Friday, October 24, 2014

The Limey - 1999

"The Limey" - 1999
Dir. by Steven Soderbergh - 1 hr. 29 min.

Theatrical Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

At this point in his career, director Steven Soderbergh is a well-known commodity, as is his visual and editing style.  Sure, he's done micro-budget indie films that deviate from what people know him for, but this is the guy responsible for the "Ocean's Eleven" films, which pretty much cemented what people expect from one of his films.  When "The Limey" was released, things were a little different.  Soderbergh was known for a decade of indie films like "Sex, Lies, and Videotape," and "The Limey" was his follow-up to the slightly-underperforming (yet completely brilliant crime masterpiece) "Out of Sight."  "The Limey" seemed like a bit of a step backwards into indie-land at the time (although if you look at Soderbergh's career, bouncing between small and large films is a characteristic of his resume), with no huge stars, just people who had turned into character actors over the course of their careers.

"Tell me about Jenny."  This is the the demand that Wilson (Terence Stamp) makes of pretty much everyone's he meets in Los Angeles.  Wilson is a Cockney career criminal, and Jenny (Melissa George) was his daughter, who has perished in a fiery car crash in the hills of L.A.  One of her friends, Ed Roel (Luis Guzman) wrote a letter to Wilson about Jenny's death, and Wilson shows up at his doorstep to piece together what actually happened to Jenny.  The name that keeps popping up is Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda), a '60s music producer who had been seeing her.

The plot itself is pretty straightforward: Wilson shows up, figures out who is responsible for what's happened to his daughter, and then proceeds towards a showdown with him.  It's a solid plot with a sense of inevitability that builds over the course of the film.  But it's the execution of the story that makes "The Limey" a special film.  It's probably easiest to discuss the acting; Terence Stamp is riveting in his role, Luis Guzman makes the most out of his supporting role (as he seemingly always does), Peter Fonda is suitably smug and earnest (witness his self-absorbed short scene explaining what the '60s were really like to a barely interested younger lover, who is trying to pay attention from the bathtub), Lesley Ann Warren is a necessary and lively counter-point to the matter-of-fact aggression, playing Jenny's closest friend, Elaine.

Some of the things that Steven Soderbergh's films have become known for are on full-display here; non-linear editing, divorcing dialogue from what's on-screen (in this case, showing actors reacting while their own dialogue flows over top of the footage), a languid pace (even though this story takes place over a relatively short amount of time, it doesn't feel hurried), a certain style of soundtrack (provided by Cliff Martinez, who has worked on other Soderbergh films since), and a matter-of-fact visual approach.  Perhaps the best example of the last point is what I thought was the best scene of the film, involving Wilson showing up at a warehouse, having a violent confrontation, getting kicked out, and then walking back into the warehouse to finish his business there.

The scene in question, subtitled because that's how the internet is.

The unmoving camera shot at the end of the scene is perfect, the scene is perfect, the conclusion is perfect.  Just in case you had any doubts as to whether one ought to mess with Wilson, those doubts are settled by the end of the scene.  Despite the straight-forward nature of the story, the editing style keeps viewers constantly wondering what's happening.  It's not disorienting as much as it feels like a stream-of-consciousness manner of film-making, and by the time Soderbergh starts to work in alternate possible conclusions (as in the party scene), the viewer has been conditioned to know that they're going to have to wait a minute to know if what they're seeing is what's really happened.

Above all else, "The Limey" is a clever film, down to it's marrow.  The choice of casting Terence Stamp and Peter Fonda as adversaries is one that carries cultural weight.  Turning Captain America into a faux-hippie businessman plays off of his past.  As for Terence Stamp, his past is actually interpolated into the film itself - re-using footage from the 1967 film, "Poor Cow," in flashback scenes.  This approach is uncommon, but a deeply clever way to get around flashbacks with actors who are cast largely because of some passing resemblance to the older actor.

The result is that "The Limey" is an exhilarating crime film, one that has a distinct personality and pace, and owes nothing to the elephant in the room in '90s crime films, "Pulp Fiction."  Upon it's release, "The Limey" was pretty much completely ignored, but it's aged well, and remains a powerful, pleasing film.  The distinct approach to the material and the excellent work by the cast elevate this film to an equal (in a creative sense) to the other films that Soderbergh made in this string.  His next three films were "Erin Brockovich," "Traffic," and "Ocean's Eleven."  Considering "Out of Sight" and "The Limey," that's an incredibly strong run of five films, and this one is the one that people are least likely to have seen.  I'd recommend taking care of that oversight as soon as possible.

4.5 / 5 - TV (HD)

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