The 51st State

(aka Formula 51, Ronny Yu, UK/Canada, 2001)


Back in 1993, The Bride with White Hair (1993) marked the finest achievement of Hong Kong filmmaker Ronny Yu, revered in his homeland for a mastery of action, comedy and fantasy.

Since the mid ’90s, Yu has devoted himself to making films within English-speaking countries (he even has an office in Australia). But judging by his most recent works, Freddy vs. Jason (2003) and The 51st State, he is having trouble finding projects that are worthy of him.

The 51st State is a bizarre film. Set in the criminal underworld of Liverpool, it stirs a soup of violent gangsters, corrupt cops, drug dealers, techno ravers and sundry dispossessed peoples.

Trying to up the ante on Guy Ritchie’s movies (like Snatch, 2000), it stuffs in every possible eccentricity imaginable in multicultural England – beginning with the spectacle of Samuel L. Jackson in a kilt.

The film is relentlessly upbeat. Felix (Robert Carlyle) is a foul-mouthed bruiser put in charge of McElroy (Jackson), inventor of a new drug which is 51 times more powerful than any other hallucinogen but made entirely from legally available ingredients.

Everyone on both sides of the law is after McElroy, including Felix’s ex, the angelic-looking assassin Dawn (Emily Mortimer) – who is usually glimpsed looking sultry on the top of some rampart as the wind blows her hair.

The plot scarcely matters amidst the barrage of crude gags, shootouts, and MTV-style montages. Actors including Rhys Ifans, Sean Pertwee, Meatloaf and Ricky Tomlinson act up like crazy, while Jackson keeps his cool, providing the fragile centre to a generally chaotic show.

MORE Yu: Warriors of Virtue

© Adrian Martin November 2003

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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