By EW Staff
Updated October 08, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

Like Pablo Picasso thrillingly exploding old notions of how we perceive faces and wine bottles, director Steven Soderbergh thrillingly splinters time and action in The Limey, a small cubist masterpiece about crime and punishment set in that most split-level of environments, Los Angeles. ”Tell me. Tell me about Jenny,” a Cockney voice demands before the picture even rolls. The yoiky vowels belong to Wilson (Terence Stamp), the down-market Briton of the title (”limey” being old slang for British sailors who sucked citrus at sea to prevent scurvy).

Jenny was Wilson’s daughter, who lived with oil-slick record producer Valentine (Peter Fonda) high in the Hollywood Hills and died under circumstances her father doesn’t believe were accidental. The ice-eyed ex-con’s assault on the scurviness of Jenny’s adopted town, the steady focus with which he tracks ever-shifting Hollywood sleaze in pursuit of whoever harmed his girl, is the whole story.

But what a storyteller! With a compact, efficient plot (stranger comes to town to avenge, stranger avenges, stranger leaves town), a dazzling, diamond-cut script by Lem Dobbs (who also wrote the screenplay for the director’s ”Kafka”), and a great jazz combo of a supporting cast (including Luis Guzman, Lesley Ann Warren, Barry Newman, and Nicky Katt), Soderbergh extends the shape-shifting that distinguished ”Out of Sight,” skipping and backtracking, repeating scenes and restaging them.

Emphasizing Wilson-the-outsider’s learning curve, each new vista brings more information. And more fun, more downright zingy fun: In dozens of sharp exchanges all of five sentences each, director and screenwriter manage to nail — but not disdain — upscale and underclass Angelenos alike with cool glee. (One perfect snapshot: Wilson’s introduction to valet parking.)

Of course the fun, too, is in watching white-haired Stamp, his face a mask of sangfroid, playing creatively not only with fellow ’60s survivor Fonda but also with our own memories of the actor’s exquisite younger self. In ”The Limey”’s cheekiest and loveliest slicing and dicing of time, Soderbergh inserts footage from ”Poor Cow,” Ken Loach’s 1967 feature debut, in which Stamp played a beautiful thief — named Wilson — who goes to jail, and who has a daughter.

Delicately inserting moments from Stamp’s legendary movie past into a film set in the present that ought very much to enhance the star’s future is Soderbergh’s most gracious and elegant painterly detail in this wonderful composition.