“Bide your time. That’s what prison teaches you, if nothing else. Bide your time, and everything becomes clear, and you can act accordingly.”
When Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey exploded onto the big screen in 1999, it wasn’t quite what audiences were expecting. This isn’t a big budget action flick, with explosions or prolonged material arts action scenes, instead this is a low-key thriller/drama about an ex-con seeking revenge on the man that caused his daughter’s death. A flashy, stylized film which is cool to look at, and is steadily paced.
It’s a film which harks back to the neo noir thrillers from the sixties and seventies, like The Killers (1964), Alphaville (1965), Point Blank (1967), and Get Carter (1971). Despite The Limey being a slow burner, it is a rewarding watch and it’s more relevant than ever with the secret skeletons falling out of Hollywood’s closet, revealing that real life starlets like Wilson’s daughter in the film have suffered at the hands of real life brutes like Terry Valentine.
The film also explores the effects of toxic masculinity has on the development of relationships, especially between Wilson and his daughter, their complex relationship is bittersweet, beautifully summed up as Jenny’s friend saying that she wasn’t angry with her father, just disappointed in him which is somehow a lot worst. And, the film also looks at the subject of aging and how men of a certain age fail to adjust to the changing society that surrounds them. The three main male characters are old school, trying to cling onto a time that no longer exists, and as a result plans have a way of not going according to their plans.
The film opens with the sounds of waves crashing against a beach. And isn’t it funny how the sound of the sea reminds us of the sound of the blood rushing through our ears? This is a strangely peaceful, soothing sound but it also seems mysterious, especially coupled with the black screen. We then hear a voice, gruff and gravely, demanding “Tell me, tell me about Jenny.” Then all of a sudden we fade into a shot of a man walking towards the camera, filling up the space until all we see is his upper body.
This is Wilson, (played by the exceptional Terence Stamp), with his face expressionless but his eyes full of determination. This is a man who knows his shit, and you don’t want to mess with him. He stares straight into the camera, doing up his tie, with The Who’s The Seeker playing over the top of the opening credits. Wilson is the ultimate Seeker, and he won’t stop until he finds who it is exactly that he is looking for. The title “The Limey” appears on screen, and we see that Wilson is LAX airport, he is a fish out of water, a stranger on foreign sands, and as character introductions go, this is a bloody good one. It is also worth mentioning that During the 1960s one of The Who’s two managers was Christopher Stamp, Terence Stamp’s brother, which is a nice little Easter egg.
We quickly discover why Wilson is here, his daughter Jennifer has tragically died in a car accident, but he’s convinced there’s more to this fabricated story. Editing is used to great effect here, with flashbacks of Jenny as a child playing on the beach, scenes of Wilson on a plane, and in his motel unpacking, and a flashforward of when he meets Jenny’s fellow acting friend Eduardo Roel (Luis Guzmán).
Already with the jarring use of editing and surreal use of sound which doesn’t quite match up with what is being shown on screen, this creates a sense of alienation for the viewer and perhaps this is a representation of how Wilson feels within the world he now finds himself in after spending 9 years locked up in the slammer. The use of jump cuts is also a homage to the French New Wave films of the late 50s/early 60s and it helps to keep the film seems somewhat fresh and original, which is refreshing considering that the narrative is one that has been seen multiple times on screen.
Roel informs Wilson that Jenny was in a relationship with a much older an, the record producer Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda) who is a wealthy businessman residing in the canyons of LA. On the surface Valentine is all smiles, and charming anecdotes about his rock n’roll youth, but underneath he is a man struggling financially and has made some dodgy dealings to try and keep his glamorous lifestyle, these dealings involved the shipping and distributing of heroin. Jenny found out, and confronted some sleazy gangsters in downtown LA about it.
Wilson wastes no time, and makes his way down there to get Valentine’s home address. What takes place is perhaps the most impressive action scene that hasn’t been shown on screen, the camera remains in the street, slowly zooming in as we hear gunshot after gunshot, and see the flashes from the muzzle, then a young man runs out in a panic, with Wilson following, his face splattered in blood as he snarls “ Tell him. Tell him I’m coming. Tell him I’m fucking coming!” This is such an impact, because previously we had seen Wilson confront the men and get beaten up, and thrown out onto the sidewalk. We know that in the past he was a hardened criminal (or so he claims), so to see him action would show us that this old dog still knows his tricks, instead we are denied seeing this shooting by the director, but this is far more effective as it allows our imagination to fill in the blanks.
Wilson finds Elaine (Lesley Ann Warren) a friend of Jenny’s, who tells him “She was twenty one when she came to me, straight from leaving you.” And the scenes where they discuss Jenny are broken up between Elaine’s apartment, a diner and the waterfront but the same conversation is spread across the 3 scenes despite the obvious time difference and change in location. Soderbergh plays around with the construct of film-making and brings our attention to the fact that we are indeed watching a film, and perhaps this use of editing and playing around with sound is a bit too much for the average film viewer which may explain the reason why the film flopped at the box office.
There is also the bold decision to use clips from Poor Cow, the 1967 Ken Loach film to show the story of Wilson’s youth (Poor Cow starred Stamp). During filming, Soderbergh was unsure exactly which scenes he wanted to use to establish Wilson’s backstory. So he asked Warner Bros. for permission to use the entire film so that he could choose the scenes later. But Warner Bros. refused. Soderbergh told the head of Warner Bros. that he would never make a film for them again. The executive relented and allowed Soderbergh to use any scenes from the film that he wished.
Valentine is informed about what took place downtown by his “head of security” Jim Avery (Barry Newman), and Valentine is nervous in case anything is lined back to him. Valentine seems quite laid back when he’s keeping other company, but around Avery (who is a long time friend) we see that he is a man whose empire is crumbling, because he is no longer relevant, and all he has left is his stories about the past, and he’s told those stories before. We find that Valentine is holding a party, which Wilson and his new china (“China Plate, mate”) Roal attend. Wilson envisions going up to Valentine and shooting him, we see the same scene played out a few times visualising this shooting taking place, but instead decides against it, because Valentine must know the reason for Wilson’s revenge, he must confront the man. Avery is determined to “snuff” Wilson out and arranges for some petty low life criminals to deal with Wilson, but of course things don’t go according to plan.
The action is often infused with comedy which comes mostly as a result of miscommunication between Wilson with his cockney rhyming slang and the straight talking yanks, there is one hilarious scene where Wilson delivers a monologue discussing his time in jail, in which a DEA agent replies back with the line “There’s one thing I don’t understand. The thing I don’t understand is every motherfuckin’ word you’re saying.” And perhaps it because of the lead character speaking in this slang (“I’m going to have a butchers.” Butcher’s hook = look “Lots of tea leaves about.” Tea leaves = thieves) which resulted in an American audience not connecting with the character.
Regardless, the performance from Stamp is phenomenal (likewise with the rest of the cast especially Fonda). This film is often overlooked, and has become almost forgotten, being lost between other releases from 1999, but it is well worth hunting for. It isn’t like anything else that came out that year, it’s slick, stylish, cool to look at, funny, and thrilling. This is a timeless classic, which deserves a re-watch and appreciating for what it is. A cracker of a film. As Wilson would put it, it’s well worth a butchers.