Few actors have aged onscreen as remarkably as Terence Stamp. He looks whittled and severe, with a swatch of bright white hair and a laser stare. In Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey, written by Lem Dobbs, he’s playing an English career criminal named Wilson who has recently been let out of prison after nine years and seems none the worse for it. Wilson’s elegance is like a blade: It cuts through the crap. He travels to L.A. because his daughter, from whom he’s long been estranged, has been killed in an accident and Wilson, with his crook’s radar, suspects foul play. Striding into enemy fire, he charges forward in his quest as implacably as Lee Marvin in Point Blank. Wilson is almost otherworldly in his indestructibleness; he represents the invincibility of vengeance.
Soderbergh’s last movie, Out of Sight, was marred by time-jump trickery, but mostly it was a sexy, stylish spree; he’s at his best, as in that film and his undervalued King of the Hill, when he isn’t attempting to wow us with a lot of experimentation. In The Limey, he’s going for deep-dish pulp noir, but he also wants to make a tasty art-house canapé. The movie has lots of drive, and it keeps Stamp front and center almost continuously, even in flashbacks, which are lifted from his performance as a hood in Ken Loach’s 1967 Poor Cow. But it also plays up Soderbergh’s show-offy side, which tends to denature pulp: Though the film is shot all over California, from the barrios of L.A.’s Boyle Heights to Big Sur, it’s remarkably low on atmosphere. It’s too fancy for that.
Peter Fonda, who, all things considered, has aged pretty well, too, plays the record producer who faces off with Wilson. His pairing with Stamp is billed as dueling sixties icons, but I doubt many in the audience will get dewy-eyed about the casting coup. What these actors represent – the bygone fripperies of Mod London and ashrams and hippie communes and what all – doesn’t really carry much meaning for this film. On the other hand, I think the team of Stamp and Fonda would be a natural for the next Austin Powers movie.