Thursday, October 21, 1999
In Steven Soderbergh''s new film The Limey, Terence Stamp plays Wilson, a Cockney thief freed after a long stretch in jail. He''s come to Los Angeles on a mission of revenge. His obvious target is the rich music industry legend Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda), who was the last known boyfriend of Wilson''s dead, perhaps murdered, daughter.
The film unfolds as the simplest of simple revenge mysteries, with barely a plot twist to call its own. The Limey is Terence Stamp''s job to carry; it''s a star vehicle for a character actor. In an intriguing sleight-of-camera trick, we see Stamp both as he appears today, and as he looked 30 years ago, via clips from Kenneth Loach''s 1967 movie Poor Cow, in which--to double the doubling effect--Stamp also played a thief named Wilson.
Stamp, a fine British actor, debuted as Billy Budd in the 1962 film adaptation of Melville''s strange novelette. But Stamp was one of those actors who were too pretty to play anything but villains as he aged.
He was sinister and serious as cancer playing the Kryptonian Hitler in Superman II. More lately, Stamp has enlivened some dreadful movies as the "mad doctor." He was blissfully straight-faced as a mad primatologist in Link, your standard killer-chimpanzee movie. He was perhaps even funnier as the masturbation-advocating therapist in 1997''s Bliss ("If you can''t love yourself, how can you love other people?"). In Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, this solemn actor used his seriousness to peel the coyness off a transsexual role.
Yes, Stamp has saved more bad movies than popcorn, but he was never Lee Marvin, even in his youthful days. He''s never posed a physical threat; he''s the kind of villain who sics his henchman on the hero.
And though Stamp has working-class roots, that was a long time ago. It''s hard to accept him as a gruff Cockney in 1999. He''s too barbered, too tanned. "You''re not specific enough to be a person, you''re a vibe," says one character about Fonda''s Valentine. That''s even more true of the character Stamp plays.
Fonda, by contrast, only has to portray a wealthy Southern Californian decadent. He performs this task memorably, though it''s not much of a stretch. Thanks to decades of sunbathing, Fonda looks burned-out on the outside, as well as on the inside. His character''s hillside house, on a peak of one of the Santa Monica mountains, boasts a swimming pool held up on stilts above a 300-foot cliffside drop. Sometimes the shots of Wilson gliding around this remarkable house provide enough drama to make The Limey diverting.
The first encounter between Wilson and his female friend Elaine (Lesley Anne Warren) is a startling exercise in Soderbergh stylistics. The director''s use of jump cuts, flash forwards and voice-overs make for an almost telepathic conversation, tied together from three separate locations.
The Limey is, above all, a movie about Los Angeles, a film that comments on the arrogance of the city through the observations of one who is a stranger there. The film enumerates the Golden State''s broken promises, while lingering over the beaches, the heights and the beauty of Big Sur in its finale. Throughout, Lem Dobbs'' script delivers sweet/sour poetry.
As a thriller, however, the movie barely exists. Wilson''s Cockenyisms sound labored, as queer as a clockwork orange, if you''ll parden the old Cockney expression. The troubling way our hero switches from avenging angel to guardian angel ruins the movie for those of us who can''t submit to Soderbergh''s dazzling style.