51st State (18)

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The ViewLondon Review

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Review byMatthew Turner12/10/2001

Four out of five stars
Running time: 98 mins

That rarest of cinematic beasts: a British action thriller that’s actually good. It shouldn’t work, but it does, thanks to its superb central performances and Hong Kong director Ronny Yu’s firm hand on the directorial proceedings.

Stel Pavlou, the screenwriter behind The 51st State, has already become something of a minor Hollywood legend, owing to the fact that he wrote the screenplay while working in an off-licence in the north of England, then somehow managed to bring it to the attention of Samuel L. Jackson, who eventually came on board as both producer and star.

On the surface, the formula seems deceptively simple: mix Tarantino-esque dialogue (i.e. lots of swearing and culture-clash jokes) and plot (drugs, guns, a hitwoman who happens to be the main character’s ex-girlfriend) with liberal doses of Liverpudlian humour, cast a big-name American star and a bunch of well-known British faces, set it all in England and watch the money roll in.

In fact it’s not hard to see how easily it could all have gone Horribly Wrong – by rights, it shouldn’t work, but it does, and this is largely down to Yu’s direction and pacing, and to the onscreen chemistry between Carlyle and Jackson.

Jackson plays Elmo McElroy, a kilt-wearing, underground ‘master chemist’ who develops a new super-drug and comes to England to make a 20 million dollar deal for the formula, after stiffing his boss in the US (MeatLoaf as ‘The Lizard’) and leaving him for dead.

However, The Lizard isn’t dead, and sends crack hit-woman Dakota Philips (Emily Mortimer, last seen (or not) in Disney’s The Kid) after McElroy to take him out.

Once in the UK, McElroy hooks up with Yank-hating football-fanatic Felix DeSouza (Robert Carlyle), the small-time crook assigned to drive him from the airport, and when the deal with Ricky Tomlinson’s drug boss goes sour, they have to cut a new deal elsewhere, while also attempting to elude a gang of skinheads, bent copper Sean Pertwee and trigger-happy Dakota…

If you’re prepared to overlook the fact that a lot of this is gleefully silly stuff, then there’s an awful lot to enjoy here, not least the sight of Samuel L. Jackson wearing a kilt, driving a Mini Cooper and beating up skinheads with golf clubs.

In fact, the film manages to pack so much action and excitement into its 98 minutes that it would put most overcooked Hollywood action films to shame – this, of course, is down to the fact that Yu knows a thing or two about action scenes and pacing.

The performances are all excellent (with the possible exception of MeatLoaf, who promptly ditches any acting kudos he had left over from Fight Club). Jackson, even in a "dress" and driving a Mini is still, officially, The Coolest Man In Cinema, and this film gives him his most enjoyable Jackson-esque role since Jackie Brown – he’s clearly enjoying himself immensely.

Carlyle is great too; effectively combining elements of the two personas he’s most famous for, the Trainspotting-psycho-type and the Full Monty nice-guy.

There’s also reliable support from a host of familiar British faces, including Paul Barber (The Full Monty), Sean Pertwee and Rhys Ifans (as the club-owning drug dealer). Also, it has to be said that Emily Mortimer is Very Lovely Indeed – here’s hoping her role in this boosts her profile as much as she deserves.

In short, this is perfect Saturday night entertainment. Action, laughs, car chases, ‘comedy swearing’ – what else do you need? Recommended.

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51st State (18)
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Content updated: 11/12/2017 13:28

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