The Limey (1999)

Directed by Steven Soderbergh; Written by Lem Dobbs

What makes film noirs and their spiritual descendants so compelling is that they satisfy the want of knowing. Life, taken as a broad spectrum of experience, is often impenetrable, offering a heap of questions that have no easy answers, and while some of these questions are so opaque and encompassing as to be never truly answerable, others are acute and painful when left unanswered. Noirs, when they allow us to feel through a protagonist the relief and agency of reaching the end of a red thread, offer a rare and powerful pleasure. 

Terence Stamp is Wilson, a man with an acute question that sees him land in Los Angeles ready to find out why his daughter died and who did it. Of course it’s someone powerful, with an army of people in front and backing him, with only a precious few in Wilson’s corner. Violence and pain almost certain, antagonizing an entire system certainly required – Wilson’s got it cut out for him.

He doesn’t seem worried, however. Terence Stamp seems named with this performance in mind, prowling the streets of L.A. like a flexed muscle and the welcoming demeanour of a door nail, his eyes set so deep in his head they peek out like moray eels. Every time he opens his mouth, he bares his teeth, as much to speak as to warn. Even a kind word sounds like a threat. 

So we’re in good company. Wilson’s mannerisms, heavy accent and frivolous use of cockney slang is both hilarious and terrifying set against laid-back sunny California. Soderbergh seems to know this too, with an early montage showing Wilson simply prowling along the street, the menace in every step enough to keep him solitary despite Soderbergh taking him in through a wide shot with plenty of streetscape to be seen. To realize this impossibility of a person and make him believable and oddly endearing is some of Stamp’s finest work. 

Opposite him is Peter Fonda, every bit his equal as Valentine, the music producer who draws Wilson’s attention. Sunkissed and a classy sleaze, his surfer boy vibes pose a perfect coupling to Stamp’s rug beater personality, these two men joined by their connection to the deceased innocence of Wilson’s daughter. Not done wrong by being cast as some two-dimensional snake, Fonda infuses enough witless charm into the character to see him pass through a room like a ray of the sun, even if we’re meant to suspect him of sinister acts.

Beyond its splendid performances, The Limey has some of Soderbergh’s most evocative and atmospheric work, drumming up 60’s British rock n roll energy with choice rock anthems for a soundtrack mellowed out with Cliff Martinez’s melancholy score of urban mystery. It also provides the film’s tight, tight storyline with a little oomph where it needs it, a little sentiment to deepen it, and as far as mystery films go, The Limey doesn’t have an ounce of fat, not opting for red herrings to whisk up a false sense of murky conspiracy. All it is, is fun, thrill and atmosphere. 

That’d all be good enough on his own, but Soderbergh and editor Sarah Flack, Sofia Coppola’s favorite, do some real fascinating tinkering around with time as they cut back and forth between Wilson’s past and present in a subtle way that doesn’t immerse you, but rather just adds a sense of Wilson racing through the years and the final moments of his daughter that he didn’t get to witness, every new revelations a twinge in the heart of this tough man. 

Calling something underrated is a pet peeve of mine, because it’s often said about things that decidedly aren’t, but given how The Limey flew under the public radar when it first released, and remains a quick footnote in the run-up to Soderbergh’s Ocean’s-trilogy, this might qualify: a slick mystery with some real acting that has both nerve and emotion, laughs and chills, and does it all with zero fuzz. A solid recommendation for any occasion. 

3 thoughts on “The Limey (1999)”

  1. I first saw Terence Stamp as Zod in Superman 2. The Limey is the performance that I will always remember him best for. The profound climax and closure for Wilson is quite timeless and to this day still a lot to say about the human condition. Thanks, Mikkel, for your review.

    Liked by 2 people

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