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A jaggedly impressionistic reverie, Steven Soderbergh's The Limey works best as a brutal yet delicate gloss on the Orpheus myth. A man journeys to the underworld looking for his lost love (in this case a child) only to lose her again— albeit through the filmmaker's backward glance, a rueful immersion in the old-movie hall of mirrors.

A British ex-con known simply as Wilson (Terence Stamp) arrives in Los Angeles to conduct his own investigation into the mystery of his daughter's accidental death. The Limey, which Soderbergh directed from Lem Dobbs's somewhat undernourished script, harks back to the stylized quest of the original neo-noir, Point Blank, among other British crime films of the late '60s and early '70s. As in Point Blank, an implacable, single-named protagonist— as fearless as he is irate— bulls his way through a suspiciously mental terrain, further abstracted by flashy montage, seeking vengeance on the fat cats who betrayed him.

Stranger in a strange land, Wilson is worldly enough to purchase his weapons from a couple of school kids and sufficiently naive to mistake the parking valets outside a posh Malibu party for hired muscle. Like the antihero of Point Blank, he is also a walking anachronism. The Limey cascades with Wilson's dated cockney rhyming slang. ("Do you even understand half the shit this guy is saying?" someone demands after a particularly flavorsome diatribe.) Perhaps existing only in his own mind, Wilson is constructed to defy the past. The 60-year-old Stamp is impressively trim; his character is impossibly tough, capable of absorbing a monstrous beating (then coming back for more), as well as tossing a 250-pound bodyguard off a cliff. The Limey feasts on character performances, yet much of it feels like a solo. Wilson picks up sometime sidekicks in his daughter's acting teacher (Leslie Ann Warren) and fellow student (Luis Guzman, the punchy-looking restaurateur from Boogie Nights), before finding an appropriate nemesis in the person of her ex-lover, the powerful music promoter Valentine, played by Peter Fonda. Supposedly the man who packaged the counterculture, this smug and pedantic hustler lives in a house filled with austerely framed psychedelic posters and perched on the edge— a point where "you could see the sea out there if you could see it."

Raging bull, easy rider: Stamp and Fonda in The Limey
photo courtesy of Artisan Entertainment
Raging bull, easy rider: Stamp and Fonda in The Limey

Details

The Limey
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Written by Lem Dobbs
An Artisan release Opens October 8

Three Kings
Written and directed by David O. Russell
A Warner Bros. release

Julien Donkey-Boy
Written and directed by Harmony Korine
An Independent Pictures/Fine Line release
Opens October 8

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Thanks to Fonda, The Limey is well-stocked with Easy Rider references (although his narcissistic character might have been inspired by the account of hipster mogul Bert Schneider that appears in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls). In a particularly neat bit of casting, the job of Valentine's security expert is filled by Barry Newman, a minor and appropriately bitter Peter Fonda–type back in the day. Wilson's own past, meanwhile, is supplied by flashbacks lifted from Ken Loach's 1967 Poor Cow, in which the young Stamp played a good-hearted petty thief and even sang a Donovan song. The original color footage is here printed in monochromatically to enhance its past-ness; it supplies another level of fantasizing and regret in this densely edited time-twister.

Soderbergh's third recent genre film— following his overly schematic Criss Cross remake The Underneath (1995), and last year's romantic succès d'estime, Out of Sight— is moodier and less overweening than its precursors. Indeed, The Limey might be taken as a productive experiment in deploying a contemporary crime-flick vernacular predicated on movie references, industry riffs, sight gags, carefully selected vintage pop, and historically resonant casting. The recipe, which was more or less invented by Robert Altman in The Long Goodbye, is close to the Quentin Tarantino formula, but Soderbergh has a lighter hand.

For all its flourishes, The Limey is an economical movie— as well as a curiosity in which the independent filmmaker whose early success paved the way for Tarantino at Sundance and Cannes reinvents himself as the most skillful of Tarantino disciples. The Limey's narrative is absurdly straightforward but the movie has a casual, tossed-off feel— less the logic of a nightmare than a daydream.

At the very least, David O. Russell's bold and messy Three Kings deserves credit for rethinking the war movie in the weird we-are-the-world terms established by Operation Desert Storm. The action begins in March 1991, just as the Gulf War is declared over. "Are we shooting?" one private asks before nervously splattering the desert with befuddled "raghead" brains— much to his comrade's delight.

The morning after the American victory bacchanal, Russell's three noncommissioned "kings" (Ice Cube, Mark Wahlberg, and Spike Jonze) discover a treasure map stuffed up a captured Iraqi anus and, led by an opportunistic and dissolute career-soldier (George Clooney), hatch a very quick plan to zip behind enemy lines and make themselves rich. Their jocular attitude is rendered iconic in the close-up juxtaposing an American flag with a Bart Simpson doll.

As intimated by his nouveau screwball comedy Flirting With Disaster, Russell has a knack for choreographing mad confusion. Exciting adventures are here set amid sickening violence, the chaos heightened by eccentric camera placement. The movie is flamboyantly bleached-out and cruddy, shot as wildly spontaneous combat-vérité. There are almost no establishing shots, but when a cow gets blown up, you can bet its head will bang down on the hood of the kings' jeep.

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