My alternative canon #6: The Limey
Note: I’ve often discussed my favorite movies on this blog, but I also love films that are relatively overlooked or unappreciated. For the rest of the week, I’ll be looking at some of the neglected gems, problem pictures, and flawed masterpieces that have shaped my inner life, and which might have become part of the standard cinematic canon if the circumstances had been just a little bit different. You can read the previous installments here.
The Limey, like many of the films of Steven Soderbergh, works brilliantly despite its best intentions. Not much happens, at least not by the standards of the average crime movie: it’s ninety minutes of scrambled footage spun from little more than style, atmosphere, clever locations, canny music choices, and the electric charge of a willing and able cast. Yet every frame pulses with life. It’s impossible to believe any of it, any more than we can believe in the plot of, say, Haywire, but what’s real enough is the obvious pleasure of everybody involved. Terence Stamp is sensational, of course, but so are Peter Fonda, Luis Guzmán, Nicky Katt, Barry Newman, and the rest. And for all its ravishing tricks with editing and time—as when Fonda is introduced with what amounts to a miniature trailer for his character, or how the film uses archival footage from the vintage Stamp vehicle Poor Cow to show the protagonist in flashback—it isn’t afraid to deliver juicy set pieces, including the single best scene in Soderbergh’s work. I’ll go even further: I don’t think there’s a more exhilarating moment in all of movies than when Stamp, beaten up by goons and dumped on the sidewalk, staggers to his feet and totters back inside to wreak an unseen revenge. (It’s a sequence that turns, crucially, on Stamp’s age: you can almost feel his bones creaking as he straightens up.)
What’s funny about the scene, of course, is that it’s an immensely satisfying moment in a movie that seems otherwise determined to frustrate our expectations. It’s as if Soderbergh inserts it here just to prove that he can, in much the same way that he tosses off a genre piece like Contagion every few years simply to remind us that he’s better at it than pretty much anyone else. As a matter of narrative strategy, though, it’s a shrewd, even essential choice: once the scene is over, we’re willing to follow the movie wherever it wants to go, no matter how much misdirection and digression it throws at us in the meantime. As it stands, we barely even notice that this is a revenge movie without the revenge, or that its stylistic innovations, as delightful as they are, don’t have much to do with the bones of the story. (The writer Lem Dobbs wasn’t pleased with the result, and he airs his grievances in a famously combative commentary track with Soderbergh, which hasn’t stopped the two men from working together again.) Yet that’s also Soderbergh’s greatest strength. He knows how to use star power and conventional narrative payoffs to enable his loonier experiments, and he’s constantly looking to see how much or how little he can get away with using. When it misfires, it’s usually because the proportions are wrong, which is often in the eye of the beholder: Ocean’s 12, for instance, strikes me as a fascinating effort to spin a feature film out of as little substance as possible. If you make twenty movies like this in a row, eventually, you’ll end up with one in which the balance is perfect. Viewers probably won’t agree on which one it is. But for my money, it’s here.