Published October 1, 1999
The puzzling thing about Steven Soderbergh’s new film, The Limey, is the very thing he puts to the fore in it, namely the national origin of its central character. What has that got to do with the basic story of an ex-con who’s “not from around here” pursuing the man he believes to be his daughter’s murderer through the sleazy underworld of L.A.? Yet so essential, apparently, is the Englishness of Dave Wilson (Terrence Stamp) that we are beaten over the head with it again and again, and with the fact that, here, English means not your la-di-da, “Masterpiece Theatre” sort of English but broad Cockney. And there’s another problem. For although the East End of London still stands and still (we may suppose) harbors a criminal subculture of some description, it is most unlikely that you would ever encounter there anything like Mr Stamp’s textbook Cockney.
“Eddie’s me new china,” says Dave; or “I’m going to ‘ave a butcher’s round the ‘ouse,” laboriously explaining in each case that “china” means “china plate” which rhymes with “mate” which means that he’s calling Eddie (Luis Guzman) a friend, or that “butcher’s” is short for “butcher’s hook” which rhymes with “look.” If you met this bloke in real life, you’d guess that his purpose in using quaint Cockney rhyming slang—now almost never used in the land of its birth without ironic or jocular intent—as if he were surprised that his bemused American interlocutors had failed to understand it was to impress you with his exoticism. But what is Soderbergh’s purpose?
Part of the answer, I think, is the typically postmodern one that he found an opportunity to give his hero a back-story through the use of clips from Ken Loach’s film Poor Cow (1967), in which Mr Stamp played a younger version of the Cockney thief he plays here. It is, I suppose, a clever idea to make a de facto sequel to another man’s movie as a way of stressing the importance of the fictional Mr Wilson’s past, an importance that will become apparent in the movie’s dénouement. But that hardly makes up for the fact that we are as confused as the L.A. gangsters by his extravagantly advertised Britishness earlier in the film. Couldn’t they have found a 30 year-old American film with a surviving star?
There may also be some Anglophilia at work here, since one of the bad guys says of his unexpectedly tough adversary: “What’s England anyway? Some rinky-dink country half the size of Wyoming where the police don’t even carry guns”—an unlikely complaint in the mouth of a criminal! But another reason for the hero’s aggressive Britishness may be that Mr Stamp is, in a way that no American actor could be, an embodiment of the sixties. Or no American actor but Peter Fonda who, like Mr Stamp, almost disappeared from sight for the twenty years after that decade ended. And Peter Fonda was already engaged—to play Terry Valentine, the villain in this very film. His back-story (which is not illustrated with clips from Easy Rider, though we are teased with the expectation of them in his account of a motorcycle accident) is that he is a record producer said to have got rich when he “took the whole sixties Zeitgeist and. . . packaged it.”
Unfortunately the sixties theme turns out to be as much an aesthetic dead end as the Cockney theme. That’s a shame and a blemish on what is otherwise an interesting updating of a classic story, with characters (apart from the exaggerations in Mr Stamp’s) that are well-drawn, a plot engaging and suspenseful and cinematic flourishes that are, if not brilliantly on message, at least fairly unobtrusive. Finally, I think, what was at the back of Mr. Soderbergh’s mind when he made it was that no one would believe in such an old-fashioned story, about a fight for love and honor, unless the hero was presented as having come from America’s idea of an old-fashioned country.
“What’s it going to be, you and Terry Valentine at 20 paces?” says one of his American helpers, played by Lesley Ann Warren.
“I don’t see why not,” says Dave.
“You’re not serious.”
“Have you ever known me not to be serious?”
“You men and your big d***s,” she says, shaking her head.
Well, there it is, the new Hollywood’s summing up of one of the old Hollywood’s most enduring archetypes. That Soderbergh has to apologize in this elaborate way for bringing it back (after a fashion) is telling, but we should be grateful that he has brought it back at all.