Playing for Time

Cockney thug versus aging SoCal record producer: Terence Stamp and Peter Fonda in Steven Soderbergh's <B>The Limey</B>

Cockney thug versus aging SoCal record producer: Terence Stamp and Peter Fonda in Steven Soderbergh's The Limey

Cockney thug. Quick--what stock images spring to mind when you read those words? Okay, maybe the images don't exactly spring; maybe they lope, even straggle a little. Cockney thug: talks funny, you surmise, swallows his h's, dresses a bit ragged...okay, time's up. Now try the same exercise with Mafia don. Black drug dealer. Softhearted hooker. A little easier, eh?

My point here is that when a director toys with film stereotypes, he has to rely on a collective cinematic unconscious to lay the groundwork for his tweaking. Steven Soderbergh's The Limey pits two Sixties antiheroes--Terence Stamp and Peter Fonda--against one another in an enigmatically archetypal showdown. But when Soderbergh refuses to share the rules with the rest of us, what fronts as ambiguity may simply be the hallmark of a muddied vision--a problem evident even in the movie's title, a term so quaintly derogatory I'm not even sure it still applies as an insult.

Stamp plays British career criminal Wilson, who hits L.A. in a natty dark suit with a carton of Luckies under his arm and a loaded automatic in his belt. He's fresh from a nine-year prison stint, though he reels from culture shock with such rubber-legged cluelessness that at times you'd think his sentencing had preceded Beatlemania. Wilson's daughter Jenny has died, supposedly in a car crash, though Wilson has a suspicion that she's been killed--er, snuffed--and he wants to know who--er, 'oo--dunit. Steering a rather direct path through a convoluted drug-smuggling plot, Wilson inevitably confronts Jenny's former lover, a superficial millionaire named Terry Valentine (Fonda).

Stamp's woodenly stylized Wilson is a triumph of dialect over substance--transmuting th's into f's and intoning lines like "'E was me new plate. Me china plate. Y'know, me mate" so deliberately that he could be lecturing from the Berlitz guide to East Londonese. As he slogs toward revenge like a scrupled Terminator, Stamp keeps the characterization doggedly opaque. What sense we gain of Wilson, then, owes less to the cracks that Stamp opens in his facade than to Soderbergh's use of Stamp's previous career as backstory.

Most specifically, Soderbergh hearkens back to Stamp's portrayal of a thief named (what else?) Wilson in Poor Cow, an early work by "kitchen sink" archnaturalist Ken Loach. Wilson's pre-Limey reminiscences are pictured in grainy Sixties footage interspersed from the Loach film. But the composite Wilson also draws from the lump of Stamp's work in that decade--his Oscared martyrdom as Billy Budd and his thickly menacing sociopath in The Collector, both roles marked by a notion of moral ambiguity concealed beneath a gorgeous yet dense exterior. Still, when Stamp first stomped into view in The Limey, I believe my friend spoke for every American under the age of 40 when he exclaimed, "Cool--it's General Zod from Superman II!"

It's safe to say that Soderbergh didn't cast Stamp because of the Brit's early-Eighties tenure as a traitorous Kryptonian. But then again, when you go mucking about in archetypes, you gotta know your audience. Sure, American cultural imperialism is a drag, but it's also a reality--our celluloid icons have a broader resonance than most cinematic furriners. Sorry. In any case, Stamp certainly doesn't carry the iconic significance of his co-star, nor does he wield that significance with such aplomb. Let's play that image-association game again: aging SoCal record producer. Your visual associations are most likely within the neighborhood of Fonda's Terry Valentine--vacuously toothy, his hair a monument of thinning, blow-dried perfection. "You're not specific enough to be a person," teases Valentine's latest, leggy twentyish consort. "You're more like...a vibe." Valentine beams vacantly in response.

If Stamp's Wilson feints at a depth that never materializes on film, Fonda's Valentine fumbles for a purposefulness his character has never possessed. The fun in watching Valentine's downfall is that as he grasps about for genuine human emotions, all he can summon up is animal fear and soggy remorse. There is a human being beneath all those stockpiled mannerisms, but his humanity is so pro forma that it's truly pathetic.

And yet the struggle between Wilson and Valentine remains a rather incoherent allegory. Though we're evidently witnessing a clash of monumental Sixties archetypes, it's never clear what's at stake. Old World stolidity versus New World spinelessness? Prole sensibility versus nouveau-riche triviality? Honor versus greed? An authentic Sixties antiheroism versus a debased commodification thereof? Or, worst of all, a self-consciously slumming auteur biting the genre that feeds?

Soderbergh can perhaps be forgiven for seeking even a rudimentary plot after last year's Elmore Leonard adaptation Out of Sight, wherein his challenge was to place the actors on their marks and fire the starting pistol. But to compensate, he has devised a needlessly complex technique of flashbacks and -forwards to foreshadow each pivotal scene: a snippet of dialogue and a few quick-cut images run through ad infinitum. Since Soderbergh fails to provide a narrative reason for these visual tics, the continuity gaps become simultaneously distracting and flimsy; it's like Lethal Weapon 2 being turned into Last Year at Marienbad.

Maybe it's worth recalling that before sex, lies and videotape made his name, Soderbergh debuted with 9012Live, a full-length concert video of the technically facile arena-rock progressives in Yes. Now, there's no shame, of course, in making a concert film, but jeez--Yes? And, as with those arid pomp rockers, there's little joy in Soderbergh's formal mastery here. So, The Limey comes off as an achievement roughly parallel to Yes's flukish Top 40 annoyance "Owner of a Lonely Heart": flashy, irrelevant chops glossed up with professional know-how and posing disingenuously as pop.


The Limey starts Friday at the Uptown Theatre.