What was it like in the sixties, wonders a dewy young woman in The Limey, speaking to Peter Fonda. Who better to ask? The jeans and leather he used to wear have given place to a summer-weight suit; when he stands at the bathroom mirror, he now checks for gum disease. But in the role of a wealthy music promoter called Valentine, he remains more than a witness and more than an authority–he’s an embodiment. The sixties? Imagine, Valentine says (between grimaces) to the fresh-faced beauty soaking in his tub: You’re in a place where everybody speaks a different language, and yet you understand them, and they understand you.
Turn that notion around, and you’ve got the conceit of The Limey: A man comes to Los Angeles speaking the same language as everyone else, yet no one understands him.
The man’s words are impenetrable, first of all, because they’re in cockney rhyming slang; but surely that’s only an outward, symbolic expression of the deeper culture gap. This title character–known as Wilson, and portrayed by another icon of the sixties, Terence Stamp–has been frozen in his era, having spent most of the past years in prison. He’s not just out of place but out of time, and by fifty percent more than Rip van Winkle. When Wilson roars at one of Valentine’s lackeys, “Tell him I’m coming!” you might realize there’s serious catching up to do, even if blood weren’t spattered across his face.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh from a script by Lem Dobbs, The Limey sounds in summary like a standard revenge drama. Wilson’s daughter, who once was another fresh-faced beauty in Valentine’s entourage, has died in questionable circumstances. Now Wilson, recently freed from his latest decade in prison, has come to Los Angeles to get answers and exact punishments. That the heaviest responsibility will prove to fall on himself–that he will discover his mirror image in the man he stalks–cannot surprise anyone who has seen or read other thrillers. Such moral turnarounds have become a convention in themselves. What’s intriguing about The Limey is the way its characters, by confronting one another, play out a myth of the sixties as alien, shady and overrated, a period that amounted to no more than “1966, and some of early ’67” (in Valentine’s recollection). As someone who came of age during the Reagan years, Soderbergh looks coolly at the older generation–but he looks all the same, unable to tear his eyes away from their spectacle of waste and bravado. For at least one young person in The Limey, that’s enough for Wilson and Valentine to be fatal in their allure.
In Valentine’s case, the outlaw of thirty years ago has become chatty and vulnerable. You see him with the jitters, shaking the booze out of the cut-glass tumbler in his hand, or grinning too broadly as he tries to ingratiate himself with the young woman in his sports car. The character becomes a kind of mental double-exposure: Fonda as you now see him, and the Fonda you remember from The Wild Angels or Easy Rider as almost wordless in his self-possession, virtually unreadable behind his shades.
In Wilson’s case, the double image is even more explicit. It’s right on the screen, in snippets from Ken Loach’s Poor Cow. There’s Terence Stamp in 1967, playing an airy young cockney thief; and here he is now, white-haired and finely wrinkled, adding a wounded dignity to the role.