Released a year ago in Great Britain as The 51st State, this Guy Ritchie wannabe (think Snatch and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels) is something of an embarrassment — and the most embarrassing thing about it is that I enjoyed a good deal of it in spite of myself.
I knew all the while it was a bad movie, but it entertained me on a goofy/trashy level. I feel guilty about it, but there it is. I won’t attempt to justify this, except to say that I guess it’s a good thing that somebody’s taken up Ritchie’s torch, since he seems to have shipwrecked his career by insisting on remaking Lina Wertmuller’s Swept Away as a vehicle for Mrs. Ritchie (a.k.a. Madonna). Not that Ronny Yu is in the same league as Ritchie, whose films have a feeling of effortless eccentricity. Every time — and I mean every time — Yu and his cinematographer, Hang Sang Poon (if you thought I wasn’t working this guy’s name into the review …), do something clever, it comes across as incredibly labored and stilted.
The screenplay by newcomer Stel Pavlou (I suppose it could be an alias) doesn’t know the meaning of tastefulness. It doesn’t know the meaning of structure. There are, in fact, a lot of words it doesn’t seem to know the meaning of — with the exception of the “f word.” It knows that one right enough, and knows it on the average of every 15 seconds.
Anyone who cooks up a scene where the height of hilarity involves a gang of skinheads being disabled by being slipped a powerful laxative is in need of one or more of the following: 1) having his dramatic license revoked; 2) taking a basic screenwriting course; or 3) seeking therapy.
So what’s the appeal of Formula 51? Damned if I know. The plot is a shambles and its calculated quirks feel just as strained as Yu’s attempts at directorial flourishes. The entire thing revolves around pharmaceutical genius Elmo McElroy (Samuel L. Jackson) trying to sell his new, completely legal wonder drug, P.O.S. 51, to English gangsters for $20 million. Problem is that he created this drug under the auspices of the villainous Lizard (Meat Loaf), who claims both the drug and McElroy as his own, and who has sent hit woman Dakota (Emily Mortimer) after him.
To make matters worse, the English gangster has sent an American-hating lackey, Felix DeSouza (Robert Carlyle, The Beach), to fetch McElroy — and, of course, he and McElroy hate each other at first sight. To make that even worse, the lackey is saddled with a sidekick so incredibly stupid that he murders the chemist sent to examine McElroy’s formula when he’s told to “take care of him.” And on and on and on.
What ultimately makes Formula 51 watchable is the overwhelming amount of strangeness that permeates it — beginning with the fact that McElroy spends the entire film wearing a kilt. Why? Who knows? Certainly the script doesn’t, but the kilt provides for a series of utterly strange gags about looking up it. Throw in Notting Hill’s Rhys Ifans as a bizarre transvestite/nightclub owner/gangster named Iky (pronounced “Icky”). And add Meat Loaf, who can’t just be a normal bad guy — the script has to give him a never-explained but repellent-looking skin condition. And Mr. Loaf can’t just meet a well-deserved sticky end — it has to be one of the most messily over-the-top comeuppances imaginable, and done up in torturous overkill style with what might be best described as the … uh … intestine-cam.
Formula 51 is not good — it’s not remotely good — and I hated myself in the morning for enjoying any part of it. But it was just too damn dumb to actually dislike.