Proof positive that even the most basic and familiar story can still be gripping and seem fresh if given just the right directorial touch and armed with an outstanding performance from its lead actor, Steven Soderbergh's latest film, "The Limey," is a cut above the standard revenge-based picture.
A character-driven tale of a recently released convict who travels across "the pond" to America in search of answers about his daughter's death, this film -- named after the slang term for an English person -- is similar in tone and theme to those old Charles Bronson revenge pictures of the 1970s.
Shot and edited in a visually aggressive style that's initially somewhat distracting -- what with all the temporal and standard jump cuts, overlapping dialogue and repeated imagery -- but soon becomes a vibrant and important character of its own, the film features the solemn loner character that's become something of an icon in American cinema.
Whether it's Clint Eastwood riding into some Western town, Charles Bronson taking care of some inner city thugs or even Arnold Schwarzenegger's determinably pursuant titular character in the "Terminator" films, audiences seem to get a cathartic kick out of watching the no nonsense character "clean house." Interestingly enough, such characters don't have to be squeaky clean or "perfect" heroes for that to work. As long as they're not as bad as the villains they're after, they and their goals nearly always connect with the audience.
Of course for that to work to its best extent, the performers inhabiting such characters need to have just the right personality to pull of such a role lest they lose the audience's support. Here, Terence Stamp ("Bowfinger," "Wall Street") does just that and more in what may become his signature performance. Like the Terminator or the Energizer Bunny, Stamp's character is nothing short of persistently resilient. Although he's not a superhuman by any means and gets roughed up himself, his boundless, one-track determination is what completely engages the audience.
Such a film obviously needs a good villain, and Peter Fonda ("Ulee's Gold," "Easy Rider") delivers a performance that more than fits the bill. Similarly not some invincible bad guy -- in fact, he's more likely to be described as feeble in both physique and courage -- Fonda plays the character in such a weasel-like way that viewers -- not really knowing his exact involvement, if any, in the girl's death -- automatically root for his demise.
Although it certainly doesn't affect the overall impact, the fact that the film doesn't focus at all on the question of that involvement is one minor but still glaring omission. Soderbergh, who works from a screenplay by Lem Dobbs ("Dark City," "Kafka"), is interested in telling a black and white story filled with gray characters.
What that means is that the plot is extremely straightforward (a man wants to find the person responsible and enact revenge) but doesn't feature a classic good guy vs. bad guy battle. While it clearly works, had Soderbergh inserted some doubt into the proceedings about Valentine's involvement in Jenny's death, that would have taken the film down an entirely different but far more interesting path.
If that had been done, we'd wonder whether such nebulous facts would alter Wilson's goal in any way, and then might just find ourselves wrestling over whether we could continue to root for him, at least beyond what occurs in a subconscious cathartic sense. That element is already somewhat in place -- with him being a murderous criminal -- but that extra layer of complexity would have made the film more intriguing and helped to unsettle the audience even more.
None of that's to say that such an omission harms the picture. Despite the rather simplistic and straightforward plot, Soderbergh has crafted the film in such a unique, visual fashion that it's ultimately quite mesmerizing to watch. Beyond eliciting great performances from his actors, the director -- who first broke onto the scene with "Sex, Lies and Videotape, had several misfires after that and then returned to the limelight with 1998's "Out of Sight" (with George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez) -- evokes a visual style that nearly becomes a character in and upon itself.
That said, the "playing with time" element might displease some viewers. It's not like "Pulp Fiction" or even "Out of Sight" where the story jumps through time but stays wherever it lands for a while. Here, the images jump back and forth through time and even within the same scene. While it's initially somewhat disconcerting, the effect rapidly grows on the viewer as it adds an interesting complexity to the proceedings while simultaneously serving as bits of exposition.
During all of that, Soderbergh employs an incredibly unique device that's reportedly never been achieved nor attempted in any previous film. It seems that the flashback scenes showing Stamp's character as a carefree, young criminal are in fact ones taken from Ken Loach's 1967 film, "Poor Cow," where Stamp played a criminal who just so happened to go by the name of Dave Wilson (the same character in this film). While neither Stamp nor that film was/are recognizable enough for the effect to be quite blatant, it's a clever little addition/tidbit to this picture.
Combined with an effectively haunting score by Cliff Martinez, cinematographer Ed Lachman's camera work and editor Sarah Flack's busy splicing, the jump cuts that hit different times or just skip through the same scene serve to keep the viewer constantly off balance. Although the film generally proceeds from start to finish, one is not always sure at any given moment where the story is currently taking place. While it takes a little getting used to, it's a good effect and constantly keeps the film invigorating and engaging.
Beyond the performances by Stamp and Fonda, the supporting roles are decent, but clearly fall into the huge shadow cast from Stamp's terrific take. As such, Lesley Ann Warren ("Twin Falls Idaho," "Victor/Victoria") and Luis Guzman ("Boogie Nights") can't really do much with their limited roles, although Barry Newman ("Bowfinger," "Daylight") is quite effective as Valentine's "enforcer" (despite looking a bit like Aaron Spelling).
Overall, the film hits most nearly all of the right notes for those who enjoy revenge-based pictures, particularly since the style and approach here are far more developed than in your run-of-the-mill revenge film. Despite a few sequences that feel a bit sidetracked -- including a whole bit where Wilson and Elaine are picked up and interrogated by DEA agents -- and a climax that isn't quite as cathartic as one might expect considering the buildup leading to it -- the film delivers what's expected of it and then some. As such, "The Limey" rates as a 7.5 out of 10.