The Movie Archive

The 51st State

Movie Poster of The 51st State

Directed by: Ronny Yu
Screenwriter(s): Stel Pavlou
Starring: Samuel L Jackson, Robert Carlyle, Emily Mortimer, Ryhs Ifans, Meatloaf, Ricky Tomlinson, Sean Pertwee, Michael Stark
Genre: Thriller
Country: UK / CAN
Year released: 2001
Running time: 1h 32m
Rating: 2 out of 10

Robert Carlyle does a great Liverpool accent—we’ve seen that before on TV (ITV’s Cracker)—and he plays the mentally-unbalanced psycho better than most (Begbie in Trainspotting). But seeing Carlyle air both these skills in a movie so bereft of originality is a real case of pearls before swine.

In the early 1970s, Elmo McElroy (Jackson, also executive producing) gets busted for possession of marijuana on the very day of his graduation. Armed with a pharmacology degree which is now utterly useless, he goes into the one area where a chemically-minded man can make his fortune: the drugs trade. Cut to the modern day, and he’s working for the facially-challenged Lizard (Meatloaf), for whom develops POS 51, which not only promises the purest of all highs, but is also made from entirely legal over-the-counter medication, therefore keeping manufacturing costs at an all-time low. A true pioneer of the modern legal high.

But Elmo rips off the Lizard, dons a kilt and heads off to Liverpool to sell his formula to local kingpin Mr Durant for a cool $20 million. On arrival, he is assigned Felix De Sousa (Carlyle) as a minder and tour guide. Of course, as with all bad buddy movies, it starts out in rocky fashion, as Felix hates Americans: ‘Welcome to England. Actually, that makes me out to be a liar, because you’re about as welcome as a dose of the clap.’

From here, everything goes wrong, as Felix’s ex-girlfriend (Mortimer) shoots everyone in sight except Elmo and Felix, forcing them on the run and looking for a new buyer. They have no choice but to turn to local arms dealer, Iki (Ifans, overacting wildly in the most irritating fashion possible). Meanwhile, all Felix really, really wants to do is get to Anfield to see his beloved Liverpool take on the hated Manchester United.

The main problem with The 51st State is the script. Stel Pavlou doesn’t know whether he’s going for Tarantino or TV. We get a buddy movie set-up, with our mismatched couple on their own against the odds. Then it veers off into TV, with Felix being a virtual carbon copy of Terry from Minder. Throw in an admittedly thrilling car chase and some double crosses, and what you get is a confused mess. There’s even an entirely unnecessary comedy double-act, a pair of crooked yet hapless Drugs Squad Officers, played by Sean Pertwee and Michael Stark (better known as Sinbad the window cleaner from Brookside).

There’s too much of an effort to make every conceivable character have a quirk. So Mortimer is saddled with both a crap name (she’s called Dakota) and a gambling addiction. Mr Durant (Ricky Tomlinson) has piles and flunkies follow his every move with a rubber ring, on the off chance he fancies a seat. The Lizard has a skin condition which inspired his nickname. Elmo wears a kilt. Felix has his football.

The romance is forced, the jokes aren’t funny (big Samuel Jackson forced to drive a Mini —hilarious!) and some of the accents, particularly Ifans and Mortimer, are dreadful. In fact, Ifans and Mortimer are both hopelessly miscast, period. And director Ronny Yu is woefully mistaken if he thinks that flashy editing and jump cuts will hide the complete lack of heart in this movie.

On the bright side, Jackson’s Elmo is the epitome of cool, especially in slicked-backed cornrows and a kilt, and he and Carlyle both acquit themselves well. Given a decent script, this is a buddy movie pairing that could have actually worked.

One small point: the captions at the end say that we never learn why Elmo wears a kilt. Clearly, as he wants the money to buy a Scottish castle, then he believes he has Scottish roots. It doesn’t take the Brain of Britain to link that to his kilt-wearing.