The combustible screen-sizzle of George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez in last year's Out Of Sight may have had critics in a froth, but one can't help feeling that, justified or not, the resulting fuss eclipsed the real star behind the Elmore Leonard adaptation: director Steven Soderbergh. In a vacuum-packed climate of three-act no-brainers, Soderbergh's accessible experiments in style and structure are rapidly gaining him status as one of America's most consistently inventive and gifted film-makers.
Soderbergh first burnt the book of narrative convention in `96's commendably mental Schizopolis, an exercise in structure splintering that was applied, in albeit calmer form, to Out Of Sight. Now with The Limey, (a conceptual reworking of Get Carter and other assorted one-man-army `70s crime movies), Soderbergh has gone all out to explore how far he can push the form. The result is never less than dazzling.
Right from the off, Soderbergh applies his switchblade visuals to create an ambience quite unlike any other movie you'll see this year. Flashforwards, present snapshots and, in a sheer stroke of genius, flashback footage using a young Stamp in Ken Loach's Poor Cow, appear at such a rate that the first 10 minutes appear to be just baffling stylistics. But the confusion is deliberate. Serving primarily as an intriguing flicker into Walker's revenge-obsessed mind (in one terrific sequence we're even treated to a repeated fantasy shotgunning of his nemesis Valentine), this isn't just visual flash-hashery for the sake of it: Soderbergh's games have an agenda. So when the scattered tabs of his visual jigsaw finally click into place, when all those resonant images suddenly burst with meaning and emotion, it's then that you realise what an extraordinary feat the director has pulled off.
The same goes for Stamp. At first his broad cockernee inflections sound like he learnt the lingo from chewing a brick, but as soon as the charisma kicks in, your eyes and ears are hooked. Apart from delivering what has to be one of this year's most memorable monologues, in which his tongue slugs it out with a raft of rhyming slang, Stamp captures Wilson's controlled fury perfectly, with blind revenge gradually opening his eyes to past regrets.
The casting of Stamp's dignified intensity against Fonda's laconic drawl is equally inspired (the script even winks at Fonda's famed horizontal cool by having Valentine's girlfriend shrug: "You're not specific enough to be a person - you're more a vibe"). So effective are the two polar opposites of acting style that an undeniable chemistry bubbles between them, despite their paths barely crossing. Needless to say, when they do finally clash, the slowburn-to-sparks emotional effect is extraordinarily rewarding. If the eventual confrontation is inevitable, the meeting's crackling tension and unexpected poignancy is anything but.
Admittedly, the expendable-goon shoot-out of the final showdown feels somewhat by-the-numbers, but that's a minor gripe in what's destined to become a modern crime classic. Go bleedin' see it and - to quote Mr Stamp - tell `em you're fucking coming.