The 51st State (18)
LADS’ mags everywhere have been lauding this hybrid of Tarantino-inspired gangster tale and old-fashioned Brit thriller as the type of block-rocking 21st century flick that will resurrect the genre of film that died out with The Long Good Friday.
In truth it isn’t quite that good, relying too much as it does on the charisma of Samuel L. Jackson, wearing a kilt throughout, as the super-smart American drug peddler landing in the UK to make one final big score.
Peppered with the sort of laboured underworld vernacular that immediately puts it in the bracket of wannabe copy rather than innovative leader like Reservoir Dogs, it also aspires to emulate the US-style fashion for hip scripts, where terms like motherf****r are embraced as the language of the street.
In The 51st State such profanity is replaced with the type of swear words which once made The Sweeney controversial viewing; here they only serve to highlight even more of the props holding up this desperate copy.
Elmo McEvoy (Jackson) flees the US after scuttling a drugs deal and wiping out the lion’s share of his neighbourhood drug barons. One survives: The Lizard (Meatloaf), who immediately dispatches assassin Dakota (Emily Mortimer), a Scouser who’s successfully re-invented herself as a Yank, back to Liverpool on the same ‘plane as Elmo. Her task: nail him as soon as he lands.
Things change when Lizard realises Elmo is carrying in his head the formula to a superdrug that is 51 times as powerful as heroin and cocaine. Suddenly Dakota is ordered to protect Elmo from any adversaries. Not an easy task when he’s hitched up with rabid Liverpool fan Felix (Robert Carlyle), a pistol-packing nutter and Dakota’s ex-boyfriend.
Dakota lets Felix live when she takes out an office-ful of Merseyside lowlifes, thinking Elmo is in danger. His deal gone belly-up, Elmo has to look for another, with the excitable Felix by his side.
At its most basic The 51st State is a standardised American potboiler transplanted wholesale to Britain. Four-lane freeways are swapped for brick backstreets, boulevards for terraces. Consequently the attempts to make the film something it isn’t occasionally grate, though the cast and Hong Kong director Ronny Yu try incredibly hard.
The film revolves totally around Jackson, a giant black man in a kilt (the gag is never explained) who strides through Liverpool and is never considered an odd man out. He has a couple of funny moments, particularly when he is forced to squeeze his massive frame into a Mini Cooper.
Yet it Jackson who holds this unwieldy mix together. Carlyle’s uncanny command of accents here escapes him – Scouse is not his forte – while the likes of Rhys Ifans, Mortimer, Ricky Tomlinson and Paul Barber (from The Full Monty) flit in and out of the plot to little effect.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s fabulous to see a star like Jackson making a homegrown British movie. It would work perfectly except for the nagging feeling that it is really only trying to replicate the conveyor belt product of America.
What’s more, once again an American star has to be imported to make it work. This used to happen in the Fifties. How little things have changed.