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Stamp of Approval

The Limey brings out the best in a venerable star

Despite the fact that it's set in the here and now, or at least in the L.A. and now, there's a strong dose of '60s nostalgia in director Steven Soderbergh's The Limey. Terence Stamp, looking very fresh for all his 60 years, plays Wilson, a jaunty British criminal, one who probably saw his most productive days back in Swinging England.

But it's the late '90s when we meet Wilson, just out of prison and winging his way to Los Angeles, out to avenge the death of his daughter, Jennifer (Melissa George), apparently at the hands of Terry Valentine. He is played by Stamp's fellow '60s icon Peter Fonda, who actually plays a '60s icon. His Valentine is a legendary and extremely wealthy record producer from the good ol' days.

Valentine is rich enough to keep himself stocked with much younger girlfriends. Wilson's daughter was among their number until she apparently fell asleep at the wheel when leaving Valentine's hilltop mansion, missed one of the hairpin turns and was killed in a car crash.

Only Wilson doesn't figure his little girl as one to die so carelessly. He wants to avenge her death and find out how she really died, and not necessarily in that order.

To accomplish either task, however, Wilson first has to reconstruct the life she lived in California. They were very close as she grew up. But when he refused to grow up, to give up his life of crime and frequent prison absences, she bugged off. About a last job, a failed heist, she had warned him he would be "nicked" and that this time she wouldn't be around when he got out.

Father and daughter were completely out of touch by the time of his release. Only when Wilson gets a Los Angeles newspaper clipping, carrying the terse notice of his daughter's death, does he learn anything about her. In L.A., Wilson looks up Ed (Luis Guzmán), a burly, living-by-his-wits Latino who sent him the clipping and who had been one of his daughter's few California friends.

The Limey won't win any awards for the originality of its ideas, but it does offer large and small pleasures. The dramatic good looks of silver-haired, black-clad Stamp, along with the effortless glee he takes in speaking the jargon of his character's subculture, is well worth the price of admission. The man looks too good, really, unless British prisons have been transformed into involuntary spas. But never mind that. His character is in Hollywood, so he can look as good as he wants.

But the film offers its small, deft observations as well. When Wilson asks the rather scruffy Ed how he met his daughter, Ed casually answers, "In acting class," as if to say, "where else?"

Ed's reluctant help quickly puts Wilson on the trail of Valentine. Wilson first takes a beating from Valentine's goons, who don't take such a geezer seriously enough to kill him. Then Wilson gets the last laugh, making a bloody mess out of a group of his henchmen. He lets one of the goons survive, to run to Valentine.

"Tell him I'm coming," Wilson roars after the fleeing hood. The contrasts between Wilson's precise good looks and the blood now smeared across his face, and between his intelligence and his rage, mark the film's high point.

Too bad that Soderbergh and his cohorts never reach this fever pitch again. That's largely because Fonda's Valentine is a spineless, nearly featureless opponent for Wilson, and there's little payoff in the film's later confrontations.

Fonda can't make much of Valentine, a man who had it all and who turned to crime when he was threatened with losing just part of his holdings, part of his prestige. If Valentine's hunger to stay on top had been more palpable, Fonda would've had more to work with, but his character plays defense, wanting no part of the rough stuff. He turns that work over to his No. 1 henchman, the intriguing Avery (Barry Newman), a smooth-looking character even older than Wilson. Avery is a modern samurai who serves his boss loyally, even when the boss doesn't quite deserve his devotion or perhaps even understand it.

In modern L.A., as opposed to medieval Japan, it's hard to see Avery sticking by a figure as gutless as Valentine, even if the record exec were paying him a ton of money. You'd think Avery could stick a gun in his face and get two tons.

So the setup in Lem Dobbs's script is out of whack. And the story he tells is essentially so simple that Soderbergh apparently felt compelled to complicate the storytelling, so the film is fractured by near-incessant flashbacks. The best of these go back to domestic scenes between a much younger Wilson and little Jennifer, and were taken from an early Stamp (and Ken Loach) film.

Some potentially interesting characters drift around the story's edges. Lesley Ann Warren (looking suspiciously like Marcia Clark) has an underdeveloped role as Elaine, friend and counselor to the dead daughter and accusatory chorus to Wilson. "She told me her father was dead," Elaine tells Wilson when they first meet. Luis Guzmán's Ed has a touch of Sancho Panza as he plays sidekick to Wilson's irrational avenger, although Guzmán keeps him credible throughout.

But the film's ultimate success or failure rides on Stamp's shoulders. For his closely observed but still larger-than-life performance, I'd recommend The Limey. Too bad he didn't have someone his own size to pick on.

 
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