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Before John Wick 3, tap into the tradition of vengeful hitman movies with The Limey

Before John Wick 3, tap into the tradition of vengeful hitman movies with The Limey


It’s one in a string of similar stories going back to the 1930s

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Photo: Artisan Entertainment

There are so many streaming options available these days, and so many conflicting recommendations, that it’s hard to see through all the crap you could be watching. Each Friday, The Verge’s Cut the Crap column simplifies the choice by sorting through the overwhelming multitude of movies and TV shows on subscription services and recommending a single perfect thing to watch this weekend.

What to watch

The Limey, a 1999 crime picture written by Lem Dobbs and directed by Steven Soderbergh. Terence Stamp stars as Wilson, an aging British ex-con who rampages through the Los Angeles underworld, looking for anyone who can tell him what happened to his long-estranged daughter. The trail leads Wilson to Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda), a music industry bigwig who moonlights as a drug trafficker. As these two old rogues circle each other, Dobbs and Soderbergh ponder the legacies of these men and the actors who play them — both of whom were exemplars of masculine beauty and cool in the 1960s.

Why watch now?

Because John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum opens this weekend.

The long afterlife of the offbeat 2014 action thriller John Wick has been one of the more cheering developments of recent popular culture. The early John Wick trailers made it look like just another dopey B-movie starring the not-always-super-selective Keanu Reeves. But critics quickly spread the word that this film was something special: a refreshingly lean, witty, inventive shoot-’em-up about a retired assassin who goes after the thugs who killed his dog, then ends up wreaking havoc throughout a surprisingly orderly and stratified international network of criminal cartels. John Wick: Chapter 2 and Chapter 3 built up the mythology of that demimonde, pitting Reeves’ superhumanly lethal antihero against wave after wave of mercenary goons, all looking to take him out for violating the “rules” of hired gunnery.

No matter how elaborate the John Wick movies get, they all call back to one of the more tried-and-true pulp subgenres: the underworld revenge thriller. The basic concept of a disgruntled gangster getting even with the yeggs who screwed him goes back at least as far as Hollywood’s 1930s Jimmy Cagney and Edward G. Robinson pictures. But modern noir storytellers keep referencing two particular sacred texts. One is Donald Westlake’s first “Parker” novel, 1962’s The Hunter (written under the pseudonym Richard Stark), about a meticulous heist artist who methodically murders his way up the mob hierarchy after his confederates betray him. The other is Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1967 film Le Samouraï, which tells a similar story but with fewer bare-knuckle action sequences and more existential ennui.

Melville’s work has inspired countless filmmakers around the world, including Jim Jarmusch (whose Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is practically an English-language Le Samouraï remake), Quentin Tarantino (whose Kill Bill twists Melville’s cool into something poppier and more personal), John Woo, Johnnie To, Takeshi Kitano, and more. The Hunter, meanwhile, has been directly adapted into John Boorman’s 1967 art film Point Blank, Brian Helgeland’s more straightforward Mel Gibson vehicle Payback, and the 2013 thriller Parker — not to mention countless films that borrowed the book’s general premise.

The Limey is openly influenced by Boorman’s Point Blank: not so much in the plot (which, in The Limey, is much less violent), but in the style, which is similarly fragmented. Both films jump around in time, often in a flurry of images — some of which could be from the past, some from the future, and some just in the protagonists’ imaginations. As with most of these kinds of movies, the killer’s mission provides enough of a sturdy throughline that the filmmakers have some freedom to play around. Both Boorman and Soderbergh test the limits of that freedom, using one shrewd gunman’s obsessive quest for vengeance as the jumping-off point for a more abstract character study. In The Limey’s case, the movie takes on an elegiac tone, mourning the lost potential of the 1960s generation Wilson and Valentine represent.

Photo: Artisan Entertainment

Who it’s for

Fans of LA noir and experimental cinema.

It’s worth tracking down a copy of The Limey on DVD to hear Lem Dobbs spar with Steven Soderbergh in the commentary track, complaining that the director and his editor, Sarah Flack, went overboard with their time-hopping structural experiments, destroying the integrity of some of his longer dialogue scenes. Soderbergh’s defense — which is persuasive — is that most moviegoers can get the gist of a plot as simple as The Limey’s, and he preferred to see if he could tell Dobbs’ story while providing the audience with the bare minimum of audiovisual information. It’s hard to argue with the outcome: this film is, indeed, not that hard to follow, once viewers acclimate to the approach.

A more straightforward version of The Limey likely would’ve worked just fine, too. The cast is great, the dialogue is rich, and cinematographer Edward Lachman captures some striking images of cliffside Los Angeles mansions, given a tarnished bronze glow by the smog-filtered California sun. But Soderbergh’s chopped and scrambled version cuts more to the core of what this picture is. This particular revenge thriller isn’t about the vengeance, per se. It’s about one angry guy, chasing after the ghosts of the person he used to be and the man he never became.

Where to see it

The Limey has bounced between streaming services over the years, appearing in the past on Hulu, Tubi, and Cinemax’s Max Go. It’s currently on Tribeca Shortlist, a streamer that debuted in 2015, and it’s available as its own standalone site or as one of Amazon Prime Video’s Channels. The Limey is also available to rent or buy through the usual digital retailers: iTunes, Google Play, YouTube, etc.