not without a human side, something highlighted in some well chosen flash backs of Stamp as a young man from 1968's Poor Cow. This contrast between the different side of Wilson's character highlight the subtlety of Stamp's performance.
While not a commercial success on its release, this is a more a comment on the lack of star power in a cast headlined by Terence Stamp and Peter Fonda than on the relative quality of the film. This is a first rate thriller with actors at the top of their game but like so many of Soderbergh's films, it asks a lot of an audience to pay attention to a film that is more meditative than action packed. That said. for the effort and attention paid, there is a little gem of a movie on offer. While Stamp dominates every scene from beginning to end, special praise must go to Guzman for his measured portrayal of an ex-con who wants to get his life back on track while also doing what he can for his lost friend. Fonda is also strong as a feckless womaniser with a lack of backbone and a fondness of whining as Valentine. It is the contrast between the strict discipline of Wilson and the lazy arrogance of Valentine which drive the film to its conclusion.
All in all, this is another Soderbergh contradiction, the quiet revenge movie. It is at times violent but often more meditative and sombre in tone. That said, it is always entertaining and is packed with some fine performances as a journey to the dark side of Los Angeles. Well worth a viewing.