"The Limey," Steven Soderbergh's follow-up to 1998's critically praised Out of Sight, is an arty noir thriller, its every frame soaked with a palpable feeling of melancholy. The film, alternately compelling and self-indulgent, is suffused with a very real sense of regret -- for the lost potential of a young life cut short, the faded promise of the '60s and the obliterated possibilities of youth itself.
Soderbergh cannily uses rock & roll as shorthand character reference. The Who bash out "The Seeker" as our antihero, rugged, trim British career criminal Wilson (Terence Stamp), strides across LAX, bent on some unholy mission. Cynical, wealthy record producer Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda), the intended victim of the dark avenging angel, cruises down a Pacific coast highway in his sports car to the strains of Steppenwolf's "Magic Carpet Ride."
It's a cleverly constructed study in contrasts, layered with references to real and fictional lives. Both actors were pop-culture icons 30 years ago: Stamp, the handsome star of Billy Budd and "Far From the Madding Crowd," became the face of the swinging '60s in London. Fonda, thanks to 1967's "Easy Rider," made an indelible impression on the American counterculture. Each man has enjoyed a recent comeback of sorts, with Stamp turning up in drag for "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" and Fonda quietly seething as a Florida beekeeper in "Ulee's Gold."
Soderbergh, an inveterate risk-taker who made a commercial breakthrough with 1989's "sex, lies and videotape" and then all but turned his back on mainstream success, employs a wild variety of cinematic effects in "The Limey." Time skips ahead, flutters and stands still as a result of the stop-motion sequences, flashbacks and odd angles that are dispensed liberally.
More disconcertingly, for the clips of Wilson as a young thief, Soderbergh doesn't use a 20-something look-alike. Why bother, when you can get the rights to shots of a fresh-faced, boyish Stamp from Ken Loach's 1967 movie "Poor Cow?"
Wilson, somber and given to long pauses, is a working-class Brit decidedly out of his element in sunny Southern California. Just released from prison, he's determined to avenge the death of his daughter, Jennifer. She was a pretty, aspiring actress -- just one in a long line of young women Valentine seems to view as perks of his lifestyle.
In practically no time at all Wilson purchases weapons illegally, makes an unlikely alliance with reluctant accomplice Ed (Luis Guzman) and gets to know Jennifer's actress friend, Elaine (Leslie Ann Warren). Wilson's calculated efficiency is integral to his tough-guy character, but his ability to make lightning-fast connections with Valentine's world is something of a stretch.
Nattily dressed, the foreigner invades a warehouse, pilfers a Rolodex card revealing Valentine's number, wreaks havoc at an underworld office and then screams out a sort of mission statement: "Tell him I'm coming."
Fonda, as the target of the wrath, absolutely embodies the suntanned body and corrupted soul of Valentine, who made his fortune by tapping into "the whole '60s Southern California zeitgeist" and using it to his own economic advantage. The fruits of that cold business transaction include a smartly decorated home perched high in the Hollywood Hills and a wood-and-glass vacation pad in Big Sur.
But this is Stamp's movie, and it's impossible to keep one's eyes off his square-jawed face, piercing blue-grey eyes and taut figure. He's playing an unnerving game of deadly pursuit that leaves Valentine visibly shaken: "Aw, man, this is getting too close to me." He doesn't know the half of it.