Posts Tagged ‘The 51st State’

From the Hootoo archive.  Originally published December 13th 2001:

Back in the mid-70s there was a not-very-good John Wayne movie called Brannigan, wherein the Duke played a clearly geriatric cop who comes to London and duffs up all the local villains. The pitch was clearly ‘John Wayne in London’ and the culture clash between him and the local police was one of the main elements of the film. Well, plus ca change and all that, because much the same is true of the new Liverpool-set comedy thriller The 51st State, starring an inexplicably-kilted Samuel L Jackson. Times have moved on, of course, which means we now cheer drug dealers rather than cops – the morality of which rather eludes me – but it’s pretty much the same story.

51st State has hit our screens wreathed in the worst critical notices for a very long time. Like the recent Kiss of the Dragon, it’s something of a fusion movie – director Ronny Yu is Hong Kong Chinese, the star is American, the supporting cast largely British. It’s the story of LA-based ‘master chemist’ Elmo McElroy (Jackson, trading heavily on his Pulp Fiction persona) who’s invented a revolutionary new designer drug. Elmo blows up his nasty employer, Lizard (Meat Loaf, who appears to have some sort of unexplained skin condition), and heads for Liverpool to sell the formula to local villain Durrant (Ricky Tomlinson). His guide to the city is American-hating, soccer-loving lowlife Felix (Robert Carlyle). Little does Elmo suspect that Lizard survived the explosion and has despatched expat hitgirl Dakota Dawn (Emily Mortimer) to retrieve him…

Jackson is the central figure in this movie. Without his financial clout it probably wouldn’t have been made at all (probably because of this he gets named as Executive Producer), and without his superfly charisma it would be almost entirely unwatchable. He cruises through the movie like a barracuda in a fishbowl and the film relies heavily on his presence (‘Look,’ it seems to be saying, ‘it’s Samuel L Jackson next to Denzil from Only Fools and Horses! And now look, it’s Samuel L Jackson sitting in a Mini Cooper! Isn’t that the wackiest and most entertaining thing you’ve ever seen?’ And so on).

He certainly puts everyone else in the shade. Robert Carlyle is off-form, possibly due to the very ropey material he’s saddled with much of the time, and looks about thirteen next to his hulking co-star. Emily Mortimer is actually rather good in a one-dimensional part. The rest of the cast, most of whom you’ll know best from TV if at all, are strictly comic relief and not very comical comic relief at that. Tomlinson’s undoubted talents are criminally wasted, Sean Pertwee – veteran of many a dodgy Britflick – pops up gratuitously, doing a frenetic Gary Oldman impersonation, and the only person who regularly gets laughs is Rhys Ifans as a yoga-obsessed drugs baron.

For all this though, the film does have the odd moment where it realises its potential. Most of this is down to Ronny Yu’s flashy but stylish direction. He stages some impressive action sequences and generally brings the film to life, even though he does go a bit over the top here and there. And I could well have done without yet another British movie where the lead characters are introduced via little captions explaining who they are – a trick done to death since Trainspotting.

So, good cast, good director, what went wrong? Well, it’s the script, I’m afraid, which has little to commend it. The plot hinges on a couple of huge coincidences and too many jokes either fall flat or turn out to be unpleasant rather than funny. One gag, about idiot sidekicks accidentally violently murdering people, is repeated twice to little effect. And – this isn’t necessarily a criticism – this is probably the most foul-mouthed film I’ve ever seen, with entire scenes seeming to consist of characters shouting ****, ****, ****, and ******** at each other1. This is not as funny as the producers think it is. Weakest of all is the stagey, implausible, and uncinematic climax.

If I could make one wish to help the British movie industry it’d be to stop them from trying to hedge their bets and mix genres. This is a comedy thriller, allegedly, but as far as I can tell this is just a matter of labelling so they’ve got an excuse in case the comedy or the thrills aren’t there. Which they’re mostly not. I wish they’d had the guts to go for either a proper, hard-edged thriller or an all-out caper-style comedy rather than this confused film, where the two styles co-mingle. The result is a sloppy film set in an unrecognisable fantasyland, where there’s no real sense of threat or menace and decent jokes stand out like oases in the desert. The 51st State isn’t as bad as you’ve probably heard it is – Jackson, Mortimer and Yu salvage what they can – but it’s not far off.

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