Action fans kicked off the Millennium with The Limey, a delicious, playful revenge thriller from Steven Soderbergh.
HOLLYWOOD doesn’t know what to do with Steven Soderbergh.
After 10 years spent in the indie sector crafting intimate little dramas and thrillers, he suddenly erupted back into the mainstream a year ago with Out of Sight, proving to astonished onlookers that he was perfectly capable of moulding a studio movie and handling stars like George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez.
If the motley denizens of Tinseltown expected to reap the rewards of his unexpected success and slide into mega-budget blockbusters, they were mistaken; instead, Soderbergh opted to make The Limey, a resolutely old-fashioned drama in which old lag Dave Wilson (Terence Stamp) takes the vengeance trail to Los Angeles on a mission to uncover the truth behind his daughter’s death.
Those who know and love the movies of the past will see more than a shade of both Point Blank and Get Carter in The Limey. Throw in the casting of Stamp and Peter Fonda (as the suspect behind the girl’s death), allied to the brilliant touch of using 30-year-old footage of Stamp in Ken Loach’s Poor Cow in flashback, and this is one serious, considered, erudite little movie.
“The script had been written many years prior, and the writer, Lem Dobbs, and I re-tooled it and kept only the barest premise, which was an English ex-con who comes to L.A. In the original version he was avenging a brother who was a gun-runner, and he got involved with this more traditional coke dealer antagonist. We changed all that,” said Soderbergh.
“My feeling was that if we were to distinguish ourselves from great movies like Point Blank and Get Carter, it has to be in the fact that perhaps we can come up with an emotional undercurrent which is different from those movies, which are pretty cold. I mean, I love them and I think they’re great films, but they’re not the most emotionally engaging movies I’ve ever seen.
“Hopefully we’re jumping off from there – we’re standing on their shoulders, but with a slightly different feel. I certainly wanted that aesthetic, that British ‘New Wave’ aesthetic. I wanted the movie to have a looseness and a playfulness that one would associate with the British ‘New Wave’.”
In making what many might consider a quirky film – yet undoubtedly of the Soderbergh canon – Soderbergh dispensed with the characters who would inhabit the traditional gangster thriller. Gone were the likes of immediately identifiable ‘sarf Landanners’ like Michael Caine and Bob Hoskins. Instead, Stamp was chosen to represent a man desperately out of his time
“The fact that Terence has not been in the public eye a lot, and certainly not during a period of the Seventies and Eighties, worked to our advantage, I felt.
If Terence is a guy who’s ‘been away’, in the sense that Wilson has been away, and Michael Caine and Bob Hoskins – who are terrific actors – have been in the public eye, then building a film around Terence would really play into the idea that Wilson has not been out and about.”
“Wilson, even within his own culture, even if he was walking around London, is an anachronism. He’s a guy who is stuck in a certain time period and would get strange looks even from people in London. He’s just stuck. There’s a layer of that that Terence had to play.”
The film, in which Stamp’s aging criminal seeks to re-discover his lost relationship with his dead daughter by finding a closeness to her as he hunts down her killers, is packed with themes – revenge, betrayal, disillusionment, frustration, anger and guilt.
Soderbergh, working closely with screenwriter Lem Dobbs, worked hard to make such elements work within such a simple storyline. Quoting the great Orson Welles, he said “I shoot like an exhibitionist and cut like a censor”.
“That’s really what I had to do, because I didn’t have time to sit around and weight the relative merits of one thing or another. I thought ‘I’ll put them all in, and then sit down and sort them out’. I just went with my instincts.
“I felt that all these flourishes were organic to Wilson’s experiences in the film. He is a guy who has real trouble staying rooted in the present, and I wanted the film to reflect that difficulty.
“I knew that because we were going to be fragmenting the story, to a large degree, that the spine of the story had to be very straight and very simple, so that no matter how much I digressed, the audience always knew it was a revenge movie about a guy trying to find out about his daughter.”
A self-declared non-fan of action movies, Soderbergh determined that the violence in The Limey would be muted. One tremendous sequence has Stamp, as Wilson, taking a kicking from a bunch of bruisers, only to clamber back to his feet, languidly pull a pistol from his belt and shoot all four.
Soderbergh was careful to show none of the action on screen. Instead, it is hinted at, in the way that some of the great movies of the past manage to suggest horrendous acts of violence merely by implying their intent, or using sound to signify hidden, off-screen acts.
“That was indicated by Lem in the script, that the camera stays outside, and I thought that was a great idea. You know what he’s gonna do, and it’s so much more interesting to hear it, and then he comes out and blood is spattered on his face. It conjures a scene that is better than anything I could shoot.
“I am always trying to find oblique ways to handle that stuff, and the least fun part of the film for me, both directorially and as an audience, is the shoot-out at the house at Big Sur, because there was no way to come at it at an odd angle. Certain things had to happen, and you needed to see them happen, and that was sort of frustrating for me, because throughout the film I thought we had done a good job of coming at it in an odd way.
“When I look at the film I just wish there was another way to do that. We just never came up with one.”
Another priceless moment has Stamp effortlessly sidestepping a hired thug’s attack and pitching him off a balcony. It’s shocking but, more pertinently, it’s funny – blackly comic in the way that violence can only be when handled by a visionary film-maker like Soderbergh.
“The whole idea was that it was tossed off. It was like the way Jacques Tati would shoot some guy being thrown off a cliff, but any way that you can keep it from being too literalised is good,” says Soderbergh.
Fans of great movies have already lauded The Limey, and a delighted Soderbergh has already hinted that, possibly, there may be other adventures to come. Unlike Jack Carter in Get Carter and, to a lesser extent, Walker in Point Blank, Wilson has somewhere else to go.
“Lem Dobbs has this fantasy of writing several Wilson novels, and actually there was a hint of another story at the end of the film, which I cut out, where he makes a very cryptic reference to why he got sent away for this recent stretch.
“In the car he says ‘Last load of friends I had…’, then he misses a beat, “Well, it turned out they weren’t my friends after all”. We begin to understand that there was some big score going down that he was set up for. His plan is to deal with all of the people that betrayed him, but first he wanted to get this thing out of the way regarding his daughter.
“The whole idea was that the next story would be him going after these six guys who took him down, but in the context of the film it was distracting. We definitely had a fantasy of the Limey in London, going to all his old haunts and tracking these guys down.
“Maybe I should come over and do it for British television…”