I'll be the first to admit that I dig kilts. There's just something about a guy showing his manliness by way of skirt-wearing that intrigues me. I also dig Samuel L. Jackson. Any person who can make the word "Motherfucker" sound like a promise of harm, and do it consistently, gets in my Book of Cool.
So, when I found out there was an entire film where Jackson wears the time-honored Scottish garment, I was hooked. The only thing left was for Formula 51 to reel me in, and reel me in it did.
Elmo McElroy (Jackson) is a drug designer who leaves his cartel (for dead) and heads to England, peddling his latest super-narcotic, POS-51. Felix (Robert Carlyle) just wants to escort Elmo to his deal, pick up his tickets to the Liverpool-Manchester United soccer game, and be on his way.
Complications arise in the supple form of Dakota, Felix's ex-girlfriend and current contract killer. What ensues (and something always ensues) is an unlikely partnership between Elmo and Felix, who undertake a whimsical (and bloody) race around Liverpool in search of buyer for the miracle drug.
A minor caveat: this film is loaded with a lot of GREAT jokes (it is a comedy, after all), but one has to be well-versed in Britain and its cultural quirks to understand half of them. Try watching lots of episodes of "Monty Python's Flying Circus" and reading "The Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy" (which is actually recommended even if you don't see Formula 51).
It's more than a little ironic that director Ronny Yu, who was quite a name in Hong Kong cinema in bygone days, is making a film loaded with Western culture. Even odder is that he drops his own very unique sense of style (track down The Bride with the White Hair, if you can) in favor of imitating others. Yu basically takes the visuals of Quentin Tarantino, Danny Boyle, and Guy Ritchie, whips them into a fondue, and serves it up as his own exciting concoction. Okay, so I probably shouldn't look fondly upon such blatant imitation, but I LIKE all of those directors, and I LIKE how Yu fits their styles together. It's highly kinetic, entertaining, and fluffily violent.
However, it's Jackson who draws the most attention and respect. He has that glint in his eyes...you do NOT cross this man. You sit down, listen to what he has to say, and then you do what he tells you to do. 50 years from now, when extra-terrestrial civilizations start receiving television signals of the actor's flicks, they'll be left with no choice but to assume that this enigmatic, charisma-charged African-American is our world leader. We'll have visitations from little green men who have just one request: "Take me to your badass mofo.
Throw in Carlyle (Trainspotting, The Full Monty), and you have great Trans-Atlantic chemistry. He and Jackson fall into an easy pattern of dialogue, exemplified by a crisis-moment clarification of the word "bollocks" and its usage. The Scottish actor shines on his own, too, especially in his Anti-Yankee rant.
Although Formula 51 has lots of great sequences and a lot of flashy direction, it never quite fits together. Sometimes a few scenes are taken to comic excesses that go against the overall laidback feel of the main characters. Indeed, some of the supporting performances (especially Rhys Ifans as a nutty crook) look ridiculously and annoyingly over-the-top in the face of Jackson's perpetual sea of calm control. It is it possible for one actor to be too cool for his own movie?
Still, there is much to recommend here (like the kilt). Jackson is always watchable (and he wears a kilt). Lots of wackiness, hi-jinks, and other grand fun is wrought (there's jokes about the kilt), plus lots of nifty action set pieces (golf club battery...with a kilt). All-in-all, a very swell way to spend an afternoon at the theater (did I mention the kilt?).