The 51st State
starring Samuel L. Jackson, Nigel Whitmey, Robert Jezek, Emily Mortimer
screenplay by Stel Pavlou
directed by Ronny Yu
by Walter Chaw Called The 51st State abroad, Formula 51's more redneck-friendly-sounding retitling can be read as an astonishing commentary on the Ronny Yu film itself. Astonishing because it implies not only that the picture is self-aware, but also that it has actually somehow identified which formula it adheres to by number--something that strikes me as terribly useful in a shorthand way.
Elmo (Samuel L. Jackson) is a brilliant pharmacology student who, in a very clever prologue set in 1971, has the course of his life changed by an unsympathetic traffic cop and what looks like a kilo of pot. The possibilities for social commentary, however, swiftly devolve into what is apparently an extremely racist film by a Chinese filmmaker who doesn't particularly care for Yanks and Brits and is content to sketch them in broad and unflattering stereotypes. Elmo in the present has created a wonder-drug hybrid consisting of cocaine, heroin, acid, and Skittles (apparently) for evil drug lord Lizard (Meat Loaf), but Elmo would like to go free agent and contrives to blow Lizard up and sell his drug, the titular "Formula 51," to evil English drug lord Durant (Ricky Tomlinson).
On his trail are assassin Dakota (Emily Mortimer) and football hooligan DeSouza (Robert Carlyle), alternately charged with protecting and killing Elmo while rekindling their failed romance. It's telling that by the end their allegiances remain as muddy as the resolution of their relationship--it's not mysterious, understand, it's sloppy. Though I'm tempted to blame the actors for their teeth-clenched performances, it's probably closer to the culprit to pinpoint first-time screenwriter Stel Pavlou, who writes in English like I write in Tagalog. I don't, is what I'm saying.
Although moments of it remind a little of the breathless joy of Hong Kong cinema of the late-Eighties into the early-Nineties (Yu's own The Bride with White Hair among them), Formula 51 is joyless and ugly despite the best efforts of its "up" score, courtesy of Headrillaz. From explosive diarrhea to bushels of blood squibs to a screenplay that consists basically of "fuck" and "bollocks," Formula 51 is a meaningless wallow in the stagnant end of the taste pool. Poorly written, conceived, and executed and featuring a weird Almodovar sex scene and a bit stolen from The Meaning of Life for no discernable reason, Formula 51 is a disappointing throwback to the kind of HK transplant gun-love chop-socky that used to feature people like Dennis Rodman and Lou Diamond Philips. Perhaps it's time for Yu to take a cue from Phillip Noyce, who recently scored with two films shot in his native Australia (Rabbit-Proof Fence and The Quiet American) after a few years spent churning out varying degrees of garbage in Hollywood: you can go home again, and sometimes you should. Originally published: October 18, 2002.