Rated R - Running Time: 1:32 - Released 10/18/02

Formula 51 is a better film than I expected it to be, but that isn't saying much. Filmed mostly in Liverpool, England, it stars Samuel L. Jackson as a kilt-wearing ex-hippie American chemist who has invented a hot new recreational drug, and The Full Monty's Robert Carlyle as an American-hating Liverpudlian hired to deliver Jackson's character to a powerful drug lord wanting to make a deal. Moving along at a reasonably brisk pace, it delivers frenetic chase scenes, wacky camerawork, large doses of cartoonish violence, and witty but crude dialogue (I haven't heard the "f-word" so many times since The Blair Witch Project), while wisely avoiding the temptation to take itself too seriously. Written by freshman Stel Pavlou and directed by Hong Kong veteran Ronny Yu, whose only notable American release after decades of kung fu movies was 1998's Bride of Chucky, Formula 51 was first released last December in England (and subsequently just about everywhere else in the world) under the title The 51st State, until finally receiving a name change for its American release last week.

In an opening flashback to 1971, we learn that Jackson's character, Elmo McElroy, started out as an aspiring California pharmacology student who, after being arrested for possession on the day he graduated, gave up legitimate medicine and became a bitter scientist bent on inventing a new party drug. Now it's 30 years later, and he's perfected a little blue pill called "POS-51," which he describes as "51 times stronger than cocaine, 51 times more hallucinogenic than acid, 51 times more explosive than Ecstasy"...and I think there's some more. Having agreed to a $20 million deal with a Liverpool crime boss (Ricky Tomlinson), he is met at the airport by Felix DeSouza (Carlyle), a petty thug who doesn't even try to hide his hostility toward Americans, and whose only passion is football (soccer). But something goes terribly wrong with the appearance of Felix's ex-girlfriend Dakota (Emily Mortimer), a master assassin working for American drug lord Lizard (Meat Loaf), an old associate of Elmo's with a score to settle.

This film has several strikes against it, like a silly plot line riddled with pretentious and unexplained details, and spotty talent (I have no idea why anyone would hire Meat Loaf, who cannot act his way out of a wet paper bag), but it survives mainly on the chemistry between its three leads, Jackson, Carlyle, and Mortimer, not to mention the never-disappointing Rhys Ifans, who adds yet another off-the-wall role to his list. Its violence is so gross and graphic it goes beyond realism to some point of absurdity; it is more comical than disturbing. Filmed two years ago and finally granted its American release during the October doldrums, it reeks of a studio trying to cut its losses and make a few bucks before the stiffer competition of Oscar season arrives. As such it is a serviceable action thriller, but unless you're really dying to see Jackson's bare butt (sorry, ladies, it's not until the closing credits), you'd do just as well to wait for the video. **½

Copyright 2002 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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