Director: Ronny Yu
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Carlyle, Emily Mortimer, Sean Pertwee, Ricky Tomlinson, Stephen Walters with Rhys Ifans and Meat Loaf
Plot: Elmo McElroy (Jackson) betrays the local kingpin to sell his wonder drug to a British market instead. However, this leads to assassins and corrupt cops coming after him.
With the exception of break-out stars like Danny Boyle and Guy Ritchie, British films are fairly predictable. We always think we know what we are getting with dependable hits like ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ and ‘Adulthood’. Which is why no one was expecting the controversy and madness of the 51st State.
It is easy to completely misunderstand the opening scenes of 51st State. It plays out like a poor man’s Tarantino. Exposition is shown through several music montages cut together. We are introduced to the master chemist, Elmo McElroy, who is caught smoking weed and loses the right to sell pharmaceuticals as a consequence. We catch up with him much later, working for the villainous Lizard, as a criminal. All of these facts are thrown at us so fast that we struggle to make sense of it. Even if you do, there is little depth to the characters and it is easy to lose faith in the movie by this point. It feels all style and no substance.
By the end of the movie, I think I still stand by that original thought. Too much attention is put on style and the characters are a little lacking. However, I am not sure that’s a totally bad thing. The big plus 51st State has going for it is the fact that there is nothing else like this movie out there. It is crazy, non-stop fun with flashy characters and quotable lines. Sure, some beats, most beats, fall flat, but there’s enough here to salvage the mess and hold it up as a worthwhile movie. While sometimes you are watching this film, frowning, and wondering what the hell the director is doing, some scenes just feel so perfectly crafted and, simply put, right that you have to admire the attention to detail.
Take Robert Carlye. The second you see him all you can think is a Scouse Begbie and the eyes begin rolling. However, while sometimes it feels like a copy and pasted character, other times the character hits the right notes. He adds comic relief, without delving too far into slapstick. He also adds layers with his romance with Emily Mortimer’s assassin. Sadly the romantic sub-plot doesn’t really work. In implication, it is good with Emily Mortimer’s pursuit of her target being conflicted and interesting to watch grow. But when the two of them actually get together, the relationship seems farcical. They jump from enemies to lovers in a heartbeat. Bond girls have had better transitions.
The actors are a mixed bag. People raved about Meat Loaf’s performance as the Lizard, but I thought it was somewhat lacking. He is a terrifying figure at times, but then he is too monotone to really make the dialogue work. The blame is probably in the director’s camp, but at the same time, he does wonders with Rhys Ifans. The actor is splendidly wacky, having you laughing till it hurts, as the script allows him to reel out perfect monologues. Best of all though is the main man himself, Samuel L. Jackson. Being a Tarantino regular, he understands the style of the film better than the British actors do. He owns every moment on screen, commanding respect and awe. Even when he is driving a Mini Cooper in a kilt.
Final Verdict: The story and characters are lacking, but there are times when the 51st State hits the spot. A bad movie, but just too damn fun to condemn.