Overshadowed by other films from its director and year of release, Steven Soderbergh‘s 1999 thriller The Limey is an unfairly forgotten piece of cinematic gold. Starring Terence Stamp as an ex-con known only as “Wilson”, The Limey succeeds as a revenge film while refusing to submit to the traps that most films of its sort fall into.
Wilson is a Cockney ex-convict who’s come to Los Angeles to investigate the death of his daughter, Jenny (Melissa George). He enlists the help of a friend of Jenny’s (Luis Guzman) and her acting coach (Lesley Ann Warren) to track down Jenny’s rich beau, a record producer named Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda). Though Jenny’s death seems to have occurred in a car accident, Wilson is convinced that there’s something wrong and that Terry Valentine holds the key. As he walks toward his goal undeterred, he becomes entangled with criminals, professional killers, and DEA agents; all of whom seem to have something to do with Terry Valentine.
Soderbergh was hitting his stride as a director in the late ’90s. The Limey was his follow up to the Elmore Leonard adaptation Out of Sight, which is another favorite of mine due to its rich cast of characters and excellent supporting performances from the likes of Ving Rhames, Don Cheadle, and Steve Zahn. The Limey doesn’t quite match that cast, but Soderbergh again shows that he’s a pro when it comes to letting characters plan out their course of action on screen while keeping the viewer’s attention. Soderbergh would bring this skill to his caper trilogy of Oceans 11, 12, & 13, but The Limey blows those films out of the water with its willingness to dive into deep human emotion. The only other Soderbergh films of this span that share this goal are 2000′s Traffic and 2001′s Solaris, both of which are fantastic in their own ways, but The Limey’s under ninety minute runtime makes it a far more accessible film than those. On my Flickchart, I have The Limey slightly behind Out of Sight as my second favorite Soderbergh film.
Terence Stamp has long been a favorite actor of mine thanks to his work in this film, and it’s sad to see that he hasn’t had more chances to carry a film in his near fifty-year career. He’s memorable to most fans of blockbuster cinema as General Zod in the first two Superman films, and has lately had a run playing heavies in Hollywood comedies (Bowfinger, Yes Man, Get Smart). Cult fans or fans of classic cinema might remember him as the kidnapper in William Wyler’s The Collector, opposite Academy Award nominee Samantha Eggar, and he also showed up as Chancellor Valorum in the first Star Wars prequel.
On the other end of the film is Peter Fonda as Valentine. Fonda had a good run of success in the ’60s and ’70s with films like Easy Rider, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, and Race With the Devil, and gained a bit of acclaim in the late ’90s with a dramatic turn in Ulee’s Gold. Recently he’s been back on screen in blockbusters like Ghost Rider and 3:10 to Yuma. But even when I add in accomplished co-stars Guzman, Warren, and George – I can’t find a film that any of these actors have appeared in that I like more than The Limey. (Its closest competitor might be Vanishing Point, the existential ’70s car chase flick starring Barry Newman, who appears here as Fonda’s right hand man.)
Most film fans will tell you that 1999 was a pretty great year in cinema. It was the year when The Matrix became a sci-fi classic, and it was the year when Fight Club started its on-screen revolution. Bruce Willis and M. Night Shyamalan shocked audiences with The Sixth Sense, and Office Space was re-writing your workplace jokes for the rest of time. Films such as The Green Mile, Magnolia, Toy Story 2, and The Boondock Saints were wowing some, if not all cinephiles. Amidst this all, American Beauty showed up and won an Oscar for Best Picture.
All of these films rank higher than The Limey according to most, but I was actually kind of surprised to find it currently ranked a respectable 18th on the global Flickchart list for 1999. I’ve got The Limey as my number two film for that year, behind only American Beauty. Not to argue it too much against each of those films – which have their own rabid fan bases – but the depth of The Limey’s plot and the amount it’s able to do in its short running time raises the film above much of the competition. I love the likes of The Matrix and Office Space, but The Limey packs a little more value because it’s such an efficient film. Even if you’re a big fan of one of 1999′s heavyweights, (the odds say you are) I challenge you to give The Limey a chance to sit next to these films as one of 1999′s great cinematic achievements.
When I define what it is I would list in the revenge thriller subgenre of film, there are two types of films I think of. There are classical revenge flicks (for example, Straw Dogs and Death Wish), and modern revenge flicks (for example, The Brave One and Edge of Darkness). Most of these films made their name (or, in the case of the modern revenge thrillers, failed to make a name) by pushing the idea that ordinary people – when pushed to the limit – will do things outside their nature to get revenge. Since these are movies, these extraordinary things usually include a lot of violence.
The Limey doesn’t focus as much on violence as some of these films, though it does offer a hard R-rating thanks to a few brutal scenes (and enough foul language to make your mama blush). The interesting difference between Soderbergh’s film and most revenge thrillers is the relationship between Wilson and his deceased daughter. A majority of the films in this subgenre spend the early portion of the film painting a storybook relationship between the future hero and the victim, but in this case we never meet the live girl, and we learn through backstory that Wilson spent far more time in prison than he spent raising his daughter. This isn’t a man out to get back his fairytale life, it’s a man who’s trying to show that he’s willing to go the distance to set things right regarding the daughter he couldn’t raise. Few, if any, films in this vein can match the perspective on the relationship between father and daughter that The Limey offers.
The Limey is one of the most underseen gems of the last twenty years. It’s got a big name director behind it, notable stars giving knockout performances, some of the most crisp editing you’ll ever see, and a dynamite sucker punch of an ending. Yet only 21% of Flickcharters have admitted to seeing The Limey, which is a staggeringly low number for such a unique, powerful film. If you’re at all interested in any of the categories listed above, The Limey is a film you simply must see before you die.