The Limey (1999), Steven Soderbergh’s immediate follow-up to his sexy and stylish Out of Sight, is an equally stylish but far more austere crime drama, cool and removed and filled with regret where Out of Sight was warm and romantic and sexy.
Terence Stamp is Wilson, an aging cockney criminal fresh out of prison who flies to Los Angeles to search for his daughter’s killer. She died in a car wreck, but he suspects her lover, a music industry mogul named Valentine (Peter Fonda), knows more than he’s telling.
It’s like the original Get Carter channeled through Point Blank, a hard-edged revenge thriller steeped in sorrow and regret. The past haunts the present here, an idealized time of potential that both of its survivors have failed, and Soderbergh fills the film with sixties music and New Wave stylistic touches, but he doesn’t quote so much as appropriate ideas and rework them to his own designs. The graying Fonda beautifully plays off his cinematic history of 1960s hippies and rebels as a music promoter coasting on his legacy, a nervous, cowardly millionaire sell-out in white cotton peasant shirts and a deep California tan.
But it is Stamp himself who drives the film. He’s truly magnificent as the cool, cruel London thug on the airy, sunbright streets of LA, a silver-haired criminal taking on street punks and hitmen with the relentless drive of a man possessed. Soderbergh plays off Stamp’s legacy as a sixties icon in his own right, a superstar who in real life dropped out of acting for over a decade and returned as an elder statesman. Soderbergh quotes from Ken Loach’s 1967 film Poor Cow (still unavailable in the US) for Wilson’s flashbacks as a fresh-faced teenage thug.
The impressionistic weave of flashbacks, flashforwards, memories, and ruminations don’t offer hope or happiness, only repentance and reproach. Friendship and love is only fleeting in the most melancholy American revenge thriller of our time.
Luiz Guzman and Leslie-Anne Warren co-star as Wilson’s “adopted” guides through modern L.A., and Barry Newman is excellent as Valentine’s tough, terse head of security, another aging pro blindsided by the Wilson’s relentless single-mindedness.
It was nominated for five Film Independent Spirit Awards.