"The Limey" is a kind of Stamp collection: It shows us the 1967 edition of the British actor whose first name is Terence cheek by jowl with the 1999 edition.

The movie is built around scraps from an earlier film, Ken Loach's "Poor Cow," which yields a now-and-then of incredible contrast. We see the haggard, tough Stamp of today juxtaposed with the more slender, more callow Stamp of way back then, a man so beautiful that he soared to stardom without much in the way of talent or effort. Youth, age, all wound up together. How did this smooth beauty of a boy become this blazing icon of anger, with his tense face and lizardy eyes? The two play off each other in fascinating ways.

If only the movie had been so fascinating. But the problem is that this extremely clever device has been oh-so-feebly forced into the service of mediocre melodrama under the surprisingly lax guidance of the normally trustworthy director Steven Soderbergh.

Stamp plays Wilson, a British thief who gets out of the pen after a long term and is distressed to learn that his estranged daughter has died under mysterious circumstances in far-off Beverly Hills, Calif., USA. With his London underworld skills and a Cockney accent as thick as blood pudding, he arrives in Los Angeles to find out why and, if appropriate, who.

Yet almost immediately the movie succumbs to what a senior critic once called "routine movie hooey." Wilson picks up allies with absurd ease--Elaine (Lesley Ann Warren), who was a friend of his daughter's, then a driver (Luis Guzman) with underworld connections who also knew her. Both bond with him instantly and become allies in his sojourn, offering a place to stay and strategic hints on how to deal with the obstacles that lie ahead.

In a few easy minutes, he has established a connection to Terry Valentine, a sleazy record producer played by Peter Fonda who is under the impression that he's the picture's hero. Beaten, shot at, dumped, hunted and spoken to sharply, Wilson just keeps on coming. Clearly, here's where Soderbergh had the most fun: watching the sheltered, self-indulgent, sublimely smug Hollywood big shot being slowly deconstructed by the shrewd and plucky British crook.

And Fonda's Valentine is exactly the kind of man you love to hate: a smirky ex-hippie who rode the counterculture wave to immense wealth and power and is now a kind of professional sybarite who always has a disposable young woman around as a play toy. Evidently, Wilson's daughter was one such play toy who learned too much and had to be disposed of.

This is a classic pulp fiction formula--the return of the avenger. Sometimes it's the father or the brother or the son; sometimes it's even the victim himself, who has miraculously survived. In all cases, it's a requirement that the avenger's talents far outstrip those of the local mobsters, whom he mows down like overripe shafts of wheat.

This device has enlivened such classics as Mike Hodges's "Get Carter," John Boorman's equally classic "Point Blank," Clint Eastwood's "High Plains Drifter" and "Valdez Is Coming," which starred Burt Lancaster, and even the recent Mel Gibson vehicle "Payback" (a knockoff of "Point Blank").

Yet given such a sturdy, familiar underpinning, Soderbergh doesn't get much out of it. Not one scene plays with the sharpness of "Out of Sight," and the movie conspicuously lacks a single cleverness except the frequent reminiscences in Wilson's head that enable us to glimpse back at a young man so perfect that he could--and did--play Melville's Billy Budd. And it gives us a chance to feel his regret and ambivalence about a life that went a certain way when, now as an older man, he realizes it could have just as easily gone another, better, way.

But Soderbergh fumbles all the genre's obligations. He seems to have very little gift for action set pieces, and the ones he concocts feel so generic that they leach energy from the movie. Hasn't this guy ever heard of style? The movie is a festival of gunfights that aren't cool, car chases that don't convince, plot twists that don't astonish, revelations that aren't that revelatory.

The climax is a particular botch, with all the sides of the too-complicated-by-far plot--besides Stamp and Fonda, there's a DEA interest and a young-professional interest--showing up at a darkened California beach house and blowing the heck out of everything that moves.

The idea of this movie is fabulous, and there's something mythic in the contrast between those two great old faces--Stamp's and Fonda's--that seems to sum up and amplify the meanings in the two cultures: One is handsome, ironic, refined, yet weak and terrified; the other tough, remorseless, driven by love and memory and far more cunning than can be believed. These great old guys deserved so much better.

The Limey (88 minutes, at the Cineplex Odeon) is rated R for profanity, violence and impenetrable Cockney dialect, guv'nor luv.

CAPTION: Terence Stamp confronts Peter Fonda in "The Limey."