image courtesy of IMDB
aka: Formula 51
The 51st State
Samuel L. Jackson has long been a fan of Hong Kong movies (a rumor that never seems to die is that he is working on a US remake of God of Gamblers), so it should come as no surprise that he eventually hooked up with one of the HK transplants now making their living in the West. In this case, it's Ronny Yu, the visionary behind such classics as The Bride with White Hair. The results might not be the dual-fisted action some fanboys were hoping for, but The 51st State is an entertaining romp in the vein of recent British crime movies like Snatch and 24 Hours in London.
In a scene that should make fans of Jackson's work giddy, the movie opens in the 1970's with our hero sporting an afro and smoking a joint. Just having graduated from college with a degree in pharmacology, Jackson is kicking back, but his recreation turns to incarceration when he is busted by a cop. Now regulated to the drug underground, Jackson makes his living creating designer drugs for a dealer played by Meat Loaf (who does a good job with his role, but I still couldn't help but think "Bob had bitch tits" while watching him). Jackson has created a superdrug called POS-51 that is made out of legal ingredients, and he doesn't want to share it with Mr. Loaf, so he sets up a bomb and heads to England to sell the formula to the highest bidder. However, the bomb fails to do its job, so Meat Loaf hires a deadly and quite fetching assassin (Emily Mortimer) to get some revenge. With his only ally, a soccer hooligan (Robert Carlyle), Jackson must try to make his cash while staying alive.
Even though The 51st State (like many recent crime movies) is quite stylish and has enough witty quips to make Tarantino proud, it thankfully ditches the complicated plot that most film-makers seem to think they should do nowadays. There is nothing wrong with a film that features an inventive and dense structure, such as Memento. But the fact is that most directors really can't handle that kind of movie, and frankly, sometimes viewers just need a piece of entertaining fluff, not a deep meditation on life's mysteries.
The 51st State doesn't really promise anything other than the promise of seeing Samuel L. Jackson being a badass, and it certainly delivers on that account. There are several standout scenes of classic Jackson attitude, most of them coming at the expense of a group of dim-witted skinheads. Some notable scenes include one where he beats the hell out of them with a golf club, and the family favorite, a scene where he gives them pills which initiate some very explosive diarreha.
The supporting cast also does a good job. Robert Carlyle for the most part just re-hashes his work in Trainspotting, but that was entertaining as hell then, and it was still funny now. I could listen to him call people "dodgy twats", "shite-eating bastards" or any combination of British slang all day and it would still probably be funny. Emily Mortimer doesn't really have too much to work with, but she does manage to take her female assassin character (one of the most overused in films these days) into something other than stereotype.
Bolstered with slick visuals (done by Hong Kong natives David Wu and Poon Hang-Sang) and a thumping musical score (this is one of the rare movies where a hip-hop soundtrack actually fits in, instead of being crammed into a film in order to drive up soundtrack sales), The 51st State is one of the more entertaining movies to hit American screens in recent months. After the absurdly average summer season (where even John Woo failed to deliver the goods), let's hope the fall holds more hidden surprises like this. At the least, Hong Kong film aficiandos should enjoy the fact that there are now three Hong Kong-related movies in US theatres, which has to be a first. Hopefully, future releases will be more like this, rather than the bland Jackie Chan vehicle The Tuxedo.