The Limey, directed by Steven Soderbergh from an original screenplay by Lem Dobbs, opens hard and fast and rarely lets up from there. As the Who’s “The Seeker” blasts away in the background we’re thrust into a opening montage depicting the journey of an ex-con named Wilson (Terence Stamp) from his home in England to the suntanned shores of Los Angeles. Wilson has come to the City of Angels for a reason: to find out the truth behind the death of his estranged daughter Jenny (Melissa George). After settling in he meets up with her friend Eduardo Roel (Luis Guzman), the man who sent Wilson the letter telling him about Jenny’s death and no stranger to being a “guest of the state” himself.
Although the official story is that she died in a car accident Wilson knows instinctively that his daughter was murdered. Jenny was romantically involved with Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda), a record producer with decadent appetites and criminal associates. With the help of Eduardo and Elaine (Lesley Ann Warren), an acting teacher and another of Jenny’s closest friends, Wilson begins looking into Valentine and his illegal dealings hoping to find the answers he seeks, but they may not be the ones he desires.
Structured as a standard revenge story and ultimately turning out to be anything but, the true brilliance of The Limey is in how it cleverly subverts those tired genre conventions into something wholly original. Before winning Oscar glory and making millions off movies such as Erin Brockovich, Traffic, and Ocean’s Eleven, Steven Soderbergh made this intimate low-budget drama virtually under the radar and there’s little surprise that it’s one of his best films. The Limey is a story about failure and regret, and the complex relationships between fathers and their daughters.
At certain points in the film we flash back to Wilson’s younger years and Soderbergh uses this opportunity to seamlessly splice in footage of Stamp in the 1967 Ken Loach drama Poor Cow, in which he played a criminal not dissimilar from Wilson. The director also employs further editing tricks that work in favor of the story instead of hindering it, including the use of sudden time jumps that prefigure the innovative techniques Christopher Nolan would utilize for his breakthrough feature Memento.
Lem Dobbs, who prior credits include Soderbergh’s own Kafka and co-writing the sci-fi cult classic Dark City, contributes the lean, cool, and witty screenplay. Cliff Martinez, of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and an accomplished film composer, delivers a great minimalist score. To populate his tale of revenge amongst the fringe dwellers and aging kings of Hollywood Soderbergh rounded up an all-star cast of iconic actors from the 1960’s and 1970’s, the time of the New Hollywood’s dawning.
Lem Dobbs created the role of Wilson with no one but Terence Stamp in mind, and needless to say in a career of many ups and downs this is one of Stamp’s finest hours. Bringing charisma and disarming Cockney humor to his character, Stamp molds Wilson into a genuine human being haunted by his failings as a father and not a engine of destruction with only payback in mind. But don’t let the creased face and graying white hair deceive you because this man is still more than capable of kicking all the ass and taking names he has to in order to get his answers.
Peter Fonda is smartly cast as the record producer Terry Valentine trying to hold onto a piece of his long past heyday while indulging his tastes for younger women and keeping a few skeletons in his rather sizable closet next to his designer suits. The underrated Luis Guzman does solid work as Roel, one of the few good and honest people in Jenny’s life who by the end becomes one of her father’s few real friends. Lesley Ann Warren is given a rare chance to shine as an actress and here she plays her character of Elaine as a friend and surrogate mother figure to Wilson’s daughter who comes to help the aging criminal in his quest.
Barry Newman, who may best be known for playing Kowalski in the high-speed 1971 cult classic Vanishing Point, is quietly effective as Avery, Valentine’s confidante and dirty-tricks man. Nicky Katt, who’s played in everything from Dazed & Confused to Grindhouse, is teamed with 1970’s cult cinema icon Joe Dallesandro as a pair of laconic criminals employed by Avery for his dirty work. The scene where Katt observes the goings-on on the set of a commercial is hilarious.
Did I mention that the one and only Bill Duke was also in this film? Yes, friends, the brilliant filmmaker (Deep Cover) and famed action flick supporting player (Commando, Predator) gets to share a single scene with Stamp where Wilson does most of the talking and Duke just sits in his chair and processes what he witnesses as only he can. It’s pretty goddamn glorious.
The Limey is a small gem of a film, brilliantly directed by Soderbergh on the cusp of his professional comeback and often overlooked because of the fact and skillfully played by a terrific company of actors. I highly recommend it.