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 30 years later: declaring that he’s invented the ideal party drug (“51 times stronger than cocaine, 51 times more hallucinogenic than acid, and 51 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 spectacular explosion.
Elmo dons a kilt, packs up his golf clubs, and boards a plane to “Liver-fucking-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.
Just before 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.
The only survivors of this assault are Elmo and Felix, who, it turns out, is Dakota’s mournfully torch-carrying ex (the backstory is sketchy, but apparently, she left him to seek her own fortune in the States, and hit 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 shit their pants; feeling dominant, he tosses toilet paper rolls at them: how clever).
Boisterous and 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 reignited romance. Enough with the helpful black buddy already.