As pharmacologist Elmo McElroy in Formula 51, Samuel L. Jackson initially sports a seriously silly fake afro along with hippy-dippy threads that make him look like some sort of flower-power cult leader. When next we see him, it's 30 years later, and he's got cornrows and is inexplicably wearing a kilt. Whether you find this sort of thing inherently whimsical will, to a large extent, determine your enjoyment of this cross-channel action-comedy.
Similar in style to Guy Ritchie's usual handiwork, Formula 51 -- which originally bore the better title The 51st State, in condescending reference to England -- basically plunks bad-ass Sam down in rainy Liverpool with a drug to sell and various unkempt fellows on his tail, sporting rough accents and guns. One of these, Felix DeSouza (Robert Carlyle, at his most laid-back since The Full Monty), ultimately becomes the obligatory mismatched sidekick. This isn't exactly a new routine for Jackson, who's been paired in similar situations with everyone from Emilio Estevez to Bruce Willis, but here's the thing: This time... he's wearing a kilt. And that, as Robert Frost once sort of said, makes all the difference.
In fairness, director Ronny Yu comes to this sort of movie a bit more deservedly than Mr. Madonna, who cribs extensively from Hong Kong directors while Yu actually is one. Best known on these shores for enjoyably preposterous B-flicks like Bride of Chucky and the kung-fu kangaroo movie Warriors of Virtue, Yu isn't going to gain highbrow cred any time soon, but fans of Hong Kong-style action will recognize more of that tradition in Formula 51 than in any of Yu's previous U.S. efforts. The sound design, camera angles, and editing all look as if they came straight out of Asia -- the gimmick here is that they're actually in the dingiest environments of England.
Elmo's excuse for being in the U.K. is that he's on the run from an American fat bastard who's known as the Lizard because of a big scaly scab/birthmark/deformity that covers much of his face and neck. After blowing up the Lizard (Meat Loaf), Elmo seeks a buyer for his new wonder drug, POS 51, that's said to be 51 times stronger than anything else around. The next buyer is in England, an associate of the Lizard's who skipped out on the last drug deal, thereby surviving getting blown up. Not that such a feat is difficult in movies like this, as the Lizard proves by swiftly emerging from the rubble with nothing but a layer of white dust on his face.
DeSouza is the right-hand man of the aforementioned English buyer, but when the deal goes a little differently than expected, he ends up on the run with Elmo and a big bag of golf clubs. The golf gear, you see, is supposed to be funny. Like the kilt. Anyway, the Lizard has sent over a hitwoman, the cold-blooded Dakota (Lovely and Amazing's Emily Mortimer). Conveniently, Dakota is the ex-girlfriend of DeSouza, who left her when she insisted on moving to the U.S., which he deems to be "like fuckin' Albania in neon."
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Though savaged by English critics, Formula 51 is the sort of movie that often goes down better over there -- they're used to our accents, for example, while Carlyle's in particular may flummox some over here. A soccer rivalry that plays a pivotal role may also confuse more than one viewer on our shores, as both teams appear to wear almost the same colors, though English viewers will undoubtedly notice the more subtle distinctions. And the culture critics will inevitably tut-tut about a movie that asks us to root for a drug dealer, even if he's Samuel L. Jackson in a kilt. For what it is, though, this formula provides a movie highly worth experiencing.