Film: The Big Picture - Blimey! Cockney rhyming slaughter

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The Independent Culture
Terence Stamp cuts a mesmerising figure in The Limey. It's difficult not to swoon before his exquisitely planed cheekbones and those gunmetal blue eyes, wearier but no less haunted than they first looked in Billy Budd all those years ago. He effortlesslyreminds us of the Sixties, or perhaps the Sixties remind us of him.

He plays a London gangster named Wilson, just arrived in LA after a long stretch in prison. His aim is to exact revenge on the men who killed his daughter and the picture isn't 10 minutes old before he's shot dead four thugs who made the mistake of roughing him up.

Director Steven Soderbergh, who made a welcome return to form last year with the romantic thriller Out of Sight, has taken on a more hard-edged story here. Wilson is driven by the same implacable purpose as Walker, Lee Marvin's lone avenger from Point Blank, with a somewhat different take on the foreignness of Los Angeles. Where John Boorman focused on the dizzying verticals and angles of corporate architecture, Soderbergh devotes himself to capturing the beautiful West Coast light, the toasted landscapes of the Hollywood Hills and the rugged coastline of the Big Sur. For Wilson, hot out of prison, this may just as well be Mars.

Not that he's daunted. He turns up to a party at a swanky house in the Hills, and walks in not as if he owns the place but as if he disowns it. The house, which comes with an amazing cantilevered swimming pool, belongs to Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda), a music impresario whose tanned good looks hide some very bad underworld connections. Wilson knows that Valentine had something to do with his daughter's mysterious accident, and the ultimate goal of the movie is to engineer a showdown between the two men. Not content with one Sixties icon to carry The Limey, Soderbergh spoils us by introducing another.

Peter Fonda's career kick-started with Easy Rider, since then the road for him has been long and hard (he was Oscar-nominated in 1997 for a fine, understated performance in Ulee's Gold). Like Stamp, he has retained a gaunt handsomeness, which his character here is vain of - just look at the way he flosses his teeth and brushes back his toffee-coloured hair. "Is there anything in the world that you want or need?" he asks his (much younger) girlfriend with the air of a man confident of delivering it.

But it's Stamp whose face Soderbergh chooses to linger upon, and I wish I could say that he's also got a brilliant performance out of him. Sadly, and inexplicably, it's the Cockney accent which lets him down.

Born he may have been within the sound of Bow Bells, but Stamp sounds throughout like a man doing a very poor impersonation of Arthur Mullard: "Bide yer time - that's what prison teaches yer if noffink else." Gawd help us. Worse, he keeps on using Cockney rhyming slang, which he then has to explain to the uncomprehending West Coasters. The scriptwriter, Lem Dobbs, maybe thinks it's rather amusing that Wilson casually refers to his "old China", gets a blank look and follows it with "China plate - mate", but the effect is rather deadening. It's the equivalent of Tony from The Sopranos saying fuhgeddaboudit, then adding as translation "forget about it", or capisce and then supplying "understand?" At one point Wilson goes into a long and monotonous spiel trying to defend himself to a narcotics officer who's also shadowing Valentine. The cop listens to the end, then deadpans: "You're not from round here, are you?" But he doesn't sound like he's from round here either.

As long as Stamp keeps his mouth closed our attention holds steady, and Soderbergh finds a remarkable way of deepening Wilson's character by inserting grainy clips of the young Stamp from Ken Loach's 1967 film, Poor Cow. Indeed, it's quite moving to trace the 32-year gap being bridged between likely lad and old lag, between the roguish innocence of the Sixties and the won't-get-fooled-again Nineties. (The director took the simple expedient of buying the rights to Loach's film). As a further insight into Wilson's inner turbulence Soderbergh edits the film in a modishly fractured way, flashing back and forward, having dialogue overlap scenes or simply inventing fantasies of violent revenge. While it's great to look at, there remains a suspicion that this bravura stuff is there just to tart up a very ordinary thriller plot. That suspicion gathers force as the film proceeds, and while it's enlivened by good supporting performances from Lesley Ann Warren and Barry Newman as Valentine's enforcer, I couldn't help hoping that the film would, somehow, get better. True, there's a twist at the end which may bring you up short, but for long stretches I felt remote from its tough, fatalistic mood. And the desire to put your hands over your ears whenever the lead character starts speaking isn't the stuff to inspire a recommendation.

Anthony Quinn's reviews of the other week's film releases, p13