Steven Soderbergh | 89 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 18 / R
There’s an argument to be made that, from a cinematic perspective, mainstream US cinema these days is boring. Look at the kind of films American auteurs were producing in and around the studio system in the ’90s and early ’00s: Pulp Fiction, Fight Club, Memento, Requiem for a Dream; films that experimented with how they told their stories, the shots they used, how they were edited. Does anyone do that now? Or does anyone do it successfully?
Personally, I’ll be adding Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey to that list. At its most basic it’s a straightforward thriller, in which a British crook played by Terence Stamp is released from prison and travels to L.A. to find out the truth behind the death of his daughter (played in flashbacks by Melissa George, which is kinda weird because she has little to do and no dialogue), and probably take revenge on those responsible. By all accounts, the screenplay by Lem Dobbs was indeed that run-of-the-mill. In the hands of Soderbergh, however, it becomes an arthouse-ish experience, mainly thanks to the editing.
It’s the kind of cutting that’s hard to accurately describe on the page without overdoing it. The movie jumps back and forth in time — not from scene to scene, but from shot to shot. For instance, Stamp’s arrival at the home of his daughter’s friend, and the conversation that follows, is jumbled up with shots of him on the plane, driving in the city, the people his daughter was associating with, and even within the conversation itself, sometimes speech continues on the soundtrack while we watch the characters not talking, or doing something else. This isn’t a conceit Soderbergh uses for one scene, or wheels out now and then, but an overall approach. Some sequences are more thick with it than others, but it’s always right around the corner. It creates a unique sensation. Not disconcerting, exactly, but mysterious and querying. It has you constantly question what you’re watching — is it a memory? A plan? A fantasy? A delusion? It draws connections back and forth across the timeline of the story, bringing out thematic angles. At its most key, it helps explain what happens at the end (too bluntly for some reviewers, I should add). This collage-like style — which unlike, say, Memento’s back-to-front narrative has no obvious in-story point — will certainly not be to everyone’s taste, but it presents an interesting challenge to our usual ideas of how a film should be constructed.
This led to a somewhat infamous commentary track on the film’s DVD release. The A.V. Club even included it in their New Cult Canon series — not The Limey, that is, but The Limey’s commentary track. In it, Soderbergh and Dobbs discuss the filmmaking process, understandably focusing on how screenplays get transformed, and how screenwriters get screwed over. The Limey that ended up on screen is very different to Dobbs’ screenplay, having been aggressively filtered by Soderbergh. This isn’t hard to believe — the film on screen is a very film-y film; how would you go about conveying the crazy editing style on the page, even if you wanted to? By the sounds of things the whole track is basically a friendly argument, and makes me wish someone somewhere would get round to releasing this on Blu-ray so I could hear it (the film looks great in HD, so I don’t much fancy settling for a DVD, thanks).
Despite the visual trickery, The Limey still works pretty well as a straightforward thriller. You have to be prepared to accept the slippery editing, because there’s no avoiding it, but the throughline of Stamp tracking down bad men and how he deals with them is still here. Personally, I’ve never much rated Stamp as an actor, but somehow he fits here. He’s a fish out of water, a man out of place — way out of place — and possibly out of time, too, seeming like a ’60s or ’70s British gangster transported to turn-of-the-millennium L.A. It’s no discredit to the supporting cast that they mainly exist to bob around in his wake.
At a guess, I’d say some would criticise The Limey for being a basic revenge thriller with a veneer of artistry applied in the form of its editing, while others would be turned away from its basic revenge thrills thanks to that editorial veneer. I’m always up for mashing together arthouse and mainstream, though, and here Soderbergh does just that, and in a way I found consistently thought-provoking, too. It’s discoveries like this that are the reward for digging into less-heralded corners of interesting filmmakers’ back catalogues.
This review is part of 1999 Week.
The Limey placed 7th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.