What you need to know about The Limey (and already do if you know anything about it at all) is that it’s heavy on non-linear editing. The plot is simple: Englishman and career criminal Wilson (Terence Stamp) is released from prison only to learn that his daughter Jennifer (Melissa George) has died while in a relationship with LA music mogul Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda). If Valentine was responsible, Wilson’s going to have his revenge. The story is not presented simply, however, with past, present and future rearranged to create a narrative that follows the patterns of memory and emotion.
The Limey takes another approach that is less conventional still. It incorporates footage from the 1967 Ken Loach film Poor Cow, in which Stamp also played a criminal. Whereas, for example, Sunset Boulevard and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? showed earlier footage of their stars as films within films, The Limey uses Poor Cow as part of Wilson’s history. This turns out to be a fine match for the character, and for the non-linear nature of the film.
Despite being a revenge movie, The Limey does not glorify violence either in its final resolution or in what it shows onscreen. The violence happens off camera several times, or at the back of the frame, out of focus. In its most explicit instances, it takes place entirely within Wilson’s imagination.
Early in the film, Wilson kills several of Valentine’s associates. It’s not this that shows how dangerous he is, however – the closest we get to seeing the murders is the distant flash of his gunshots in a dark room, and, recalled later, a few frames of his face that only appear as long as this very brief self-illumination. No, Wilson’s ruthlessness and determination is shown entirely in the way that he gets to his feet and walks back into a building after being given a beating. The way the scene is filmed and the way Stamp plays it are much more important than actually seeing the killings.
The Limey is worth watching purely for its editing, which with Sarah Flack shows clear artistry. But is this mere novelty? The film is shallow, in a way. However, it is this, along with the simplicity of the story, that brings the editing to the forefront and makes it remarkably accessible.
Any real depth or meaning in the film must be due to the actors. Fonda evokes a glorious but fleeting past through his very presence, while playing against type in making Valentine a weak man. As Jennifer’s friends, Luis Guzman is dependable as ever and Lesley Ann Warren ably portrays the film’s most grounded character. Stamp is the most important of them all, however. Much of The Limey is seemingly composed near-entirely of shots of his face, and this is in no way a drawback. Stamp plays many sides of Wilson in an effortless way, and with subtlety. All this despite the exaggerated Cockney accent.