Finally a movie about drugs that has a light and refreshing change of pace even if the story doens't always add up. It starts in 1971 as Elmo McElroy (Samuel L. Jackson) gets caught smoking pot in his car after graduating from pharmacy school at the top of his class. Jumping ahead to present day the master chemist (OK so is he now supposed to be in his 50s?) is now working his magic for a particularly nasty-looking drug lord known as The Lizard (Meat Loaf)--and McElroy wants out. He thinks he's found a way when he creates a new designer drug--or a "personal visit from God " as he calls it--and goes to England to make the deal of a lifetime. Of course the road to riches has a few speed bumps along the way. First he meets local Liverpool hood Felix DeSouza (Robert Carlyle) who hates all things American and who is suppose to take the kilt-wearing Elmo to his boss to make the $20 million deal. Then there's deadly assassin Dakota (Emily Mortimer) who hates all things English and who is hired by the Lizard to bring Elmo (and the drug formula in Elmo's head) to him. The fact that Felix and Dakota used to be a hot item until she dumped him to go to America is just another interesting facet of this tangled web. Elmo with the eventual help of Dakota and Felix outsmarts the increasing number of people who want to get a hold of the drug's formula--and has the last laugh.
Jackson once again commands the screen. He really is at his best when he's playing the charismatic smooth talker with more than a hint of malice in his eyes like he did so tremendously in Pulp Fiction. Although he's not really a bad guy in Formula 51 he still infuses Elmo with the same arrogant confidence. The only drawback is the fact Jackson is too much a fish-out-of-water with the colorful British characters he encounters. Elmo's reasons for going to England and eventually staying there never make much sense and Jackson's performance doesn't shed any light. Carlyle on the other hand is truly in his element playing the cocky American-hating Felix who spends most of the film trying to get tickets to a huge football match (that's soccer to us Yanks). He and Jackson play off one another fairly well but not as electrically as he and Mortimer (Lovely & Amazing) do. Not only does the actress convincingly play a ruthless assassin who can kill just about anything that moves she and Carlyle just click. Even though Dakota wants to leave the minute she steps back into England you know she's not going to without Felix this time. Meat Loaf is adequately repulsive while Rhys Ifans (Notting Hill) does a nice turn as a rival drug dealer.
This is yet another movie released more than a year after it was made. After being released in England as 51st State its U.S. release date was pushed back a number of times which usually spells trouble. But the film directed by Chinese director Ronny Yu (Bride of Chucky) has a premise that grabs you right away and little quirks that make it work. Why does Elmo wear a kilt throughout the film? Apparently just because and he also carries around golf clubs for the heck of it or in case he's attacked by a gang of skinheads. Without such oddities once you got the gist of the story the rest of the film would just be a silly romp through a drug world. There's a wacky scene between Felix and another hood (Paul Barber Carlyle's cohort in The Full Monty) where a miscommunication means a guy gets stuffed into the back of a trunk. Then there's Ifans' drug dealer who gets an occasional yoga lesson from an obese black man telling him to find his "center." Funny stuff. The rest of the plot you could give a miss but it's worth seeing for all the perks.