TERENCE STAMP builds up such a head of angry steam in "The Limey," it's a wonder the theater ceiling doesn't blister.

And while we wait -- with sinfully delighted anticipation -- for Stamp to boil over, director Steven Soderbergh renders the time line of the story into the temporal equivalent of an onion.

In his hands, a simple story of revenge becomes something to unpeel and unpeel again, as Soderbergh flashes forward, flashes back or returns to the same scene with a new perspective. It's a sort of David Hockneyism -- the cutting up of a straightforward tale into distinctive ribbons.

Stamp is Dave Wilson, the "limey" of the title, a cockney just out of prison, who wants to avenge the death of his grown-up daughter Jenny at the hands of Los Angeles gangsters.

We can see that anger immediately, as he sits on the plane to L.A., eyes blazing like an idol whose temple has just been ransacked. Does this man ever blink? Is he just an agent of retribution or does a heart beat in there somewhere? The eyelids never seem to close over his smoldering blue glare. We don't know exactly what he intends to do. Perhaps he doesn't either. But his unyielding gaze -- the one that could reduce Medusa to fish-tank sand -- tells us there's hell to pay. Despite ourselves, we can't wait for Dave to meet the poor SOB responsible.

Dave knows only one thing at this point. It starts with "Ed" (Luis Guzman), the man who wrote the letter informing Dave of his daughter's death. He confronts a surprised Ed, who had nothing to do with Jenny's death (he was only in her acting class!) but starts him on the trail to the ones responsible.

Dave's obsessional manhunt takes him from Los Angeles to Big Sur, during which time he runs into a series of surly slimeballs, G-men and L.A. power players, all of whom make the mistake of underestimating the tough-minded Londoner. With each encounter, ranging from gun battles in warehouses to pushing battles over canyon precipices, Dave edges ever closer to record producer Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda), Jenny's onetime boyfriend, who may know the truth about Jenny's death.

Although the revenge element -- and the resolution of the mystery -- keeps us engaged, it isn't the most pressing aspect of the movie. Director Soderbergh -- who made "sex, lies, and videotape," "King of the Hill" and "Out of Sight" -- and screenwriter Lem Dobbs are much more interested in the atmospherics. (See story, page 59.)

In addition to the time-ribboning, Soderbergh ingeniously uses Ken Loach's 1967 film "Poor Cow," which starred a young Terence Stamp, for Dave's English "backstory." And he recruits a colorful array of personalities who come up against Dave. Some end up battered, others dead, and most of them are simply confused by that accent.

"There's one thing I don't understand," says a soft-spoken but tough DEA agent who has been listening to Dave speak. "The thing that I don't understand is every [bleep]ing word you're saying."

Of course, the main bout is between two '60s countercultural icons: Stamp, the lover ("Far From the Madding Crowd") and psycho ("The Collector") of British cinema, and Fonda, the countercultural prince of the road ("Easy Rider"). Their polar-opposition in acting styles and temperament, their cultural differences and their pop-cultural synergy come together with almost delicious cacophony. This playful, fascinating joust, a sort of duking of personality, is the real issue of the movie. Finding out about Jenny? Well, that's important, too.

THE LIMEY (R, 88 minutes) -- Contains violence, obscenity and sexual situations. At the Cineplex Odeon Cinema.