An Englishman in L.A.
Billy Budd is back, and man, is he pissed. It seems that mean and no-good Los Angeles chewed up and spat out his beloved daughter Jenny, and he is coming to town to kick some ass. Spare and elegant, The Limey is no ordinary revenge tale, and it’s worth watching in no small part just to enjoy director Steven Soderbergh’s (Erin Brockovich, Out of Sight) exercise in unconventional storytelling.
Wilson (Terence Stamp: Bowfinger, The Phantom Menace) — who has spent most of his life in and out of English prisons, mostly for armed robbery — arrives in L.A. with nothing more than a newspaper clipping about the fiery car crash that killed his daughter and the return address on the envelope it arrived in. The address belongs to Ed (Luis Guzmán: Magnolia, The Bone Collector), a friend of Wilson’s daughter, Jenny (Melissa George: Dark City), whom we meet only in silent flashbacks. We never really get the sense that it’s anything other than raging grief that convinces Wilson that Jenny’s demise was no accident, but when he learns from Ed of Jenny’s boyfriend, slimy concert promoter Valentine (Peter Fonda), Wilson makes finding him a top priority.
Wilson’s journey takes him from the criminal underbelly of L.A. to the mansions of the Hollywood Hills, causing trouble wherever he goes, but it’s not so much what he does but how Soderbergh shows it to us that makes The Limey so compelling. The story unfolds in so untypical a fashion that it’s always suspenseful, unpredictable, and surprising. Out-of-sequence shots are worked into the narrative, such as the cuts throughout the film to Wilson, on a plane obviously heading back to England, alternately looking satisfied and miserable — our suspicions about how things may work out in the end keep getting reevaluated every time Soderbergh cuts to this future Wilson. The film is frugal with dialogue to begin with, and oftentimes we watch characters stare at each other in silence while a later conversation between them runs in voiceover — or sometimes we see conversations between characters and then witness their initial meeting later.
And then, when you’ve come to expect these kinds of very studied, very filmic techniques, Soderbergh will startle you with an almost documentary style, as characters run out of camera range to commit major felonies and then run back into view. And lending to the documentary feel is the old footage of a much younger Stamp worked into Wilson’s memories of the past, of Jenny as a child — like home movies, like Wilson is not a fictional construct.
So why did Soderbergh go from such a daringly told film like The Limey to the disappointingly conventional Erin Brockovich? I’m guessing money. I’m sure Brockovich made more money in its first weekend than The Limey did in its entire run. That’s too bad. I’ll take an off-beat, morally ambiguous film like this one any day over manipulative, supposedly uplifting feel-good junk.