Who would have thought that Steven Soderbergh, whose debut film "Sex, Lies and Videotape" virtually crowned him king of the independents, would find his niche directing smart little crime thrillers? Hard on the heels of last year's "Out of Sight" comes "The Limey," in which audiences once again find themselves rooting for the bad guy, if only because the other guys are so much worse.
Made with the director's characteristic flair and intelligence, "The Limey" is a relatively quiet contender in a movie season of ever-increasing violence and visual gimmicks (see "Three Kings" and "Fight Club"). But in its own sophisticated way, this film packs just as potent a punch.
Terence Stamp plays Wilson, a British ex-convict who has come to Los Angeles to find the truth behind the mysterious death of his daughter. With the help of her friends on the fringes of L.A.'s promised wealth and fame, Wilson follows the trail to a man named Valentine (Peter Fonda), a record producer who lives in glass-and-steel luxury somewhere in the hills.
Wilson becomes convinced that Valentine was responsible for his daughter's death. But "The Limey" isn't so much about the two men's game of cat and mouse -- although that game has enough twists and turns to keep filmgoers absorbed throughout the film -- as much as it is about an infectious mood of lost time. Whether it's Wilson's own reflections on his imperfect relationship with his daughter, or Valentine's desperate attempts to revive a career whose high point was producing the first Christopher Cross record, "The Limey" captures perfectly the side of L.A. where squandered dreams dwell.
Soderbergh has enlisted a terrific cast to convey this threadbare portrait, most notably Lesley Ann Warren, Barry Newman and Joe Dallesandro in supporting roles. But by far the most brilliant characterizations here come from the fascinatingly impassive Stamp, who lends Wilson the slightly awkward, too-loud delivery of a man unused to polite company, and Fonda, whose shallow persona is ideally suited to Valentine's spineless brand of evil.
"You're not a person," a friend tells Valentine. "You're more of a vibe." It's just that kind of inchoate atmosphere that Soderbergh and his players evoke so vividly. "The Limey" looks back to the L.A. of Chandler and Ellroy, but with its rueful humor and a rich look that fully exploits the city's superficial pleasures, it's firmly planted in the present.
Soderbergh uses quick visual flashes and a layered sound design to convey characters, with wonderfully economical and expressive results.
In one of the film's most haunting devices, he resourcefully uses scenes from the 1967 Ken Loach movie "Poor Cow," which starred Stamp, to stand in for Wilson's flashbacks. Such intercutting could easily come off as just another gimmick, but in Soderbergh's capable hands, the conceit only adds depth to a wonderfully complex character at the center of a gratifyingly satisfying yarn.
Starring Terence Stamp, Peter Fonda, Joe Dallesandro
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Released by Artisan Entertainment
Rated R (violence and language)
Running time 90 minutes
Sun score ***