“THE 51ST STATE is very dear to me, because it was the first time in Hollywood that I didn’t have to deal with dolls.” –Ronny Yu, 2004
Three years after the unlikely career milestone of BRIDE OF CHUCKY, Ronny Yu made easily the weakest of his English-language films – a UK-Canada co-production called THE 51ST STATE, but we call it FORMULA 51 here so people don’t think it refers to DC statehood. (Actually I’m not totally clear what it does refer to. But the number 51 is in the name of a super-drug that’s central to the plot.)
Under any name it’s a thoroughly 2001 film, with wall-to-wall dated music (score by somebody called Headrillaz), annoying whooshes and flash cuts, character names and descriptions written on screen as they’re introduced, a long scene at a rave type dance club, and two stars – Samuel L. Jackson and Robert Carlyle – who had ridden the ‘90s indie wave to the specific level of commercial viability where they could be cast in stuff like this. It’s one of a handful of movies, along with THE NEGOTIATOR and SHAFT, that could arguably be considered a straight up Samuel L. Jackson vehicle. But even though it starts and ends with him he’s kind of a mysterious, unexplained character, while co-star Carlyle gets to have the love story and sex scene.
Jackson plays Elmo McElroy, a pharmacological genius who is pulled over with a joint immediately after graduating in ’71 (Jackson gets to dress up like a hippie with an afro and Hendrix headband) and banned from legitimate practice. So 30 years later instead of making legal medicines he’s creating candy-colored designer drugs for a disfigured crime lord called The Lizard (Meat Loaf, BLACK DOG), who refers to himself in the third person and has meetings at a table shaped like a coffin.
That’s appropriate because Elmo has decided to sell his powerful new drug formula or state or whatever to someone else and set his lab to blow up. In easily the most Ronny Yu touch in the movie, the explosion causes The Lizard to fall through the floor into a pile of dolls. Yes, their faces do look kinda like Good Guy dolls, but even if he hadn’t made BRIDE OF CHUCKY I think this would be a pretty Ronny Yu image.
Unfortunately, despite being shot by the great Hong Kong cinematographer Hang-Sang Poon (PEKING OPERA BLUES, A CHINESE GHOST STORY, ONCE A THIEF, THE HEROIC TRIO, WONDER SEVEN, KUNG FU HUSTLE, IP MAN 2) with some energetic spinning around and shit, it’s one of Yu’s only kinda ugly looking movies. One of the few moments that looks classically Hong Kong is the slo-mo billowing white dress of a blond assassin climbing the rope of a bell tower to snipe somebody at the beginning.
I was surprised when this lithe, ruthless killer-for-hire named Dakota showed her face long enough for me to realize she was Emily Mortimer (LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST, LOVELY AND AMAZING) – not an actress I knew ever played a sexy assassin or any type of action-oriented character. Later we get to see her (supposedly) do a few high kicks, hang off a building, etc. The Lizard survives the blast and sends her to kill Elmo, following him all the way to Liverpool to do it. Then right as she’s about to shoot him The Lizard decides instead she should protect Elmo and kill everyone around him. So she massacres everybody at a meeting with him.
Well, everybody except for his contact in town, a fixer named Felix DeSouza (Carlyle), who happens to be her ex-boyfriend. I guess it’s supposed to be a buddy movie where these two very charismatic actors from different cultures are stuck together, they drive around, get shot at, jump a car off a dock onto a garbage barge, hit some golf balls, and try to find a chemist to make Elmo’s drug (the first guy was killed in a misunderstanding over the meaning of “take care of him” – presumably a PULP FICTION nod).
Unfortunately most of their antics are underwhelming. Although screenwriter Stel Pavlou is British it seems like pretty obvious stereotypical stuff an American could make up, like Elmo doesn’t like the food here and asks what bollocks means and everybody calls each other twat and Felix goes into a pub and insults fans of his soccer team’s rival. I do like that Felix takes the job in exchange for tickets to a sold out Liverpool vs. Manchester United match and is constantly concerned about missing it. The climax ends up taking place in a private booth at the stadium (stock footage and green screen only, I’m afraid) after Elmo insists on meeting at a public place. “No abandoned warehouses or rave clubs,” he says, which I take as “none of the boring places normally used for the finales of non-huge-budget movies like this one.”
But as I mentioned there is a big scene at a rave club before that, where shitty music plays and Elmo yells a big speech about a “revolution” and throws pills into the crowd and women sexily feed them to each other on the dance floor. Meanwhile, Felix and Dakota make up and Elmo smiles, seeing them kiss from across the club. Shortly thereafter they roll around in a bath tub, in their underwear, at his mom’s house, after being specifically told “no shagging up there.” Kind of a creative sex scene but it ends goofily with a closeup of a froggy bath toy squeaking as it gets knocked around by their thrusting pelvises.
The wacky mom character (Anna Keaveney, ALI G INDAHOUSE, VERA DRAKE) is never gonna be as funny as it’s supposed to be, but I did laugh at her phrase, “Well shit in a bag and punch it!”
Rhys Ifans (who had just starred in Michel Gondry’s HUMAN NATURE) plays an over-the-top drug dealer villain with spiky hair who does wacky things like tear open his fur coat to reveal a bra and call Elmo “chemical brother” not once but twice, like he’s real proud of coming up with it. He also provides weapons for Dakota from a bar where the entire counter is covered in guns. There’s still liquor, though. I don’t know why she doesn’t order a rum and coke or something while browsing. Seems like that’s the idea of the place.
Another villain is the Nazi skinhead Blowfish (Stephen Walters, MEAN MACHINE) who tries to force Elmo to make the drug in “his lab,” which is a broken-into animal testing facility. There’s a monkey in a cage doing back flips in the background.
One thing that’s hard to buy is that villains keep accepting pills or drinks from Elmo. The skinheads end up rolling on the ground shitting themselves with fart sound effects, obviously a low point. It’s funnier when he makes The Lizard explode. The camera zooms through his mouth into his CG stomach and then he pops and paints every wall in the room red.
If there’s something good about the movie (which is not a position I’m prepared to argue) it’s getting to see Jackson have fun playing a character that does some of his trademarks while also being kind of a weirdo. He yells at various people, he says “motherfucker,” he does the crazy eyes, he struts around with long braids or an afro and absolutely does not give a fuck. Also he wears a kilt and carries golf clubs with him throughout most of the movie. He does use the clubs to hit golf balls a few times but, more memorably, he beats up the skinheads with them.
The kilt is another thing I got the feeling was supposed to be much funnier than it was. But it’s kind of amusing that Dakota tries to peer under it when he falls asleep on the plane. You don’t see that every day. There’s a bizarre part where an asshole cop (Sean Pertwee, SOLDIER, EQUILIBRIUM) looks at the kilt and for some reason starts to ask if he has a big dick and it seems like he starts to get a huge boner but it turns out to be Dakota’s hand reaching through with a gun.
At the end there’s text saying “Nobody knows what happened to McElroy… or why he wore a kilt.” But then it actually is kind of explained in a mid-credits scene: the name McElroy comes from the slavemaster of his ancestors, and he’s somehow able to claim the McElroy castle, land and butler. Then he takes off his clothes (discarding the adopted Scottish heritage, maybe?) and a Samuel L. Jackson butt double walks toward the castle, the end.
According to the production notes, Jackson was attached to the script for five years, and suggested hiring Yu. “I’m a huge Hong Kong film fan and had watched a lot of Ronny’s stuff. He has this great sense of humor and great sense of style in terms of action. You can see from his previous films, that this is the perfect action comedy for him and he was born to do it”.
I don’t agree that it’s perfect for him. The one Ronny Yu theme here is internationalism – once again we have a character who travels between countries and cultures. But it has little or no sincere emotion, and it seems like it’s kinda trying to be Guy Ritchie-esque, which isn’t a great fit for him. I don’t know if it was forced on him or if he just doesn’t know how to do this kind of thing, but the music is so cheesy – House of Pain’s “Shamrocks and Shenanigans,” Run-DMC but a later song that’s trying to be kinda country, an end credits song by Headrillaz that keeps saying “Everything good is bad / Everything bad is good,” a theory not really supported by the text.
(To be fair there are some classics, like “I Don’t Know Why” by O.V. Wright, that work better.)
The official websight for screenwriter Pavlou says that he “wrote and co-produced the cult classic movie THE 51ST STATE starring Samuel L. Jackson while working at a liquor store.” The production notes say he thought of the idea while in college and based the characters on himself and his friends. He saw it as being about the slave trade, with Elmo emancipating himself from The Lizard’s servitude.
Pavlou also published his first novel Decipher in the same year – it’s about Atlantis and nano-tech, and led to him producing and hosting a documentary show about searching for Atlantis. He later wrote the adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama that David Fincher and Morgan Freeman tried to make for a while. That would’ve been an interesting leap in his filmography if that had happened.
Jackson later read in the trades that Ronny Yu was directing a movie called SNAKES ON A PLANE for New Line Cinema. Having enjoyed working with Yu, Jackson called him up to ask about it and ended up signing on to star without even reading the script. Yu eventually left the project and was replaced by stuntman-turned-FINAL-DESTINATION-2-director David R. Ellis, whose movie seemed to disappoint most people who were anticipating it based on the title/premise. I always felt Yu would’ve done something much more interesting with it, though I can only speculate. Yu told a websight called The Slug that his disagreement with New Line had been over wanting to make “something a little bit different, unpredictable” by killing Jackson’s character off early “so people hate those snakes.” I don’t know if he was aware that Jackson had already had a run in like that with enhanced sharks.
THE 51ST STATE/FORMULA 51 was a strange hiccup in the English language section of Yu’s career, not a very worthy followup to BRIDE OF CHUCKY. But that’s okay – he was about to have a run in with one of the few icons of American horror more universal than Chucky. Well, actually, two of them.
Tomorrow: Ronny vs. Freddy vs. Jason