The Limey is a suspense movie directed by Steven Soderbergh (sex, lies and videotape) with a screenplay by Lem Dobbs. Lovers of film noir will remember Fred C. Dobbs as the tortured Humphrey Bogart character in John Huston’s Treasure of Sierra Madre. It is fitting that Lem Dobbs has taken his nom de plume from that character, and then written a film noir of his own. But The Limey is no treasure. At best this one would have to be called Nineties Noir, or Noir Lite.
In true noir fashion, all the characters are twisted in one way or another, from Terence Stamp’s angry Wilson to Peter Fonda’s time-warped Valentine. Ed (Luis Guzman) is trying to put his past behind him while pretty little Adhara (Amelia Heinle) is silly enough to think Peter Fonda will make it through this moralistic film in one piece.
Soderbergh tries to rescue a very light screenplay by using camera tricks. He splices in clips of old Peter Fonda movies, notably Easy Rider, to illustrate Valentine’s highway-hero past. Likewise we see clips of Stamp in the 1967 Poor Cow, which show a younger Wilson as a budding thief. It’s a novel way to tell a backstory without actually having to write anything. The camera moves and switches and juxtaposes and plays with time. A scene plays five minutes before it plays again in an expanded version. The resulting choppiness is calculated, and may prove to be an acquired taste. If the film falls short it is not through Soderbergh’s lack of inventiveness.
Stamp is sure to garner many accolades for his fierce father bent on revenge, but he’s not convincing. It would have made more sense to place that anger somewhat under the surface to give the character some depth. As it is, Stamp stomps around constantly, bug-eyed and ready to explode. No one would see this man walking down the street without quickly rushing in the opposite direction.
The women in the film are wasted. Leslie Anne Warren’s role as Elaine The Good, the all-understanding friend of Wilson’s late daughter, could have just as well been played by Amelia Heinle, the all-understanding friend of Valentine the Bad, if Heinle were only twenty years older. Neither woman adds much to the film. It is sad to see Leslie Anne Warren wasted in such a minor role.
But the real problem with The Limey is that the dialogue is terribly stilted. Time after time the action grinds to a halt with statements like: "The 60s is a place that exists only in your imagination," (Fonda) or, when Stamp and Guzman are perched on a cantilevered swimming pool high above the Hollywood Hills: "What are we standing’ on, anyway?" "Trust." But this is Noir Lite. Camera tricks can’t replace one immortal stick-to-your-ribs line like this one from Treasure of Sierra Madre: "Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges! I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ badges!"
So although Soderbergh tries everything he can think of with his camera, and Dobbs tries gamely to breathe noir into Nineties situations (the evil Hollywood record producer, the gal who tried to love him, the hustler with the tattoos and pony tail, the white-collar Mercedes-driving heavy), the end result is not captivating. The longer Stamp stays in L.A. the thicker his cockney accent becomes. By the end of the film he is practically unintelligible. But by then it doesn’t matter.