Steven Soderbergh's The Limey might be the acid test entry in his filmography, by which I mean any old fool might faintly recognize names like Traffic or Che, but The Limey is curiously absent in discussions of the director's work even, as I'm increasingly finding, it's one of his most popular films among the fans. I don't know what it is about this movie, but you need to know the cinephile's equivalent of a Masonic handshake just to get a wink and a nod pointing you to some backroom where a man says, "That Limey's good, innit?"
Why it's so bizarrely underrepresented escapes me, as The Limey plays like a captivating cross between his mainstream crime thriller Out of Sight mixed with his more dangerous and experimental side. That more avant-garde element does not interfere with the film's enjoyment, however, instead enhancing the tension and emotion of a story of a man looking for vengeance for his daughter's death.
The man in question is Wilson (Terence Stamp) who, if you are too stupid to figure this out for yourself, is English. Recently released from prison, he travels to Los Angeles after receiving word of his family tragedy. The official report says she died in a crash on Mullholland, but he doesn't accept this explanation. Maybe he already knows something we don't, as The Limey leaps forward and backward, the fractured thoughts and memories of its protagonist fluttering across the screen without any concrete sense of a timeline; often, one thought plays over another one, so the sound of a shower plays over Wilson on a plane.
This inventive style of placing the film's sense of time directly in someone's head isn't as fully formed as Christopher Nolan would depict it with Memento, but it's an interesting progression from Soderbergh's playfulness time distortion in Out of Sight. It also adds dimensions to what would otherwise be a routine revenge thriller: Wilson tracks down leads, beats up hired thugs and stalks Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda), the record producer who was dating Jenny when she died. He uncovers a drug operation, contends with a hitman, but all of these things are means only to the end of the plot.
Where The Limey excels, however, is in the subtext of these actions. Terence Stamp speaks in a thick accent spouting indecipherable Cockney slang, but he's also a heartbroken father just looking, in his own, hyperviolent way, for some answers. He's also the only person who handles himself in a fight with any aplomb, disposing of the tanned, buff youth Valentine and his partner Avery (Barry Newman) send to do their dirty work. It's a display of virility and fortitude in elder years every bit as invigorating as a dose of Viagra.
At times, though, Soderbergh's narrative flourishes distract from the story. A subplot involving the DEA is so murky it works neither as a part of Wilson's personal story of toppling Valentine nor as a potential commentary on the agency (Wilson does hypothesize to the agent in charge that Valentine probably offered them some sort of deal, be it bribes for leniency or information for safety, but his spoken musings simply fade from his lips, never to inform any other part of the story). The hitman, Stacy (Nicky Katt), fits into the theme of the grizzled oldster emerging victorious in a battle with the pampered youth whose muscles and menace are just for show, but one still must wonder how and when Avery ever first came into contact with this dopey buffoon and why on Earth he would hire him for something as serious and discreet as an orchestrated killing.
Nevertheless, The Limey is a wonderfully straightforward revenge story made non-linear through directorial touches which call attention to themselves but in a sly way that I'm quickly becoming used to with Soderbergh's work. By pitting two aged icons from across the pond, both known for "dangerous" (in that Hollywood sense) youth images, against each other, Soderbergh tests the mettle of the rebellion of the '60s in its later years, and it is interesting to note that the villain attempts to mask his own age by dressing as a younger man and dating barely adult women. That image of chasing youth is juxtaposed with Soderbergh's wildly inventive, oddly touching usage of footage from Ken Loach's 1967 debut Poor Cow, in which a young Terence Stamp starred. The story of Stamp's character in that film provides the background for Wilson, whose youthful charm in that film rubs like sandpaper against the terrifying and implacable vision of that man in his 60s.