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The Boston Phoenix Doing Time

"The Limey" gets the Stamp of approval

By Peter Keough

OCTOBER 11, 1999:  For the most part, screen icons of the '60s have fared pretty well with time. Probably better than the present generation -- will Julia Roberts or Gwyneth Paltrow hold the screen as well in 35 years as Julie Christie does now? The men, too, Clint Eastwood, Sean Connery, Paul Newman, and, less famed but more iconic, Terence Stamp, have been weathered by the years into incandescence. Stamp for one still shines with an enigmatic male beauty, an object of desire and also a mirror of the one desiring. As he has aged, his keen eyes sunken deeper, his brow silvered and domed, the sensual mouth set with resignation and rigor, he has become less the object and more the mirror.

Just start with his voice, as does Steven Soderbergh in The Limey: silken but with the whiplash of a cockney accent, innocent but wily, it seduces and threatens. "Tell me," Stamp's voice purrs over The Limey's opening black screen, evoking the keen-eyed cherub from Billy Budd, the polymorphous tempter from Teorema, even the prickly drag queen of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. "Tell me about Jennie." Somehow, Jennie doesn't seem as important as the voice calling her name from the darkness.

Just so, The Limey's generic storyline is not as important as the film's disruption of and insight into the conventions of story telling itself, into the whole nature of time and the self that tells these tales. Like his previous film, Out of Sight, Soderbergh undermines the expectations of a generic mainstream movie primarily by playing with chronology. In the earlier film, though, linearity is bent only enough to jolt a solid Elmore Leonard adaptation into giddy epiphany. In The Limey, from the very beginning we don't know whether Stamp's Wilson, an aging ex-con from London in LA on a mission of revenge, is coming or going.

With the free flow of a fever dream, the film jumps from Wilson arriving or departing from LAX, unpacking or packing in a motel room, paying a call on Ed (Luis Guzman), the man who informed him of his daughter Jennie's violent death, and setting out to find Valentine (Peter Fonda), the epicene '60s record producer who was the last person to see her alive. Jump-cut flashbacks and flashforwards lasting seconds are further addled by overlapping voiceovers, repeated slow-motion sequences, and black-and-white images of Jennie as a child walking on the beach; it's all centered on Wilson's tormented face, which is frozen like an image on a Roman coin, staring out one car window or another.

Despite the Cubist distortions, the elements of the story are soon evident -- as in the '60s and '70s noirs Point Blank and Get Carter, which Soderbergh happily acknowledges as influences, the plot dynamic is revenge served cool. So is The Limey just formalistic gimmickry, an attempt to disguise a trite story with jazzy style? And as such isn't it just derivative of previous deconstructions of the genre, going back not only to Tarantino's Pulp Fiction (1994) and Soderbergh's own The Underneath (1994) but to Stanley Kubrick's The Killing (1956)?

If so, The Limey still offers its own pleasures, reconfigurations of clichés that make them revelatory. Such as the scene in which Wilson breaks into a shady warehouse looking for Valentine and gets beaten up, thrown out, and taunted to return. Which he promptly does, and the consequences, as with all the violence in this movie, take place in the distance, on the other side of a wall, out of sight. Or the unbilled cameo of Bill Duke as a weary DEA agent responding to Wilson's rhyming cockney slang by saying, "There's only one thing I don't understand . . . and that's every motherfucking word you said." Or Nicky Katt and Joe Dallesandro (another '60s icon of sorts, less fortunate than Stamp) as two of the dippiest hitmen since Travolta and Jackson.

Without Stamp, though, The Limey would be just a juicier neo noir with a twist -- his presence makes Soderbergh's free-associative fragmentation seem not so much like editing-room pyrotechnics as the tormented workings of a mind torn by loss, rage, desire, and the imponderables of time. Even when he's not in the frame, when the film follows Valentine's flight up the coast and into memories of the '60s, you can feel Wilson in the darkness, like the voice at the very beginning of the movie. The Limey at its best aspires to what film does better than any art: broaching the mystery of time, and timelessness.

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