Directed by Michael Winner in 1974, “Death Wish” is about a successful liberal New York architect turning to vigilantism as a way to work through his grief after his wife is raped and murdered by home-invading street thugs. With his daughter (who was raped but survived) lying catatonic in a psych ward, Paul Kersey (The Mighty Charles Bronson) stalks the city streets looking for prey.
Directed by Steve Soderbegh in 1999, “The Limey” is about a career British criminal who arrives in sun-drenched Los Angeles to avenge the murder of his estranged daughter. Her death was ruled a car accident but Wilson (a brilliant Terence Stamp) knows better and nothing’s going to stop him from getting to the man responsible — a sleazy record producer named Terry Valentine (The Mighty Peter Fonda).
Both films have much in common outside of the vigilante angle: The use of the city in which they’re set as vital characters; larger-than-life middle-aged actors as our anti-heroes (who are eventually aided by corrupt and desperate law enforcement officials). Winner and Soderbergh both succeed at rising above the genre without undermining the satisfaction that comes it. Most unexpected is that neither film takes a position against the idea of justice meted outside the law.
“Death Wish” was a monster hit at the time. On a $3 million budget it grossed over $20 million, spawned a four-sequel franchise that would chug on for another 20 years, and turned a 52 year-old Bronson into one of the unlikeliest and latest-blooming cinema superstars in Hollywood history.
Moreover, just like Don Siegel’s “Dirty Harry” (1971), upon its release, “Death Wish” was an immediate cultural sensation that caught the anti-crime zeitgeist of the time.
“The Limey” flopped. Hard. Good reviews and a modest $10 million budget notwithstanding, it grossed only $3 million worldwide and sank without leaving a cultural mark or doing anything to boost the career of a then-61 year-old Stamp. Which is a shame because…
“The Limey” is superior to “Death Wish.”
Listen, I don’t just love “Death Wish,” I love-love-love-love me some “Death Wish.” In fact, I love the entire franchise, even 3 and 5. There are six autographs currently hanging in my office. Bronson as Paul Kersey hangs alongside Ronald Reagan, Frank Sinatra, John Wayne, Muhammad Ali, and Ed O’Neill.
No one can question my “Death Wish” bona fides. “The Limey” is just a better and more satisfying movie.
The thing people forget is that unlike the sequels, the original “Death Wish” is not a revenge film. Kersey is not out hunting the punks who annihilated his family. He’s working through his grief and helplessness by cleaning up the streets. Intermittent explosions of violence are deliberately paced between scenes and sequences involving larger issues like Big City politics and Kersey grappling with what he’s become until, at last, he is okay with it (a twist that shocked audiences at the time).
Great, great movie — no question.
“The Limey,” though, is a sorely under-appreciate genre masterpiece. Working from a script by Lem Dobbs and no doubt inspired by the dreamy tone and feel of John Boorman’s “Point Blank,” Soderbergh not only adds mesmerizing stylistic touches but captures Los Angeles at the turn of the century just as precisely as Boorman did in 1967.
Best of all, Stamp’s Wilson is a furious, fish-out-of-water Terminator on a single-minded quest for revenge that neither reason nor force will stop. Aided only by his daughter’s friend (a terrific Luis Guzman) and acting coach (a perfectly cast Lesley Anne Warren,), Wilson uses his misbegotten but considerable resources to plan, plot, and execute his goal.
What makes “The Limey” so special is how well it captures present-day Los Angeles. Not just through Guzman’s character, a Hispanic ex-con trying to stay out of trouble, but also Warren’s. She represents so many middle-aged actors and actresses at the tail end of a long career where the closest they came to making it was that one TV movie.
And then there’s Fonda’s character, a relic of the swingin’ sixties who ended up (as one character describes) bottling and selling the era for millions. He’s a cobra disguised by a hippie aura, a perfect smile, a taste for young girls, and the mistaken belief nothing can touch him.
“The Limey” is full of iconic moments, none better than Wilson’s rampage (which we only hear) through a warehouse that ends with an actual growl, “You tell him, you tell him I’m coming. Tell him I’m fucking comingggggg!”
And come he does.
At only 89-minutes, the pacing is as furious and deliberate as its protagonist but never at the expense of the characters, especially Wilson and Valentine — dinosaurs of the sixties played by dinosaurs of the sixties. To sweeten that feel Soderbergh casts Barry Newman (“Vanishing Point”) as Valentine’s fixer and bodyguard.
Until you see the movie, this will sound like hyperbole, but “The Limey” captures the dark underbelly of what keeps Los Angeles afloat with as much insight as Polanski’s “Chinatown” (1974). The city is nothing more or less than a greed machine that grinds working class Hispanics and aging actresses into Soylent Green so murdering drug dealers like Terry Valentine can live in the Hollywood Hills, swim in his infinity pool, and fool himself into believing he’s still a nice guy.
“The Limey” likely flopped because genre fans don’t trust the sometimes-pretentious Soderbergh, and for the director’s legions of arty fans, the story no doubt cut too close to the bone.
P.S. “The Limey” is not better than “Death Wish 2.” Nothing is better than “Death Wish 2.”
Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC