In a way, Ronny Yu’s The 51st State is the celluloid version of the rave drug of choice, ecstasy — superficial, devoid of substance or deeper thought, and you’ll immediately feel empty after watching it.
The 51st State opens in 1971 with Samuel L. Jackson’s Elmo McElroy, fresh from college and with his whole life ahead of him, getting pulled over with a bag of joint in his car. Fast-forward to 30 years later, where Elmo is now a master chemist for an American drug dealer name the Lizard (Meat Loaf). But Elmo is unsatisfied, and before you can say, “I quit,” Elmo has fashioned an ambush for his employer and skipped across the Atlantic to Liverpool, England. There, Elmo plans to make the deal of a lifetime: the formula for a new, ultra drug in return for $20 million dollars. Unfortunately for Elmo, a hired gun name Dakota is after him, he’s partnered himself with a loudmouth Brit name Felix, some skinheads are also after his formula, and a crooked cop is closing in. And even worst, poor Elmo can’t get any decent food anywhere.
It’s amazing how many variations of the f-word the Brits have managed to come up with. Everyone in the film, with the exception of Elmo, talks like drunken sailors, and are involved in a contest to see who can spit out as many variations of the f-word as possible in one sitting. Not that I mind my characters cursing, but I find the out-of-context vulgarity in The 51st State to be somewhat unnecessary and a little distracting. The movie is also not as action-packed as I would have liked, and indeed there’s really only one all-out action scene, which takes place early in the film at a hotel room that Dakota fills with bullets. The scene is well done and made me believe more was coming, but alas, I was wrong. The rest of the film is really a lot of running, cursing, driving, more cursing, deal making, and yet more cursing. Oh yeah, and a loud pounding techno soundtrack.
Samuel L. Jackson is the man. Jackson has gotten the “I’m too cool even for you” persona down pat. His Elmo is the only likeable character in the whole movie. In fact, everyone else in the film is either uninspired and boring or quite detestable. There’s the foul mouth (and poster boy for brainless soccer hooliganism) Felix DeSouza, played by Robert Carlyle. The first 10 minutes with Felix was a true test of patience. Obviously Felix’s “quirks” are meant to be funny and give him “personality,” but it just makes him look like a jackass.
Emily Mortimer (The Kid) shows up as Dakota, the female hired assassin. Mortimer looks good in tight leather but she seems much too “nice” for the role. That isn’t to say she doesn’t “look” the part, but she just can’t pull off the toughness needed to be a skilled assassin. For example, scenes where she’s holding a weapon come across as awkward and unconvincing. Her “action” scenes are only convincing when she’s not in frame, and it’s really Yu and his crew blowing up things and filling people with holes in her name. Also lacking is any chemistry between Mortimer and Carlyle, who are supposed to be ex-lovers. It doesn’t help that Mortimer stands about 3 inches taller than the diminutive Carlyle. Even ignoring that physical inequality, Carlyle’s Felix seems like too much of a jerk and loser for Dakota, who despite killing people for a living, nevertheless looks “homely”, and can’t seem to get over the soccer hooligan.
Other assortment of characters show up, including skinheads and Kane (Sean Pertwee), the crooked cop in question. The rest of the cast consists of the usual suspects that populate all (supposedly) quirky crime movies — the eccentric kingpin, the dumb bodyguards, the bickering, not-so-smart detectives, etc. It’s all been done and you’ve seen the characters in other English crime movies before, and like everything else about The 51st State, what you see is what you get.
Besides Jackson, the only other thing The 51st State has going for it is director Ronny Yu (The Bride with White Hair), who showcases a wealth of camera tricks and never allows the film to get boring. A simple walk or car ride becomes an experience under Yu’s direction. Some will dislike the manic style employed by Yu, but in a movie that has absolutely no depth to speak off (and dare I say it, no depth was ever attempted), Yu’s dizzying direction can only be a plus.
The 51st State isn’t really an action film, although it has some action elements within it. There are some shootouts, a lot of gunplay, but no big “spectacular” action sequence to hang its hat on. It’s funny in spots, but trying in others. Besides Jackson’s uber cool Elmo character, there’s director Ronny Yu’s A.D.D.-inspired technical craftsmanship to keep you occupied. If you want more, try somewhere else.
For those who cares, the movie’s title not only refers to Elmo’s name for his drug, but also to the English notion of England as the 51st state of the United States (that is, a colony of America). This is strictly an English interpretation of American-English relations, and I doubt many Americans have ever considered England as one of its states. English pride seems to be the origin of the “joke.”
Ronny Yu (director) / Stel Pavlou (screenplay)
CAST: Samuel L. Jackson …. Elmo McElroy
Robert Carlyle …. Felix DeSouza
Emily Mortimer …. Dawn ‘Dakota’ Parker
Sean Pertwee …. Detective Virgil Kane