(This post is part of the series LA Plays Itself in the Movies – a big sandshoe to Julia for organizing!)
A tattooed Luis Guzman answers the door to his house and is greeted by Wilson, a gray-haired Cockney, played by Terrence Stamp.
“Edward Roll?,” asks Wilson.
Guzman rolls his eyes, and says, “Eduardo Roo-el.”
It’s a fun exchange in the Lem Dobbs-written and Steven Soderbergh-directed late-’90s neo-noir The Limey (trailer), a film of understated performances, contemplative characters capable of brutal violence, and masterful editing that packs in more character development than seems possible in 90 minutes.
And, oh yeah, it’s set in Los Angeles.
Wilson, a career criminal who just finished a nine-year sentence for armed robbery, has come to L.A. to avenge the death of his daughter, Jenny.
Jenny had been dating Terry Valentine, a smarmy rock promoter (Peter Fonda, playing against character) who “took the whole ’60s California zeitgeist and ran with it.”
When Jenny died in a suspicious car accident on Mulholland Drive, her acting class friend, Eduardo, sent a newspaper clipping to Wilson.
Can you see where this is going?
For a brutal killer hell-bent on revenge, Wilson is a surprisingly sympathetic protagonist.
Perhaps it’s the way he doesn’t fit in.
On a number of occasions, Wilson needs to explain how his rhyming slang works. For example: “He’s my China.” “Your what?” “You know, China? China plate? Mate?”
Or maybe it’s the way he quickly adapts to his surroundings.
In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Wilson and Eduardo go to a party at Terry Valentine’s stilt house atop a mountain. On the property’s pool-decked terrace, Wilson looks over the ledge and is shocked to see that it appears as though the house is floating over the terrain. “Blimey,” he says. “What are we standing on?” “Trust,” answers Ruel. Just a few minutes later, Wilson handily tosses a bodyguard over the same ledge. Talk about a quick study!
But more likely, Wilson’s vulnerability is what makes his character intriguing. A father who missed his daughter growing up (she referred to him as “Daddy, the friendly ghost”), Wilson’s quest for vengeance leads him on a journey where he must come to grips with his own shortcomings as a human being.
For some of the film’s flashbacks, Soderbergh weaves in footage of Stamp from neo-realist Ken Loach’s Poor Cow (1967), in which the actor also played a thief. The effect of juxtaposing the 28-year-old and the 60-year-old Stamp is effective and, at times, nearly heartbreaking.
I’m not sure The Limey has anything particularly profound to say about Los Angeles. The Fonda character made one Northern California critic at the time argue that the film was taking aim at L.A. decadence.
Wishful thinking, I’d say.
I’d surmise the setting is more likely an homage to Raymond Chandler and the hardboiled fiction he set in Los Angeles, or the great film noir that Hollywood produced shortly thereafter.
Or maybe that’s just wishful thinking on my part.