The first shot is as striking as any Steven Soderbergh ever forged -- Terence Stamp tying his tie as the image comes gradually into focus and The Who's "The Seeker" revs up -- a hundred no less snazzy follow it. The admitted influences are Boorman and Resnais, others include Mike Hodges, Cervantes, and Harry Callahan's color pictures. Stamp is a trim Cockney specter, just out of jail and landing in Los Angeles to avenge her late daughter, a wayward bird "with fondness for dangerous men." The editing achieves a cubist effect to reflect the fractured mind, and to set off the occasional remarkable long-take: Following a beating from a gang of hoods, the protagonist rises from his ashes, produces a new gun and follows his foes into the building, then strides out blood-speckled, roaring at the camera. Peter Fonda is his fellow '60s artifact, seen at his lair atop the Santa Monica mountains with poolside moll to The Hollies' "King Midas in Reverse"; he's a rock 'n' roll mogul ("not specific enough to be a person... more like a vibe") who's taken the hippie zeitgeist, or the memory of it, "packaged it and sold it." In times of mindless postmodernism, Soderbergh distinguishes between the reductive appropriation of an era (stunt casting, or a Che Guevara shirt, say) and the tenderly analytical embodying of it. The young Stamp of Loach's Poor Cow is a remembrance faded and lovingly integrated, his aged fašade of cool crumbles slightly before Bill Duke's nonplussed federal-agent Buddha. "The old faces. They're nowhere. Different characters nowadays." Luis Guzman's grubby nobility and Leslie Ann Warren's worn swan force deserve films of their own, Nicky Katt and Joe Dallesandro are what Angelenos would be like if written by Pinter. There's a Tati long-shot gag involving a hefty henchman and a cliff, "Magic Carpet Ride" finally given the proper treatment, and some of the most profound visions of regret and loss on film. This is assuredly Soderbergh's masterpiece -- the ache of missed chances and bad choices, the loneliness of vengeance, the search for true emotion in an ocean of ruthless fragmentation. With Barry Newman, Amelia Heinle, and Melissa George.
--- Fernando F. Croce