Should I Watch..? The 51st State
What's the big deal?
The 51st State is an action comedy film released in 2001 and is the brainchild of screenwriter Stel Pavlou who devised the concept studying at university in Liverpool. The film stars Samuel L Jackson as a master chemist hoping to secure one last big deal in Liverpool with his latest and greatest product. The movie also stars Robert Carlyle, Emily Mortimer, Meat Loaf, Ricky Tomlinson and Sean Pertwee and was directed by Hong Kong director Ronny Yu. The film received a mixed reaction from critics - the UK press were much kinder than critics in the US but audiences were not convinced by the film, which barely recouped half of its estimated $27 million budget. The film is also known as Formula 51 in some countries.
What's it about?
Recent graduate Elmo McElroy is arrested in 1971 for a drugs offence, a charge that will prevent him from ever getting a job as a pharmacologist. Fast forward to 2001 and McElroy has become the creator of a number of illegal drugs working under the control of arch-criminal The Lizard. Due to unveil his latest creation, McElroy instead escapes to England where he hopes to secure a big enough deal to evade the Lizard's clutches. Furious, The Lizard contacts UK-based assassin Dakota to take McElroy out.
Touching down to Liverpool, McElroy is met by local fixer Felix DeSouza who works for local drug lord Leopold Durant. Durant shows great interest in McElroy's product, POS 51, which McElroy claims is 51 times more potent than anything else on the market. But when news of this miracle high reaches back to The Lizard, he changes his mind about wanting McElroy's head on a plate and instead wants a cut of the deal...
Samuel L. Jackson
Dawn "Dakota" Parker
Detective Virgil Kane
Release Date (UK)
7th December, 2001
Action, Comedy, Crime
What's to like?
Without question, The 51st State belongs to Jackson who is easily the most enjoyable aspect of this film. Wearing a variety of comedic hairstyles and effortlessly wearing a kilt throughout most of the film, his character is the sort of uber-cool personality we rarely see in British films. Carlyle is also very good as the larger-than-life Scouse stereotype, carrying off the Liverpudlian accent perfectly but also providing much of the comedy in the film. For viewers who recall Carlyle playing the psychotic Begbie in Trainspotting (1), it's a shock.
There is something reminiscent of Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels (2) about the film, a quirky comic crime caper where the crooks are the heroes and the film is heavily stylised. But as a British viewer, it's so refreshing to see films like this made in this country. I can count on one hand the number of films that I've seen set in Liverpool and certainly none that have used the city to the extent this film does. Jackson's presence is also a welcome change from the likes of Danny Dyer and Craig Fairbrass who, despite authentic Cockney accents and frequently appearing in movies of this sort, are to acting what I am to male modelling.
That's not good, by the way!
- Pavlou wrote the screenplay during his studies in Liverpool and based many of the characters on actual people he knew. The script was originally written with Laurence Fishburne in mind for the lead role.
- The reason behind the film's name-change in the US was because it was felt The 51st State might be offensive to US viewers. It often means an area that has become too Americanised or facetiously considered to be a candidate for joining the United States.
- Mortimer once claimed that she hated working on this film so much that she would cry on the phone to her mother.
What's not to like?
The problem with The 51st State is that it forgets to offer much besides Jackson in a kilt. The story feels muddled and confused, making following what should be a straight-forward story very difficult indeed - which won't be helped for non-British viewers struggling with heavy Liverpudlian accents. What's left, then, is a series of fight scenes and car chases peppered with bad language and unrealistic action. In short, it's nowhere near as original as it thinks it is. This film could have been set in London, Lisbon, Los Angeles, Lagos or anywhere else in the world and it isn't anything we've not seen before dozens of times.
Compared to the aforementioned Lock, Stock..., the film also makes a couple of other errors. The soundtrack is awful, full of screechy dance tracks and non-descript rock numbers which don't do anything to irritate. The comedy is also pretty basic, reliant on bodily functions and swearing instead of the whole fish-out-of-water sub-plot which could have been much more productive and enjoyable. The supporting cast are also underwhelming - Mortimer feels wasted as the conflicted contract killer but not as much as Meat Loaf as the main antagonist. Remember how good (and under-rated) his performance was in Fight Club (3)? This is the opposite end of the spectrum - the role has next to no substance to it and gives him little to do.
Should I watch it?
The film definitely works better for British viewers but regardless, The 51st State is not the blistering masterpiece it thinks it is. Derivative and miscast, the film does offer some mild amusement although it works hard for every gag. But the sight of Jackson with dreadlocks and a kilt wielding a golf-club is a strangely pleasurable sight and the movie is just about worth watching for him alone.
Great For: Jackson fans (who isn't?), Scousers, British viewers
Not So Great For: Americans, lasting long in the memory
What else should I watch?
I mentioned Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels because it remains arguably the best British crime caper made for some time. Not since 1969's The Italian Job (4) has the UK produced such an enjoyable and quotable film and it remains Guy Ritchie's best film to date. Not far behind, though, is his follow-up Snatch (5) which is an equally enjoyable film but perhaps a bit too similar to Lock, Stock... to stand on its own two feet.
Weirdly, Samuel L. Jackson would find himself on these shores again with an aggravating partner more recently. The Hitman's Bodyguard (6) is another action comedy which sees Jackson's live-wire witness in the care of professional bodyguard and long-time enemy Ryan Reynolds. Both men play to their strengths - Jackson is a foul-mouthed bad-ass while Reynolds is full-on Deadpool (7) but despite being derivative, the film is a huge amount of violent fun. No kilts or comedy afros, though.
© 2018 Benjamin Cox