'The Limey' is 'Get Carter' meets 'Last Year at Marienbad'.
Feel free to stop reading at this point, pour a large glass of scotch, maybe re-watch Mike Hodges' amoral revenge-thriller classic and Alain Resnais' oblique arthouse puzzler back-to-back, and then ponder long and hard on the implications of that comparison.
I'll say it again: 'The Limey' is 'Get Carter' meets 'Last Year at Marienbad'.
Director Steven Soderbergh takes a fairly humdrum premise - British career criminal goes to America to find out the truth behind the death of his daughter and gets medieval on the collective asses of anyone and everyone who was either involved or stands in his way - and turns it into an avante-garde experiment in editing, narrative dissonance and aesthetic abstraction.
At this point I need to give myself a bollocking for using the phrase "aesthetic abstraction" because it exemplifies the kind of wanky analytical film writing I started The Agitation of the Mind to get away from. But again, I'm screwed if I can find another way of putting it. 'The Limey' is a genre movie put on the psychiatrist's couch, encouraged to indulge its more violent and antisocial tendencies as part of its therapy, then reconstructed as a divisive, discursive and challenging art movie.
What defines 'The Limey' is its editing. How many movies do you remember principally for the way they're edited? The work of Godard. The aforementioned 'Last Year at Marienbad'. That's about it. Of course, there are movies aplenty which demonstrate effective use of editing - take virtually any summer tentpole action movie: a fight scene, chase or shoot out is only as good as the editing. A sloppily edited shoot out will have no spatial continuity and leave you thinking that bullets are whanging about all over the place and the combatants sheltering in entirely different locations. An uninterestingly edited car chase will simply reduce speed, tension and white knuckle stunt driving to interminable shots of one car following another car. But the most memorable fights and shoot outs and car chases are edited to emphasise the fighting or the shooting or the chasing - seldom does the editing call attention to itself.
Except in the case of 'The Limey', which might as well open with the credit "a film edited by..."*. This is editing which not just calls attention to itself, but happily demolishes the linear and the logical (several dialogue scenes feature non-speaking participants). It goes beyond montage, juxtaposition, flashbacks or flashforwards. It's more like a cardsharp shuffling the very movie, dealing out scenes and images and iconography, sweeping them up from the table again and cutting them back into the pack. It's a frustrating or utterly joyous viewing experiencing depending on your mood, your genre expectations and whether you might have consumed proscribed substances prior to watching.
The 'Get Carter' comparison is apposite: Michael Caine's eponymous tough guy and Terence Stamp's career criminal Wilson both hail from London; Carter arrives in Newcastle a fish out of water and needs help from one of the locals to find his way around, Wilson touches down in L.A. and relies on his contact Ed Roef (Luis Guzman)'s help to assess the lie of the land; Carter's after the truth behind his brother's death, Wilson his daughter's. Both rampage from one encounter to the next in bull/china shop stylee.
Wilson's trail leads him to record producer Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda). A fellow '60s icon, Fonda is an ideal counterweight to Stamp's stentorian intensity. Their respective backgrounds set up a sneaky little subtext - East End vs East Coast - to the culture clash scenario writ so large elsewhere in the film. "There's one thing I don't understand," declares a
And yet it works. It works because the great Luis Guzman is such a laconic foil to Stamp. It works because the film looks so good. It works because Soderbergh assembles a kick-ass '60s soundtrack (any film that kicks off with a blast of The Who automatically wins points with me).
And it works for exactly the reason it shouldn't. It constantly reminds you that you're just watching a movie. The very nature of the editing is a statement of self-reflexive intent. That Soderbergh cuts in footage of Stamp in Ken Loach's 'Poor Cow' by way of flashbacks takes it further and reminds you that you're not just watching a movie but that the guy in the lead role is an actor who's been in other movies. This would normally be the point at which my interest would be killed stone dead, a priest summoned and the last rites performed.
And yet it works. Even though it shouldn't. And that in itself is part of the pleasure.
*For the record 'The Limey' was edited by Sarah Flack, one of her three collaborations thus far with Soderbergh.