"YOU TELL HIM I'm coming!" snarls the savage, blood-spattered Wilson, an out-of-place Englishman quickly making his presence known in LA. But who is the "him" he's warning, and who is Wilson himself? Played by Terence Stamp in a taut, intensely focused performance, the impassive Wilson could be a monk or a hit man as we see him sitting meditatively by a sun-washed airplane window. And where is he going? To or from? Many such questions are raised but not immediately answered in this smart, funny, and hauntingly elliptical film by sex, lies, and videotape director Steven Soderbergh.
directed by Steven Soderbergh
starring Terence Stamp and Peter Fonda
opens October 8 at Neptune
Wilson is on a trip, that much we know. And from The Limey's opening strains of a choice retro-'60s soundtrack, it becomes apparent that he's traveling from another place and time. When he speaks to the first befuddled Los Angeleno he meets, his amusingly inscrutable Cockney accent reveals his prior isolation from the modern world. He just got out after decades spent in the slammer.
Wilson heads straight to LA to inquire about his daughter's suspicious fatal car accident. He tracks down Eduardo (Luis Guzman)—also an ex-con. How did this tattooed Latino tough know Wilson's daughter? "Jenny was in my acting class," he explains, in a clich魳hattering tone-setter of a scene. Their voice teacher Elaine (Lesley Anne Warren) helps Wilson fill in other details about his daughter's pre-crash involvement with a shady older record industry mogul, Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda).
So Valentine is the "him" Wilson is after. But he is an elusive target. "You're not specific enough to be a person," his nymphet girlfriend teases him. Discoursing on the '60s in his own drolly sympathetic performance, Fonda declares, "I don't freak out anymore." It's a nice bit of inside humor, compounded by soundtrack gems like the Hollies' "King Midas in Reverse" and by Stamp's presence as another icon of that decade. Their two characters are both anachronisms from a bygone era.
A LESS INTELLIGENT director or script would've made The Limey a mall-oriented revenge flick, complete with signature tag line as some andro-pumped action hero squeezes off the last shot. Instead, writer Lem Dobbs and Soderbergh resist every tug of simple eye-for-an-eye justice, jump cutting and shifting from past to present to future, with multiple flashbacks that include remarkable scenes of Wilson as a young man (see "Video flashback"). These glimpses lend depth and poignancy to his character—creating what screenwriters call a backstory. Previously collaborators on Kafka, Dobbs and Soderbergh create a roster of colorful supporting characters that can now only be called Tarantino-esque (but which also reflects the influence of Elmore Leonard and Out of Sight). Guzman is excellent in his modest role, and Nicky Katt scabrously funny as a slacker hit man. ("This is a lifestyle that I embrace," he declares indignantly.)
Throughout, The Limey is anchored by Stamp's portrayal of the tightly wound Wilson, a man doubly bereaved by the loss of his daughter and the childhood he missed while in prison. He stalks LA like an avenging angel of death, furiously bent on retribution, powerful in his silence, yet oddly comic when he speaks. Although his long, stagey midfilm monologue strikes an artificial note (and tips the ending), and while the script occasionally meanders into dead-ends, The Limey sticks to Wilson's credo: "Bide your time and everything becomes clear."
Indeed, as Wilson waits and watches, contemplating the object of his revenge, it seems that Soderbergh himself shares in his open-ended approach to decision making. As a result, The Limey's outcome isn't exactly surprising, nor does it seem inevitable. But if the ending is a bit too psychologically pat in Wilson's final assignment of blame for his daughter's death, that's because the film is about karma, not closure.