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'The Limey': Steven Soderbergh Thriller

Terence Stamp in The Limey

The Limey by Steven SoderberghDirector 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:

  1. 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.)
  2. 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.

Terence Stamp, Peter Fonda in The Limey

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.'

Terence Stamp, Peter Fonda

Aside from memory, there are superbly rendered details that distill the characters: Wilson radiates affection for Eduardo's help in tracking down Valentine by fondly calling him Sancho (as in Panza). All of these things – along with Eduardo's and Elaine's motivations, and the portrayal of the relationship between the hitmen – work well. In fact, they work so well precisely because there are no specifics, but generalities sharply etched so that the viewer 'feels,' as well as understands, the motivations and relationships. That allows the viewer to feel what goes on inside Wilson, thus creating a stronger identification with him than would be gotten were all things laid out in a nice, neat line.

Also, The Limey succeeds greatly because it allows many such little moments to flower – some of them (like the banter between the hitmen over gays) wholly unneeded for the essential plot, but when added they increase the 'realism' of the art. Another good example is the use of Cockney rhyming slang by Stamp. It's never overused (five times, by my count), but were it gone, no one would yearn for something like it. However, once there, it indelibly helps sketch Wilson's character. This is the essence of good writing done subtly. But such writing is not limited to characterization. The fact that the two hitmen's own greed ends up enabling Wilson to get to Valentine (the opposite of what they were hired to do) is a nice bit of irony, and even the fact that only a few weeks (apparently) have gone by since Jenny's death, and Valentine is already boffing a younger, prettier girl – one who is the daughter of his old friends – says all we need to know of the depth and sincerity of the man as well as his later claims about what really happened to Jenny when she died.

The Artisan Films DVD is terrific. The transfer is excellent, in its 16:9 widescreen version. The DVD also offers great extras, including television and theatrical trailers, an isolated music score, production notes, and very detailed cast and crew information. Bar none, however, the commentaries are the real cherries on the cake. The ''60s docu-commentary', with selected comments by Stamp, Fonda, Warren, Newman, Joe Dallesandro, Dobbs and Soderbergh is quite good, being in tune with the whole film's tangential play off its many characters' iconic 1960s personae. Stamp speaks of how English acting has changed over the years, his relationship with other 1960s icons, and it all makes for an enjoyable diversion.

But the DVD's real gem is the commentary featuring Soderbergh and Dobbs alone. It's one of the best around, and the bickering between the two, with Dobbs continually hectoring and berating Soderbergh over choices he made in the final film, and Soderbergh's continual defenses and slaps at the difference between writing and film, is not the typical Abbott and Costello routine it could have devolved into. Instead, it's an illuminating discussion of art and film.

Dobbs seems to resent much of the film because its positive aspects are routinely hailed as Soderbergh's work, such as the scene where Wilson reenters the warehouse to kill the drug dealers, but the camera stays outside – which Dobbs claims was in his script and not a directorial choice – whereas claimed negative aspects found in reviews of the film (notably Emanuel Levy's in Variety) accuse the screenplay of being 'underdeveloped.' (Even positive reviews, like James Berardinelli's, claim The Limey is founded on the 'thinnest premise.') Yet, the screenplay is anything but underdeveloped. There are so many little scenes that add character development, something Dobbs wanted more of. But then again, to beg the cliché, too much of a goof thing can be bad.

For instance, Dobbs wanted Fonda's character to have a lengthy soliloquy on the '60s zeitgeist, but Soderbergh cut that and he was right. In his commentary, even Fonda pans the soliloquy as being too saccharine and out of character. One need not know everything about every character. Valentine is a slippery, seedy son of a bitch. Knowing why he's that way is always going to be an exercise in futility. Also, it's likely that Valentine is incapable of such reflection. Dobbs also wanted Wilson to reflect upon and mention a criminal mentor, back in England, called Lambeth. But we already get enough hints of his past from the Poor Cow scenes; some mystery has to be retained, lest viewers be subsumed in the petty.

Another example is Dobbs' desire to have the two hitmen, played by Nicky Katt and Joe Dallesandro, explicitly shown as being related, with Katt's character the nephew of the older, dumber man. But this would have done nothing to aid our understanding of the characters. We simply do not need to know more, and, of course, we get a bit of their collective greed a bit later on as it leads to their demise. Soderbergh got this right, whereas Dobbs' elaborations would have weighted the film down in unnecessary detail, as well as some questionable psychology (think of the most outdated Hitchcockian villains). I recall the line from Woody Allen's Another Woman, where the lead character, played by Gena Rowlands, states something to the effect that just because some things (like feelings) are important to the writer does not mean it has import to the objective observer, who will see something as maudlin, overblown, and embarrassing.

Terence Stamp in The Limey

However, Dobbs rightly revels in his claim that it was he who pushed Soderbergh to fragment the narrative of the film even more than his original scenario, and he uses shots of a contemplative Wilson to debunk the notion that 'thinking' cannot be shown on film, or at least not creatively enough to ensnare a viewer. Additionally, he elaborates on the parallelism I mentioned earlier, and goes into the notion of doubles, that almost all the characters pair off into groups of two: Wilson and Eduardo, Wilson and Elaine, Wilson and Jenny, Valentine and Jenny, and so on. And finally, he contextualizes such approach as a literary technique adapted to film, instead of an actual cinematic technique, while showing how a screenplay can be filmed word for word, yet also be unlike what had been envisioned by the screenwriter (as when Dobbs complains of the Valentine character keeping a photo of Jenny in the stairwell).

Dobbs scores another point when he complains about critics who crib information from production notes, not the film. In the case of The Limey it's critics who claim Wilson's first name is Dave, due to the Poor Cow scenes. But while footage from that film is used, we do not know if the Poor Cow flashback scenes definitively point to Wilson being that character or merely a character from another fictive universe for Soderbergh's own purposes. (Some critics have also claimed that characters are named after letters in Alain Resnaiss' Last Year in Marienbad and they've gone on to name the lead characters in Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up, even though said characters go nameless in the films in question.)

Dobbs and Soderbergh also discourse on why Hollywood films tend to ignore issues like class, race, and what people's wages are. This point, made a decade before the current economic crisis, shows the universality of such a sentiment and why so many films are so lacking in 'real realism.' They also talk about the demise of the studios' B and low-budget film units. Given how often young directors are handed huge budgets to make films aimed at twelve-year-olds, a revival of studio-backed B films (rather than the straight-to-DVD crap of the last twenty years), as a sort of 'farming system' for directors with talent (think of former B filmmakers Samuel Fuller, Jacques Tourneur, Sam Peckinpah, and Robert Wise), makes perfect sense. Finally, in a move that is either a bit of an oddity – or an attempt at innovating audio commentaries – there are moments when Soderbergh's and Dobbs' remarks overlap one another, as if recapitulating their film's visual editing techniques.

In sum, The Limey is a rare example of that most overused and abused term: the cinematic masterpiece, one that explores memory as a thing in itself, as a way to communicate, as a form of regret. It asks serious question about the human psyche – not just those of kind, such as What is good? or What is evil?, but those of degree, such as What constitutes a crime? and When does one's action become a crime? That in addition to the aforementioned queries of whether the film itself – the vehicle for this philosophizing – is dream, memory, fantasy, or even if Wilson ever really gets (or got) off that airplane.

Going back to Woody Allen's Another Woman, that film ends with the explicit question: Is a memory something you have or something you've lost? The Limey shows better than any film I can think of, that the answer to that query can be neither or both.

© Dan Schneider

Note: The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide.

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.

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2 Comments to 'The Limey': Steven Soderbergh Thriller

  1. Mixxie

    NO NO NO on the King Midas in Reverse referencing Easy Rider. Did you just swallow Ebert's dumb mishearing of the lyrics or did you also make this (impossible) leap. Impossible because King Midas in Reverse was released in '67 and Easy Rider in '69. It is not hard to look up the lyrics of a song so no excuse, IMO. A nice review, otherwise. I just get irritated by reviewers reading WAY more into some things that are ever there. I think I don't do this because I'm not good at metaphor and I tend to take this at face value. In the case of King Midas it is one of my favorite Hollies song so I already knew there was no 'Easy Rider” reference. That is just a case of a reviewer hearing what they want to hear.

  2. st

    Interesting review. It's always great to read praise for Ed Lachman. Sarah Flack, Elliott Davis, Anne Coates and Ed Lachman have made excellent contributions to Soderbergh's work. Have you seen John Boorman's Point Blank? It's a BIG influence on this film, and a much better film.