The 51st State Review

Alexander Larman has reviewed the theatrical release of The 51st State. A surprisingly stylish, but unsurprisingly flawed, British flick has just been released; read on to see if it’s worth seeing anyway

It’s a sad but true fact that the words ‘exciting action film’ and ‘British’ simply don’t seem to go well together. Home grown efforts such as The Criminal or even Rancid Aluminium simply don’t convince as thrillers, partly because of the inevitably banal nature of the action scenes and settings, and also because the director will, more often than not, be some talentless twenty-something hack fresh from film school. Therefore, the fact that The 51st State is roughly the standard of a middling Hollywood action film means that, from a patriotic perspective, we can pat ourselves on our collective backs, despite the film having a Hong Kong director, an American star and being financed mostly in Germany. Oh well.

The plot, which oscillates between the enjoyably ridiculous and the stupid, concerns the adventures of Emo McElvoy (Jackson), an American chemist who has invented a wonder drug, which will allegedly take you to the ’51st state’. Double-crossing his boss (Meat Loaf), he flees to Liverpool for a rendezvous with local kingpin Dainton (Tomlinson), as assisted by local ‘scally’ Felix (Carlyle). Add corrupt cops, assassins, Rhys Ifans and Sinbad from Brookside into the mix, and we have what should, theoretically, be an explosive mixture.

It’s overstating it to describe the film as ‘good’, but it certainly has its strengths. Jackson is one of the very few actors who has the authority to make a potentially ridiculous character seem interesting and convincing, and once again does so here, despite being saddled with a kilt, presumably as some sort of character trait. Carlyle is good fun, as always, in a more benign riff on his Begbie character from Trainspotting, and there are some amusing supporting performances from Michael ‘Sinbad’ Starke and Ricky Tomlinson. As an action film, this has some superb scenes, with the two best being a car chase through Liverpool and an assassination attempt in a hotel room. There is also one of the funnier sex scenes seen recently, with an amusing use of a rubber duck at one point.

Unfortunately, there is a lot wrong with the film. Emily Mortimer, the quintessential English rose, is hideously miscast as an ice-cold assassin, and fights a losing battle with both American and Liverpudlian accents. More seriously, the film feels as if it’s a result of compromise throughout; while it’s a lot glossier in feel than most British films, there’s something vaguely depressing about the Liverpool setting. While it’s photogenic enough, it’s hard to imagine that the film honestly needed to be filmed there, or even set there. The usual faults of generic action films (ridiculous plot contrivances; ill-defined and cartoonish villains; badly anti-climatic showdown) are all present here, and the overall feeling is one of slight depression.

The critics have been heavily divided over the film, either praising it for being a superior action flick or criticising it for being yet another Tarantino wannabe. The truth is, as ever, somewhere in between. While it’s not going to be as ridiculed as, say, Love, Honour and Obey, the casting and choice of director might have inspired expectations that this was going to be something rather superior to the end product, making it something of a disappointment overall.

Alexander Larman

Updated: Dec 10, 2001

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