There’s something viscerally satisfying about a revenge story done right. An eye for an eye may leave the world blind, but it makes for first-class drama.
One of the high points of vendetta cinema came out 20 years ago. Steven Soderbergh’s 1999 The Limey, while well-reviewed when it came out, has faded out of the spotlight quite a bit (I can’t even find a Blu-ray release of the thing). That’s a shame, considering the seemingly unstoppable legacy of the far inferior aging-British-guy-going-after-the-guys-who-hurt-his-daughter title Taken (I know Liam Neeson plays an American in Taken, but he’s Liam Neeson—his Northern Irish accent always peeks through).
In The Limey, fellow Brit Terence Stamp plays the mysterious Wilson, a career criminal recently released from prison, roaming around Los Angeles following the death of his daughter Jenny. Jenny died in a car accident that Wilson suspects was less accidental than reported.
The film is a beautiful character study of a fish out of water, slow boiling to a confrontation between Wilson and music producer Terry Valentine, played by Henry Fonda as a twisted, older and corrupted version of his 60s free-spirit persona immortalized in Easy Rider. Valentine, a sleazy old boomer who’s traded in his idealism for money and status, clings to an image of progressive, alternative coolness, but he’s the kind of guy who has his decades-younger girlfriend killed if she asks too many questions about his business dealings.
(The Limey also features a killer score by Cliff Martinez and stars the inimitable Luis Guzmán, both of which instantly bump any movie up a few notches.)
In contrast, Taken is all blunt machismo and violence, dressed up in the valor of protecting vulnerable women, but effectively empty and artless in its execution, following Neeson’s Bryan Mills, a retired CIA agent, as he tracks the men who kidnapped his daughter. Taken’s failures serve to highlight how The Limey gets it so right.
The 2008 action flick is at its very worst when it tries to moralize. At one point, Bryan berates some Albanian sex traffickers—not for kidnapping his daughter or, y’know, being sex traffickers, but for being ungrateful immigrants to France. It’s a distinctly uncomfortable moment of casual racism, made all the more absurd by the fact it’s coming from someone who isn’t even French and has been explicitly told by authorities to stop playing vigilante on French soil. White outsiders have free reign over the world in this selectively xenophobic vision of good and bad immigrants.
Then there’s the problem of Bryan’s willingness to shoot a corrupt French agent’s wife to get him to talk. It’s just a flesh wound, he assures his old friend (and us), as though using an innocent woman in such a callous, violent way is somehow forgivable. The women of Taken are generally treated with little respect. They’re victims, obstacles, or nagging ex-wives. Or oddly bubbly, air-headed teen girls. Bryan’s 17-year-old daughter behaves bafflingly like she can’t be older than 10 or 11. It’s a gross tactic by the filmmakers to simultaneously infantilize and sexualize her, depending on a given scene’s narrative needs, always in service to a male agenda.
Taken is a male story at its core, and a rather pathetic one. Bryan’s crusade comes off as an impotent male fantasy. He’s a lonely divorcé with little going well in his life, until he gets to use his unique skill set to show his mostly estranged wife and daughter how necessary and useful he can be. It’s boring and lacking in any self-awareness or faith in the audience. Everything is spelled out, because otherwise the fundamental emptiness of the film would stand out a little too sharply.None of this is to say filmmakers need to jump through hoops to make us identify with vigilante protagonists. Some of the best revenge films of the last decade—like Drive, John Wick and Soderbergh’s own Haywire—keep motivations extremely simple, and keep their protagonists at arm’s length. Audience’s don’t need to know every detail of an angry killer’s psychology to invest in a narrative, and we don’t need to approve of them either. But we do need to feel that the character is three-dimensional.
This is what The Limey really nails. Wilson isn’t fleshed out much at all. Not with explicitly laid out character traits and history at least. But Soderbergh gives us plenty to work with. Wilson’s been in prison at least three times. He’s a hardened criminal. He was an absentee father. Those are the hard facts, but we gather so much more throughout the film, from his nervous energy, to his Cockney monologues that position him as a willing outsider, to the desperation he shows in his quest to avenge his daughter. Soderbergh also offers flashbacks, borrowing scenes, stripped of their dialogue, from Ken Loach’s 1967 film Poor Cow, in which a young Terence Stamp displays a softer side, a romantic side, and a youthful energy that the older Wilson has clearly lost.
These flashbacks make Wilson a tragic character, who lost a great deal due to a mix of his own bad decisions and the world dealing him a bum hand. At least we assume as much. The memories are thrown in without context or discernible chronology. They’re bits and pieces of a life that can’t be accessed in its entirety. Even Wilson’s present mental state is hard to fully access. Jump cuts and temporal shifts disorient us—a single conversation might start at a patio table, then shift to a moving car, and end back where it started. Are these multiple conversations stitched together in post, or is Soderbergh offering an unstable and unreliable narrator in Wilson?
Jenny helps ground his humanity though. She’s a symbol of a lot of what Wilson gave up, and she’s one of the few things in the world that still tethered him to that happier past, always out of reach but meaningful nonetheless. Brief glimpses of her past as a child handle a lot of the work that obnoxiously expository dialogue does in Taken.
In all fairness, Taken isn’t entirely without its strengths. Neeson’s detached, stone cold and professional delivery of the now iconic “I will find you, and I will kill you" speech has a near perfect landing. Stamp’s unhinged “Tell him I’m coming! Tell him I’m fucking coming!” line in The Limey hits very different notes, but serves a similar narrative function and pulls it off equally well. Most revenge films have a pivotal moment like this. It sets the stakes, tells us our hero (or more often anti-hero) is all in and everything is about to go to shit in the very best way.
For Wilson, that means killing a handful of men in a warehouse, and leaving one alive to deliver a warning. We know Wilson won’t blink from then on, and we know he’s in too deep to walk away.
The Limey doesn’t offer any moral or sense of real closure. Vengeance doesn’t redeem Wilson or restore a past life. Killing Valentine is the only end he’s after. He’s no less sad or pathetic than Bryan, but the film doesn’t make any attempt to skate around that or glorify his mission. It doesn’t justify or revel in its own violence, but it does present it as a logical conclusion to a long, complex history involving too many people with too many conflicting goals for a happy ending to ever be possible.
That’s an ideal conclusion to a revenge narrative. Vengeance, in and of itself, isn’t a noble pursuit, and it rarely fixes things. Bryan may save his daughter in Taken, but we have no reason to believe he’ll suddenly become a good father or husband (despite the sequels’ assurances otherwise), or that his life will suddenly have meaning. Protagonists with vendettas die, or they watch those they love die. That can be fodder for some breathtaking action (have you seen the John Wick 3 trailer?!), but it rarely makes for neat and healthy personal growth or closure (have you seen the John Wick movies?!)
It’s a hell of a thing to watch, when done right.
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