The Limey (1999)
Dir.: Steven Soderbergh
Scr.: Lem Dobbs
Cast: Terence Stamp, Lesley Ann Warren, Luis Guzman, Peter Fonda, Barry Newman, Joe Dallesandro, Nicky Katt, Amelia Heinle, Melissa George
Director Steven Soderbergh's 1999 so-called crime drama The Limey is easily the best Soderbergh effort I've seen. That's partly due to the innovative narrative structure, which makes all but the last few minutes of this great film a flashback. The rest is due to an excellent script by Lem Dobbs, whose other great success came a year earlier, in Alex Proyas' sci-fi thriller Dark City. Both films, despite their apparent differences, are acutely focused on human memory and both deal with the fragility of such in novel ways. In fact, in rewatching The Limey on DVD after six or seven years, and then watching it with the two available audio commentary tracks, I'm amazed to have noticed something that no other critic apparently has: the fact that the viewer is never sure whether or not any or all of the remembered scenes are, indeed, real.
The 85-minute The Limey quickly sets up the idea that the protagonist, named simply Wilson and portrayed by Terence Stamp, is an ex-con out for revenge following the seemingly accidental death of his daughter Jennifer (Melissa George, as an adult), a young woman who was living with a shady L.A.-based record mogul named Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda). Within the film's first ten minutes, viewers get an 'action' scene and can already identify with the lead character. The bulk of what follows is about Wilson's memories (or fantasies?) of his daughter, from the time he is on board a return flight from L.A to the U.K. I should add that Wilson may be the same character as the one Stamp played in Ken Loach's 1967 drama Poor Cow.
All critics agree that The Limey consists of a series of memories, even if they disagree about what is the actual present time it displays. Some critics, for instance, claim the airplane scenes represent flashforths, not flashbacks; some claim that the sequences are chronological, while others assert the opposite; but I haven't found a single critic that has questioned the verity of what Wilson's memories are, or if indeed they are strictly memories and not fantasies. After all, The Limey is a 'revenge film,' and revenge is, next to sex, the top fantasy theme. Of course, some would argue that the scenes from Poor Cow seem to imply Wilson is all that he claims to be, but we only get snippets of this. Is Wilson really an ex-con? Likely. Is he in L.A. looking for revenge? Likely. But after that, is anyone really sure what is memory and what is fantasy – or, indeed, if Wilson's 'memory' is accurate?
Some critics have carped about the fact that there are apparent plot holes, such as the fact that two of Jennifer's friends, recruited by Wilson, seem to have no qualms about helping him in his revenge plot. First, if the film's flashbacks are (accurate) memories this is no problem because:
- Luis Guzman's character, Eduardo Roel, is, like Wilson, an ex-con. Plus, he was Jenny's friend (whom he met in an acting class) and as the tale goes on it becomes clear that her 'accidental' death was likely not an accident. It's certainly no stretch that he would go out of his way to help his friend's father get justice (however rough), especially considering his own violent resentment toward rich people. (Throughout the film he wears t-shirts of murderous revolutionaries Ayatollah Khomeini, Che Guevara, and Mao Zedong.)
- Then there is Lesley Ann Warren's Elaine, Jenny and Eduardo's acting coach. Why would she become involved in the revenge plot? Well, as with Eduardo, she was Jenny's friend, and, like Eduardo, she experiences violence (a foiled hit on Wilson), and therefore would be more disposed to helping Wilson 'take down' these bad men.
Add in the fact that both characters likely have their own guilt over not having done more to aid and counsel Jenny over her distressing lifestyle, and there really is no implausibility. In fact, both characters' actions easily pass that old bane of dramatic theory, T. S. Eliot's objective correlative. But even these reasons are no great stretch in themselves; they are not reasonable objections if one factors in Wilson's mismemories or outright fantasies of convenience to justify his crime spree in search of vengeance. Even if Eduardo wanted to stay on the straight and narrow, and even if Elaine wanted nothing to do with Wilson, there's simply no reason to believe that Wilson might not, as an act of self-justification, alter the events we see so to make himself more 'heroic,' if only in his own eyes.
That includes the last-minute 'conversion' scene, wherein Wilson finally gets to Valentine and finds out the reasons for his daughter's death. That resonates with Wilson because we've seen his memories of Jenny as a girl, threatening to turn her dad in if he didn't mend his ways. Wilson now realizes there was no way Valentine could have known Jenny would not have finked on him, and that Wilson would have done the same had Jenny not been his daughter. Thus, he cannot blame Valentine. I'm not asserting that this is the best and most correct way to view the action detailed in The Limey – just that it's more than legitimate to do so as it induces no narrative or characterization problems. (Shockingly, this interpretation was totally ignored by all the major critics' reviews I found online.)
Despite its billing and what I've written about it thus far, The Limey is most certainly not a crime-action thriller. There is both crime and action in it, sure, but The Limey is actually a character study, and one of the absolute best ever put on film. In addition to the flashback-flashforth technique, Soderbergh uses dialogue editing, whether from earlier or later scenes, so as to create moments that are seemingly unrelated, which enhances the mnemonic tendencies of the film. Indeed, editor Sarah Flack does an impressive job, as does cinematographer Ed Lachman.
A great example of their work takes place in antichoros to the Poor Cow scenes with Stamp – namely, the edited introduction of Terry Valentine, which shows the Peter Fonda character in a montage akin to that of a television sitcom opening sequence, as we hear The Hollies' song 'King Midas in Reverse' (a song that mentions Fonda's iconic Easy Rider). We see Valentine preening, smiling, smoking, expounding, driving, etc., and we later see these are all flashforths from later scenes, but ones that herald a weak-kneed and ultimately sniveling bad guy, not a highly anticipated supervillain. It's a testament to this little-seen film that just a year later Christopher Nolan's low-budget cult classic Memento (a more classical crime thriller), would use many of the same editing techniques.
Cliff Martinez's score, which includes many eerie noises that suggest internal turmoil, is also excellent, and so is the acting. Stamp and Fonda are both superb, especially the latter in the difficult role of the sympathetic bad guy. (In an earlier take on this film, I wrote that Stamp 'is so good the viewer can see him acting even when his character is silent, brooding, & glaring off into his own life's nothingness.') The secondary characters all give good performances as well, with Barry Newman's supporting turn as Valentine's clean-up man being particularly memorable. Even the gorgeous Amelia Heinle, in a role that could have been filled by any lightweight bimbo actress, makes viewers see nuances in both her and Fonda's characters that a lesser performer would not have exposed.
As a plus, there's Lem Dobbss' first-rate screenplay, matched by Soderbergh's direction. Previously, I'd also written of Dobbs' use of parallelism (Wilson-Valentine): 'He, like Wilson, is a 60ish man who is a criminal, except he rose to fame & wealth producing hit records in the 1960s, & has the means to cover up his crimes. … In a great move, Soderbergh not only has the film's protagonist & antagonist being portrayed by 2 1960s film superstars (Stamp in the U.K., & Fonda in the U.S.), but both their characters made sizable sums of money from rock music – Valentine from record producing & Wilson from stealing receipts from a Pink Floyd concert.'
It should be mentioned that both men also show little remorse over resorting to murder to accomplish their ends. Another point I've previously made regarding the use of the Poor Cow scenes is that 'critics argue film used as memory fails because it's almost always shown from an omniscient perspective, yet when I recall things I almost never recall them from the POV of my eye, but from an improvised omniscient position outside my body. Every person similarly recounts they recall in the omniscient, not the real eye level POV. Most dreams are this way as well – the dreamer shifting between perspectives.' This fact also allows for the interpretation of The Limey's events as memories, reveries, fantasies, or mismemories.
I also wrote: 'What is most interesting about the film is how accurately it portrays memory, guilt, & responsibility. The question all the main characters ask is how could things have been different? There are no answers. Wilson, by film's end, accepts the past. … [W]onderful little touches [abound] – [such as] when Wilson imagines Jenny's accident he envisions her with her hair down & bangs cut, like the little girl the film portrays she was when he last saw her in person. When Ed[uardo] thinks about her death she has a long ponytail – like the adult he knew. The film cuts goes back & forth through [its] the progressive remembered narrative … sometimes seeming to act (to the viewer) as foreshadowing or depicting obsessive compulsion.'