Style and Substance in The Limey

The LimeyFor the first time since it came out 15 years ago, I watched The Limey. It is a very simple story: a father comes to Los Angeles to get revenge for his daughter’s death, which he suspects was not an accident. But what is most interesting about the film is the way that Steven Soderbergh chose to structure it. And I still don’t know what I think about it, even though I do like the film.

The father is Wilson, played by Terence Stamp. And most of the scenes featuring him are exhilarating. Soderbergh and editor Sarah Flack really monkey with continuity. For example, a single conversation will seem to take place in two or even three places. This is combined with hand-held camera work as well as the occasional ostentatious single shot to amazingly good effect.

What is strange is that the scenes that involve the daughter’s boyfriend, Terry Valentine (played by Peter Fonda), are shot in an extremely classical way. If Soderbergh had not chosen to place them in gorgeous locations, I would call them boring. In fact, you see exactly that in The Fast and the Furious, where despite good acting, the police scenes just die on the screen compared to the rest of the film. But in The Limey, these scenes are just beautiful enough not to kill the film.

Ultimately, the film works because Wilson is such an interesting character. He’s an ex-con—a three time loser—who has been estranged from his daughter for a long time before her death. But he seems to be a nice a guy and he clearly does care about his daughter. And the relationships he develops with Eduardo (Luis Guzman) and Elaine (Lesley Ann Warren) are refreshingly adult—especially for a revenge picture.

It is good that the characters do work so well, because the script itself is kind of a muddle. Wilson’s motivation is to talk to and most likely kill Valentine. But after finding his address, he mostly just hangs out. He does manage to attend a party at Valentine’s house, but he doesn’t kill the man because he claims that it would have been too easy. That doesn’t make any sense except in that it allows the film to go on for another 45 minutes.

Another problem is that the denouement is nothing short of trite—far too tidy for a film as intelligent and subtle as this one. But as I said, it still works. What’s more, it is a film that affects the viewer: it stays with you. I’m going to have to revisit the film in another 15 years. The truth is that I still don’t know quite what to make of it. The Limey definitely shows what can be done with great cinematography, editing, and acting. But is it all style and no substance? I not only don’t know, I don’t know if it matters.

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