“The Limey”

The Limey

I came upon this movie by accident, through a route I don’t even recall. It was the usual “look up one, find another mentioned, follow that to yet a third” kind of thing. It’s terrific when that haphazard route delivers you somewhere wonderful. Like The Limey.

Terence Stamp stars in this 1999 film directed by Steven Soderbergh (who, the following year, would do Erin Brockovich, followed by the glitzy, intricate and enormously successful Ocean’s Eleven). Set mostly in Los Angeles, The Limey uses back-and-forth to explain the revenge journey of an ex-con Englishman with no first name, Wilson, trying to discover what happened to his grown daughter before she died. We see the daughter, Jenny, in bits and pieces of her youth, and also, with no sound, hours before her death. Otherwise she’s just a photo on the table. Wilson has just spent years as a guest of Her Majesty’s prison system. Jenny’s been a photo to him for a long time.

Wilson picks up a pair of assistants in his search, Elaine and Ed (Lesley Ann Warren, Luis Guzmán), both of whom knew Jenny from acting class. He picks up several guns. Wilson doesn’t collect attitude – he’s already got plenty. Following small clues and using his own intuition, he trails the path of Jenny’s LA life to a high-rolling music producer, Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda), a master of smarm with much to hide and his own enforcer, Jim Avery (Barry Newman), to make sure what’s under the rock doesn’t crawl out.

Unfortunately for Valentine, Avery hires amateur hitmen and a collection of bodyguards who misplace their first directive: stay with the target.

Throughout his hunt, the aloof Wilson explains his history by tidbits. They’re illustrated by fascinating slices of film of Wilson in his youth (Terence Stamp from the 1967 movie Poor Cow – I’d never before seen Stamp so young, when he was the George Clooney of his day) hanging with mates, playing the guitar, talking with Jenny’s mum. Soderbergh often uses shots of Wilson alone and silent, voiced-over by his explanations, which then cross-cut to the scene where he’s speaking the same words, but to someone else. Flashbacks are brief but numerous. Although The Limey has its share of action – at one point, Wilson is beaten by four men running a shady trucking business; there’s also a short car chase scene down Mulholland Drive – the movie bulks up on inner drama.

The part of Wilson was written for Michael Caine (in their 20s, Caine and Stamp shared a flat), but Stamp brings a cold detachment to the role, much as Daniel Craig conveys in his James Bond. Both Bond and Wilson are killers, but they neither hide from nor revel in it. It’s a skill, something they do well and easily, when necessary. They’re quick, too. During a scene at Valentine’s magnificent house cantilevered over the Hollywood hills, you might miss one murder, it’s that fast.

Minutes before the movie’s end, Wilson realizes while confronting an injured Valentine that Jenny’s death was in part his, Wilson’s, responsibility — even though eight time zones separated them. The recognition nearly crushes him as a father. As an ex-con, he comprehends how fate links time and events. The vigilante in him is satisfied to leave Valentine to his own destiny.

You don’t get more astute than that.

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