The 51st State
Director: Ronny Yu / Screenplay: Stel Pavlou / Editing: David Wu / DP: Hang-Sang Poon / Music: Headrillaz
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson / Emily Mortimer / Robert Carlyle / Meat Loaf / Sean Pertwee / Rhys Ifans / Ricky Tomlinson
Tickle Me, Elmo…
The story goes that writer Stel Pavlou, then a cashier in an off-licence (a ‘liquor store’ for non-Brit readers) had a script he’d long been working on, about a rogue drugs chemist who flees to Liverpool – that’s right: Liverpool – in order to exact long-distance revenge on those who’d made him flee in the first place… The 51st State (as some think of the UK’s relationship to the USA) was intended to be a low-budget affair, that could earn Pavlou a licence selling movie scripts, as opposed to bottles of rough cider and bags of Pork Scratchings.
To that end, Pavlou sent it to Brit actor Tim Roth who, he’d heard, was reading scripts from new writers. It was a good choice: after all, Roth had been the apple of Quentin Tarantino’s eye for a few movies and Pavlou reckoned his material was up to the mark: he had nothing to lose and everything to gain. Initially, Roth thought he might direct and star in the piece, but ended passing. Years later, by all accounts, after Pavlou and a partner shopped it around at Cannes, it eventually ended-up with a gaggle of producers out of Hong Kong, including Samuel L. Jackson himself. Now with an inflated budget and – thanks to Jackson – an established creative team of Director Ronny Yu, DP Hang-Sang Poon and Editor David Wu, the project lurched forward yet again.
Jackson’s star was riding high at the time, thanks to his rediscovery by Tarantino (along with Roth) and was using his new-found celebrity both to headline AND realise more personal projects; a profile realised through hard graft on films that offered little creative satisfaction but paid well. As any struggling actor knows all too well: ‘Who’s got the luxury of picking and choosing roles, when there’s no guarantee there’ll BE any more to choose FROM?’ (Or, in this case, I bet Jackson’s mind ran something like this: ‘This shoot is 8 weeks. How much golf can I squeeze in?’).
I digress. For a movie that’s a shade under ninety minutes long, 51st State takes its time getting into gear. First, there’s a superfluous opening where Jackson’s character – Elmo McElroy – is driving into the sunset, freshly armed with a doctorate in Pharmacology and an impressive bubble perm. A cop pulls him over, takes an appreciative drag on Elmo’s elegantly rolled spliff then promptly books him, thus wiping-out Elmo’s intended career in legal pharmacology.
Fast-forward thirty years and he’s in a tricked-out lab, making an impressive pile of blue pills…
Elsewhere, the world’s most mis-cast female assassin is going about her business. This’ll be Emily Mortimer as Dakota Parker and she’s dressed in a bridal gown, so as to blend-in with a crowd gathering at the foot of the church bell-tower from whose heights she shoots her latest mark… Ugh.
We’re now introduced to The Lizard, played by Meat Loaf because, well, of course. It’s that kind of a film. The Lizard is one of those annoying people who refer to themselves in the third person, but the fact he’s a criminal mastermind and a drug kingpin to-boot, might have something to do with it. Anyhow, in a typically reductive Hollywood shorthand, this particular Mr. Big is being driven in an inconspicuous white stretch-limo, over to his redbrick warehouse. Watching this unfold, I half expected Spiderman to swing into view… Anyhoo, The Lizard-man is due to meet a cabal of top, international drug barons in his seedy, third-storey walkup, to present them with Elmo’s latest creation.
But, wait! What’s this? Elmo’s disposing of all his worldly goods in an explosive yard sale, packing only a postcard of a Scottish castle, gold clubs and wearing his (soon-to-be-trademark) Kangol beret and a fetching Kilt & Sporran. Looks like he’s doing a runner. Sure as night follows day, The Lizard King triggers a booby-trap that demolishes Elmo’s lab, along with his own lair and kills everyone EXCEPT our reptilian super-villain. Handy.
Quick as a lizard, he shrugs off 3rd degree burns and concussion, to call Parker and offers to wipe her debt to him, if she visits Liverpool to take-out the one notable absentee from the fateful meeting: a character called Durant, with whom The Lizard believes Elmo’s been plotting…
Parker’s actually driving a vintage red Mustang to Las Vegas when The Lizard calls, for no apparent reason than I think Director Yu thought it might look good. Still, an ostentatious helicopter shot lasting no more than ten seconds would burn a little more of the inflated budget and when she hangs-up, we do at least hear Parker intone the words ‘Shite!’ with a passable Scouse accent. It seems our girl’s coming home…
And that’s pretty much where the fun ends (if this dire film could ever be said to have possessed it in the first place).
Enter that renowned Scouser, Robert Carlyle as Felix DeSouza, a ‘fixer’ for Durant. Carlyle’s actually from Glasgow, Scotland, but no matter. No-one cares, in a picture like this. A versatile, mercurial actor with the ability to disappear into roles, Carlyle’s profile hit the stratosphere with his terrifying appearance in Trainspotting (1996) and followed that with The Full Monty (1997) and the villain in The World Is Not Enough (1999), so I guess he was seen as a chippy, verbose and dynamic foil against whom Jackson might sparkle. Did it work? Let’s find out…
As written, DeSouza’s a passionate supporter of Liverpool F.C. and it seems there’s a big match next day, with arch-rivals Manchester United. However: DeSouza lacks a ticket at this point, so his motivation throughout the picture seems to be ‘behave as obnoxiously as I can towards everyone and wangle / scrounge / nick a ticket to the game, where I can create yet more mayhem’. Although unwavering in this pursuit, it makes his character little more than an arsehole. At least when Tarantino’s on fire as a writer, his dialogue is eloquent, verbose and, dare I say, elegant. You might not appreciate the man’s ability as a Director or the content of his films, but his writing is largely top-drawer. Pavlou’s, by contrast, is much more sporadic in quality. Take the utterly flat exchange in the car back from the airport, between DeSouza & Elmo. It’s neither sassy, rhythmical or ‘knowing’ of its audience. Instead, it’s procedural, lifeless and treats the ‘F-word’ as a punctuation device.
From here, we get a listless selection of misfiring and downright odd characters. Ricky Tomlinson is criminally served as local drug-lord Durant. Depicted as suffering from acute piles, his hapless lackeys are reduced to wrangling his inflatable cushion.
Rhys Ifans is Iki, part-club owner, part-arms dealer, who welcomes Parker with open arms (revealing her real name as ‘Dawn’) and then there’s Sean Pertwee as Det. Kane, a bent copper, in an under-written, over-acted role that seems shoe-horned in for either effect or balance: I could neither tell, nor care by this point. Oh, but we’re not done yet, as there’s also a bunch of Neo Nazi skinheads who are looking to muscle-in on Elmo & Durant’s new venture with the blue pills: or they would, if Dakota, sorry, Dawn, hadn’t just killed Durant’s goons, leaving just Elmo & DeSouza alive: seems she and DeSouza were once an item and, it turns out, old habits really DO die hard, if you’re in possession of an over-specced sniper rifle AND a sentimental streak…
Things rattle towards a final showdown (and I’m not making this up) Inside. Iki’s. Box…
Then everyone patches up their differences, divvies-up the money and escape the consequences for the lives they’ve taken along the way, but not before exposing the blue pills as a mere placebo; a McGuffin, intended to buy Elmo his freedom. Whoopee. No wonder Emily Mortimer later admitted to being so depressed on-set, that she’d phone home and cry to her mother every evening after shooting…
Make no mistake: The 51st State is RUBBISH flimflammery of the worst kind.
It’s as sensitive to the city’s possibilities as re-staging Bladerunner in Torquay. I mean, no offence to either location, but for Liverpool to work as a location for a film such as this, it would need to adopt a similar attitude to, say, Get Carter (1971), that featured an out-of-towner Michael Caine, going back to Newcastle to settle old scores. No jokes. No attempts at banter. Make a virtue of the possibilities in playing things straight. Keep action scenes tight and consequential for those involved. Strip away everything from the script that detracts from the protagonists’s journey and, in so doing, give yourself the freedom to expand that character’s arc; make them a more rounded human being.
With the 51st State, it’s as though Pavlou wrote the opposite: jokes & banter that died in the mouths of those speaking them, a smirking, unrelentingly sour tone and self-conscious action sequences lacking consequence.
Worse, this is a meat-and-potatoes dish from a Director & DP with the ability to do more, even with such base material. Why they didn’t – or weren’t able to – remains unknown. In the end, Poon’s take on the ‘Pool, fails to endow it with any magic or wonder, which leaves the city as an arbitrary location, no different to any other riverside city with a redbrick legacy of hard knocks, tough love and big hearts. Whatever imagery Pavlou might’ve had in his head, I doubt they made it intact. Throw-in a throbbing, headache inducing soundtrack of hardcore dance music and you’re left pondering the following:
First, Where did the reputed budget of $28million actually go? It can’t ALL have gone on hiring golf courses for Mister Jackson, can it? Second, if any of it was spent on getting a seasoned screenwriter to go through Pavlou’s material, I hope the Producers had a receipt… Third, if NO script-doctor had been employed, at any point during production (which I suspect) then why the Hell not? Was Pavlou’s contract written in blood or something?
Actually, I’ll end with a Fourth, obvious point: Why does The 51st State even exist? No, really. Why? Was it a money-laundering exercise that went all the way by mistake? A tax write-off?
There’s one scene where Elmo & DeSouza are stranded on a barge carrying refuse out to a distant tip somewhere; Elmo’s using his gold clubs to drive balls into the River Mersey, but I read it as more than a mere scene: it’s a metaphor for the entire film and no matter how much I admire Jackson’s deployment of a smart tartan, it’s not enough to redeem this pile of hot garbage.
Kiss the sun and taste the fuckin’ rainbow!