review by Cynthia Fuchs, 11 October 2002
In Ronny Yu's mostly formulaic Formula 51,
Samuel L. Jackson plays Elmo McElroy, a chemical whiz busted for
smoking reefer on his graduation from pharmaceutical college in
1971. That this scene takes place under Buddy Miles' "Them Changes"
makes its banality slightly less irksome than it might have been.
But it's still irksome.
Cut to thirty
years later: declaring that he's invented the ideal party drug
("fifty-one times stronger than cocaine, fifty-one times more
hallucinogenic than acid, and fifty-one times more explosive than
ecstasy," using all over-the-counter ingredients), Elmo decides it's
time to abandon the drug cartel for whom he has been toiling since
his jail term (being a felon, he was unable to get legit
pharmaceutical work), and move on. This being an illegal and violent
business, he needs to exit in similar style, meaning, he blows up a
meeting of mucky-mucks, headed by The Lizard (Meat Loaf), the sort
of loutish egomaniac who refers to himself in the third person. Cue
Elmo dons a
kilt, packs up his golf clubs, and boards a plane to "Liver-f*cking-pool,"
planning to sell his new product to some dealer, any dealer,
servicing the rave scene. All those kids, dying to get high: just
what he needs to make his fortune. Once in England, he meets up with
Felix (Robert Carlyle), chirpy henchman for local kingpin Leopold
Durant (Ricky Tomlinson), with whom he's scheduled to sign a $20
million deal. What Elmo doesn't know but is about to find out is
that he's being followed by an assassin, Dakota (Emily Mortimer, so
great in Lovely & Amazing, so bereft of a role here); she's
been dispatched by The Lizard, who survived the explosion after all.
Dakota's about to complete her mission, however, The Lizard gets the
bright idea that he wants Elmo's formula (deemed a "personal visit
from God"), so her new mission is to keep him alive and kill
everyone around him. This, she proceeds to do, sniping at her prey
with an automatic weapon from a hotel room across the street. Cue
spectacular gunfire and flailing bodies.
survivors of this assault are Elmo and Felix, who, it turns out, is
Dakota's mournfully torch-carrying ex (the back story is sketchy,
but apparently, she left him to seek her own fortune in the States,
and hit it big in the execution business). Perhaps to ensure that he
remembers her, she uses the occasion of the assault to shoot Felix
in the arse, which bothers him for about ten minutes, during the
requisite car chase, Elmo driving like a madman through teeny
streets, cops charging along behind them, smashing into trucks and
buses and such. When they stop for a breath, Felix confesses his
undying love for this chick with the large gun: "She's your guardian
angel," he tells Elmo. "If she wanted you to be dead, you'd be
dead." Elmo starts hitting balls off the back of the garbage barge
where they've crash-landed off the pier.
At this point,
you might be forgiven for thinking that maybe executive producer
Jackson wanted to spend some time in U.K to play golf, and arranged
a movie around his much-deserved vacation (is there a harder-working
man in the business?). The film is coy about why he's wearing the
kilt, though Elmo's last/slave-name, McElroy, rather gives a clue:
he's headed to the McElroy castle, hopefully with enough money to
buy the land and so, make some kind of statement about property and
birthright and reclaiming a sense of agency and dignity from the
system that oppressed his ancestors. While this joining up with the
oppressive class doesn't obviously make up for generations of wrongs
done to populations, Elmo's attitude seems much improved by owning
the name that once marked the fact that his people were owned.
This is a
potentially fascinating, even rousing story, even expanded by Poon
Hang Sang's creative camerawork and funky soundtrack beats by the
Headrillaz. But it is also remarkably muddied and depressingly
decelerated by the hijinksy plotline. For one thing, Jackson lapses
into the boomy speechifying that has become his signature (curse
Quentin Tarantino for writing that frankly brilliant "when I lay my
vengeance upon you" speech, as Jackson's been asked to repeat those
rhythms ever since). One eager listener is self-loving club overseer
Iki (Rhys Ifans), replacement buyer for dead Durant, made to look
silly because he wears colorful outfits and seeks instruction on
mediation from the "comically" fey Omar (Ade). Goofy and
enthusiastic, Iki pledges his allegiance to Elmo, whom he sees as a
fellow "sky-high-atrist," adding, so endearingly, "I'm very much
attracted by what you have to offer."
If only he
knew. While it's not particularly visible to Iki's doofus-eye, Elmo
does have a bit of a chip on his shoulder, and well he should.
Throughout Formula 51, he's dealing not only with
run-of-the-mill idiots, but also punks and bigots, though his
creative bits of vengeance tend to elicit groans as much as cheers
(he tricks a crew of bungling skinheads into downing handfuls of
pills that don't make them high, as promised, but make them puke
blood and sh*t their pants; feeling dominant, he tosses toilet paper
rolls at them: how clever).
obnoxious as it is, such body-fluids humor looks almost progressive
compared to the ostensibly "good" work Elmo performs. Under the
guise of bonding with his brand new boy Felix, he suffers a series
of black-penis jokes, and worse, he watches over Felix and Dakota's
re-ignited romance. Enough with the helpful black buddy, already.
Samuel L. Jackson
Michael J. Reynolds
R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult