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.”
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.
There hasn’t been so bloodthirsty a service comedy since The Dirty Dozen, although Three Kings‘s supercharged, bongo-driven cynicism mixes absurd slapstick with intermittent nods to the helpless huddled Third World masses. Russell not only visualizes bombed Iraqi children and bullet-traumatized internal organs but has the guts to point out that the war was fought for oil and that the U.S. had armed Saddam against Iran. Then the movie (which is cluttered with too many dumb peckerwoods and inexpressive performers) starts searching for its own heart. The action stops short so Clooney can explain what’s happening: “Bush told the people to rise up against Saddam. They thought they’d have our support. They don’t. Now they’re getting slaughtered.”
Increasingly muddled, cumulatively monotonous, would-be heartwarming, Three Kings becomes its own entertainment allegory— searching, Hollywood style, for the point at which blatant self-interest can turn humanitarian, while still remaining profitable. The movie has a unique trajectory. It keeps trying to go conventional and ultimately does.
A handheld and grainy exercise in cine-stupefaction, Harmony Korine’s julien donkey-boy was shot on digital video according to the strictly “naturalistic,” well-hyped precepts of the Danish Dogma group. It also shares Dogma’s unwritten but trademark fondness for cretinous overacting. The movie opens with its eponymous protagonist (Ewen Bremner) punching out the camera, dripping snot and drooling through his metal teeth.
Opening fluid-fest aside, fans of Korine’s genuinely disgusting Gummo (hyped by Janet Maslin as the worst movie of 1997) may be disappointed. julien donkey-boy is more feeble and less unpleasant than Korine’s debut— the big shocks in this cattle-tranquilizer are a masturbating nun, an armless drummer, a cigarette-swallowing geek, a potty-mouthed kid with payess, and the miscarriage suffered by Julien’s sister (poor Chlöe Sevigny) after her ludicrously telegraphed tumble on a skating rink. The oh-wow look sugarcoats the inane action. The movie’s only really tasteless scene uses a black Baptist church service as a backdrop for Julien’s antics.
Korine has suggested that his lowlife, Queens-set family drama is in some sense autobiographical. Be that as it may, filmmaker Werner Herzog plays Julien’s punitive father, lugubriously lecturing a second son (Korine look-alike Evan Neumann) to be a “man” and a “winner.” After a while, Herzog seems to be commenting on the movie itself: “If I were so stupid I would slap my own face.” Well put but, even at that, julien donkey-boy is too spastic to connect— the movie just flails the air.