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Weekly Alibi Hitman from Britain

By Devin D. O'Leary

OCTOBER 25, 1999:  God knows Steven Soderbergh could rest on his laurels. He basically gave birth to the modern indie film movement with his breakout film fest hit sex, lies and videotape. Before 1989, independent cinema was just that -- completely independent of Hollywood. Films produced outside the studio system would run for a short period in art house theaters, then disappear once the college crowds went back to class. After sex, lies and videotape made it big, every studio exec in Los Angeles was prowling the film festivals, searching for the next crossover hit at bargain basement prices.

Soderbergh has neither rested on his laurels, nor has he traded them in like so many Green Stamps for a cushy Hollywood position. He's released inscrutable art flicks (Kafka), intriguing film noirs (The Underneath), unhinged comedies (Schitzopolis) and at least one mainstream action hit (Out of Sight). To put it simply, Soderbergh remains as definitively independent as ever. Now the Lewis and Clark of indie filmmakers has turned out his latest product, an icy, offbeat, but highly accessible crime drama entitled The Limey.

Longtime English acting ace Terence Stamp stars as the title character, a silent-but-deadly Cockney ex-con named Wilson who blows into Los Angeles one sunburned day looking for someone. Wilson isn't exactly sure who he's looking for, but this Brit badass is a man with a mission. Seems Wilson's estranged daughter was recently killed in an automobile accident. Although the local police have ruled her death an accident, Wilson is convinced, somewhere deep in his bones, that someone is responsible. And someone is going to pay.

That someone turns out to be a sleazy-slick record producer named Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda). Valentine is a turned-on, burned-out hippie-turned-SoCal-yuppie. Valentine has a habit of collecting young women, and Wilson's daughter Jenny was one of them. Considering the number of hard-bodied, toothpick-chewing gangster types surrounding the music mogul, Valentine is almost certainly involved in a few less-than-legal dealings. Is it possible that Jenny learned a bit too much about her beau's business?

What looks, on the surface, like a standard tale of righteous revenge is given an intriguing twist of originality thanks to some creative casting and loads of stylish directing on Soderbergh's part.

Casting Stamp and Fonda is Soderbergh's first coup. Both actors have been around forever and carry a certain amount of baggage with them onto the screen. Within seconds of seeing Wilson and Valentine, we feel as if we've known them for years (which, essentially, we have). Stamp isn't the most high-profile of actors, but has done stellar work in films like Billy Budd, The Collector, The Hit and Priscilla Queen of the Desert (not to mention Superman II). Few actors have the intensity level that Stamp does, and he utilizes his edgy, simmering personality like a sharpened weapon here. Almost immediately viewers are hit with the idea that Wilson is no unstoppable terminator. He's just a working-class criminal -- an admirably dishonest bloke who knows his way around the underworld. But he's also the kind of hard-ass bastard who isn't going to stay down on the pavement no matter how hard you hit him. He'll just keep getting up and smiling at you through bloody teeth until one or the other of you is dead.

Even so, Wilson seems to have a few things stacked against him. First of all, he's no spring chicken. Second of all, he's spent the last nine years in prison, making him a rather timelost fellow. He doesn't know a thing about Los Angeles, and nobody there can even understand his crazy Cockney catchphrases. And yet, there's never any doubt that this determined, enigmatic bastard will get what he's come for. With Stamp at the helm, Wilson commands the film, drifting through the sun-bleached environs of southern California and looking to spill a little blood for the sake of love or vengeance or just some cosmic sense of karmic balance.

Fonda is similarly cast in the perfect role. Thanks to psychedelic '60s hits like The Wild Angels, The Trip and Easy Rider, we're used to seeing Fonda as the ultimate counterculture icon -- but we all know what became of icons like that. If they didn't manage to bump themselves off like Janis or Jimi, they survived, became rich corporate poster children and marketed the living shit out of themselves (ring any bells there, Jerry Garcia?). Fonda has got every word and mannerism down pat as the hippie who sold out big-time, feels vaguely guilty but still covets every ill-gotten guilder. The irony of seeing Peter Fonda in such a role is simply delicious.

Soderbergh has structured his film in a fragmented, timewarped style. The story is a simple one, but doesn't bother progressing in a traditional, linear manner. Instead, there are flashbacks and flashforwards. Dialogue drifts in from previous and future scenes. Certain sequences are repeated, restaged from different perspectives. The story feels a bit like something that has already happened to us, and we're only recalling the events in our mind. This lends an air of inevitability to the film, a certain unshakable destiny to events.

To some, The Limey may seem like a slow retread of tricky modern crime films like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. What Soderbergh has fashioned, though, is something remarkable and altogether different -- a living, breathing recreation of the hip British crime flicks of yesteryear. Soderbergh has gone so far as to insert snippets of Ken Loach's first feature, the 1967 drama Poor Cow into The Limey. A young Terence Stamp starred in that film as well (as, none too coincidentally, a Cockney criminal named Wilson). As a result, we get flashbacks of surprising realism.

In the end, The Limey is a canny, cold-blooded crime flick, flash-frozen from several decades ago and delivered icy cool to today's audiences.

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