The Limey (1999)

Directed by Steven Soderbergh

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The Limey has the feel of an old French film from the 1960s, something like Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, Francois Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player or Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows.  What I remember most about those films is the gun, the non-conventional editing and an ending that doesn’t always offer you what you want or expect.

Like those French films, the plot of The Limey is pretty slim.  There is an older man who wants revenge for his daughter’s death.  Early on in the story he figures out who the criminal kingpin is whom he wants dead, and then by the end he has his opportunity to kill him.  There is little in the way of character development, instead a singular focus on the protagonist’s heightened state of mind, proclivity for violence and his determined goal.

Wilson (Terrence Stamp) is an English man who travels to Los Angeles to get revenge for the death of his daughter.  Though she is believed to have died in a car crash, Wilson knows there was something else going on.  He enlists the help of a friend of his daughter’s, Eduardo (Luis Guzman), and together they track down Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda), the man responsible for her death.

Maybe track down isn’t the right term.  Wilson goes to a warehouse at which his daughter got into an altercation.  He doesn’t know the men who work there, but he’s damn sure they’re some of the bad guys he’s after, and he’s right.  He kills all but one of them whom he yells at to warn Valentine that he’s coming.

Later Wilson and Eduardo show up at a party Valentine is hosting, and they’re able to hide in plain sight because though Valentine knows someone wants him dead, he doesn’t know who he is.  Wilson’s secret power is his anonymity, well that and his silent, almost passive rage.  It’s a rage which makes him kill multiple people throughout the film who we soon after learn are “bad” people, thus justifying his actions within the movie world.  At the same time, Wilson seems almost zen.  He never runs, and when presented an opportunity to kill Valentine, he resists.  He knows what he wants, but he also wants the moment to be kind of special.

Later Wilson tells a DEA agent that you have to “bide your time.  That’s what prison teaches you if nothing else.  Bide your time, and everything becomes clear.”

It’s a moment which partially illuminates Wilson’s character.  We understand his motive, and now we understand his way of thinking.  It makes for a complex character, one so tirelessly motivated by revenge but who will take his time getting it.

Valentine figures out who Wilson is when, at Valentine’s party, he throws Valentine’s security guard over a ledge and to his death.  Wilson and Eduardo escape, narrowly avoid death by shotgun at the hands of Valentine’s number 2, Avery (Barry Newman).

After the brief shootout, Avery hires a hitman (played by the underrated Nicky Katt) to kill Wilson.  Not much time is wasted before we see the hitman come after Wilson only to be accosted by DEA agents we only moments before learned were following the men.  Or were they following Wilson?  Either way it feels like a case of deus ex machina, something which is suddenly introduced into the story to save the main character.

After a long, two-sided conversation filmed and edited like we’re watching a series of explosions in slow motion, the DEA agent gives Wilson Valentine’s address in Big Sur.  This is where the climactic shootout takes place.  In addition to Valentine, Avery and Wilson, the hired hitman and his partner show up, not knowing who Wilson is but knowing that the target on his head suggests he’s worth a great deal of money.

The shootout is like something out of a Tarantino movie.  Even like those early French movies, the violence feels artistically sloppy.  Characters are shot repeatedly, by each other and previously unseen characters.  It’s a spectacle that works well regardless of context.  These moments don’t offer much in the way of character development (but why would they), rather they say more about the violence each man is capable of.  By this point we know these characters are comfortable pulling the trigger.  It’s like we’ve been shown all these caged lions, and they’re finally let out of their cages.

Basically everyone dies, but we get to the point where Wilson, already maimed, has an injured Valentine unarmed and compromised.  Wilson demands the truth, and Valentine gives it to him.  Wilson’s daughter threatened to turn Valentine into the police (as she apparently did to her own father, resulting in his nine year prison sentence before the story begins), and Valentine killed her in a moment of panic.

Wilson digests the news, then seems to let Valentine go.  He says goodbye to the people who matter to him, Eduardo and Elaine (Lesley Ann Warren) a woman with whom he shares about two conversations in the film, and heads back home.

Beyond the possible connections to French cinema, there is another allusion to the 1960s.  Valentine is a music producer who rubbed shoulders with many musical legends of that era.  In a conversation with a young woman who is basically filling in for his last young woman (Wilson’s daughter), Valentine describes his memories of the 1960s as a dream, one you feel at home in while it’s happening but which mostly escapes you as you recall it later on.

Casting Peter Fonda as Valentine is surely deliberate, considering Fonda’s most famous role must be 1969’s Easy Rider, a film which as come to define that decade.  What Soderbergh might be saying about the 60s, about Valentine’s recollection of the 60s, I don’t exactly know?  In that earlier film he was a free, a biker doing drugs and rolling across the country.  In the end he was murdered by people who resembled something like the establishment.  Fonda and his fellow biker (Dennis Hopper), weren’t built to survive in such a world, and it feels to me that the biker Fonda played likely would’ve been killed if he ran into Valentine.

In other words, I think the movie might be saying something about the youth of the 60s/70s and what they became in the 80s/90s.  In David Fincher’s Fight Club, also released in 1999, there is a moment in which Tyler Durden and Tyler Durden smash a Volkswagen  Beetle.  It’s that old car which for many is a memento of the 1960s, the Summer of Love, Woodstock, etc.  The reason they smashed it, according to what I remember reading about the film, is that Brad Pitt and Ed Norton loathed the vehicle because of what it represented.  A symbol of something genuine in the 60s and 70s, the youth of that generation grew up to capitalize on that symbolism, marketing it for a paying audience in the 80s and 90s.  In other words they stripped the power of something symbolic and turned it into just another consumer item.

To me Soderbergh is saying something similar about the 1960s and how the mementos of that moment in time have been repackaged and sold to modern audiences.  With The Limey he creates a film that feels straight out of the 60s but about characters who slowly seem to be dying the further and further they get away from that era.

Valentine is a character isolated in a large estate in the mountains, and he openly yearns for the 60s and for his heyday.  Similarly we are given several flashbacks to a younger Wilson (played still by a younger Terrence Stamp in Poor Cow, 1967) in which he seems to live innocently, thirty years prior.  He’s a younger, more vital man not burdened by the violent need for revenge which defines him now.  The film ends with one of these flashbacks, showing Wilson/Stamp smoking a cigarette and playing around on a guitar.  He was a carefree, happy man, and now he’s something like a ghost, moving slowly through life, even as he hunts his daughter’s killer.

Up Next: Hard Eight (1996), Solaris (2002), Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)


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