To see how wretched a film Steven Soderbergh and Lem Dobbs’ The Limey could have been if anyone else had made it, look no further than The Outsider, another dreary midwinter action picture about an uncommunicative but loving father with a Very Particular Set of Skills Acquired Over a Long Career who’ll reluctantly pop as many elbows and shatter as many kneecaps as he must to avenge his daughter’s murder and/or rescue her from the sex trade.
Actually, that describes a fighting style more cinematic than the one employed by the outsider in The Outsider, a lumbering ox of a man with a “Who was she wif?” South London accent, played by an actor with the Bond-heavy name Craig Fairbrass. The brutal, believable hand-to-hand combat so bracingly demonstrated in the Bourne pictures and Jack Reacher is nowhere in evidence here; Fairbrass just whirls his ham-hock fists around like a flesh-and-blood Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robot, smashing anything in their flight path. If anybody could land an uppercut that sends its victim flying heels-over-head, like the ones Jack Kirby used to draw in comics, it’s probably this bloke. But even the fisticuffs are boring in this movie, and the obligatory car chases and gunfights are sub-network-TV-grade.
The opening titles cycle through all the aerial footage wherein Los Angeles plays itself; the L.A. the film was "entirely" shot in, per the end credits, is Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (There’s no reason the movie couldn’t have been set there.) The exposition-shoveling opening scenes establish Lex Walker as a British military contractor on assignment in some unidentified sandy country. (Fairbrass is one of the few people who could claim he got a badass-moniker downgrade by being renamed “Lex Walker.”) His boss tells him his daughter has died of a drug overdose in L.A., but he can’t fly there to claim her body because “we’ve been tasked with a major staging operation in coordination with the arrival of a senator from the States!” This is the point at which Mel Gibson, Liam Neeson, or Harrison Ford would surely slump their shoulders and slink off in defeated silence, but Walker serves up a spirited, “Fuck you and yours!” and takes matters into his own enormous hands.
Fairbrass, who shares “Story by” credit with screenwriter/director Brian A. Miller, has a terse, entitled screen presence that recalls the days when it seemed like any beefy, half-charismatic pro athlete or martial artist could headline a low-rent action picture. In fact, his long acting résumé includes regular roles in the British soap EastEnders, and more recently, the Call Of Duty videogame franchise. He’d probably be fun to watch working from a better script, but here, his sleuthing scenes are as generic as his ass-kicking scenes: “I never mentioned the color of her hair!” Walker’s lie-detecting Spidey-sense is as infallible as Jack Bauer’s was on 24: Absolutely every bartender or club rat he interrogates knows something useful; he just needs some hands-on encouragement to jog his memory. To Walker’s credit, he begins most interviews by offering cash for information, but he usually has to get rough anyway. That’s just how the world is.
Jason Patric and James Caan both turn up doing half-awake reprisals of their parts from better films. Patric is the Major Crimes cop following Lex’s trail of bodies and broken glass, while Caan growls his way through his handful of scenes as the head of a criminal conspiracy that seems awfully high-tech for an old-school gangster like him. His nefarious web-savvy is still easier to swallow than a scene wherein the slouching, 73-year-old Caan beats up a goombah who looks 35 years younger and 50 pounds heavier.
Caan achieved immortality as the hot-tempered Sonny Corleone in The Godfather the year before Shannon Elizabeth was born, which lends a disquieting edge to their brief-but-you-can’t-unsee-it makeout session. Elizabeth plays a woman who, um, saw Walker’s daughter in a nightclub once or something, but agrees to help him find her for a cool $10,000—although their slow-motion smiles in the film’s final moments hint at the tantalizing possibility of romance! But first, she must masquerade as a prostitute to help Walker infiltrate the villain’s mansion to do a computer thing arising from a lame plot twist that’s given away in the film’s trailer. (“I simply had to merge the new database into the mainframe host processor,” one of Walker’s allies explains, while the solider nods in solemn comprehension.)
There isn’t nearly enough of this kind of tangled dialogue to salvage The Outsider as an unintentional comedy, and Fairbrass has a way of powering through his clunky lines that make them seem sort of reasonable. When the script commands him to say, “For all I know, you could’ve been dead in a ditch somewhere!”, he doesn’t either blink or wink.
Sadly, this baseline competence elevates The Outsider, just barely, into the realm of perfect forgetability. It’s The Limey sans the prismatic pacing, grim insight into human nature, or brilliant performances from long-absent actors. It’s Commando without the cartoonish feats of strength or the terrible one-liners. It’s Taken minus the Grand Guignol pleasure of watching Qui-Gon Jinn get medieval on a bunch of sex traffickers’ assess. It’s nothing at all, really.