When it comes to drugs - be they of the legal or illegal variety - the combination of necessary ingredients is the most important thing. After all, a little too much of this or not enough of that can result in the final product not being effective or creating bad side effects. Of course, there are those who think that legal pharmaceuticals are a high-priced racket since placebos can often generate the same or at least similar results.
The same is true for movies. Beyond some people being addicted to them, their success relies on the right ingredients being mixed and then administered with just the proper deft touch. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don't, but when the latter is true, filmmakers and studios often try to put a placebo-like spin on their product. While it might not be the "real" thing, they try to convince would-be viewers that it is.
Such is the case with "Formula 51." Yet another English crime flick, the picture is filled with too many ingredients. It also lacks the proper, skilled stirring of a cinematic chemist to whip all of it into a successful or satisfying yield.
Working from novice screenwriter Stel Pavlou's script, director Ronny Yu ("Bride of Chucky," "The Bride With White Hair") has tried to make the movie equivalent of a placebo in creating a film that looks, acts and sounds like ones from filmmaker Guy Ritchie ("Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels," "Snatch"). There are criminal lowlifes, lots of violence, heavily accented profanity, offbeat humor, a frenetically paced visual style and, of all things, an African-American star in a kilt.
Yet, whereas Ritchie managed to make most of those elements (sans the kilt) work in his films, Yu fails here, and there's more to that than the simple style over substance accusation. Granted, that's also a problem as the sped-up film, rapid zooming and other effects do little for the picture other than draw attention to the director.
The bigger flaw is that the effort is trying to be, and succeed at, so many different things that it simply collapses due to exhaustion and too much cumulative weight of everything that's present. On one hand, it's trying to be hip, edgy and irreverent. On another, it also wants to tell a tale of characters who try to make new lives for themselves.
Unfortunately, the two don't mesh and various additional elements that have been thrown into the mix - a recurring gang of skinheads, various instances of graphic, crude humor, and lots of lethal and bloody violence - don't help matters.
Then there's the fact that most of it doesn't make sense or requires too much in the way of suspension of disbelief. Other than the initial scene that shows the protagonist screwing his life up for good, we know little about him or his motivation. He works for some sort of American criminal - played in an annoyingly over the top performance by Meat Loaf ("Fight Club," "Crazy in Alabama") - but then tries to kill him so that he can sell his formula for $20 million to some criminal types across The Pond.
What, are there are no more drug dealers in America? The answer obviously lies in the old fish out of water scenario (a black man in a kilt in Liverpool) and somehow everyone seems to know he's coming. Yet, few ask the important questions about his product.
Then there's a late revelation that explains some of his motivation, but pretty much trashes everything that occurred before it. I won't delve much into why Samuel L. Jackson ("XXX," "Changing Lanes") dons a kilt or carries golf clubs everywhere he goes beyond saying that it's just another element that's seemingly thrown into the mix without regard to why it's there or whether it works or adds anything. The film even ends with an onscreen title stating that no one ever figured out why he was dressed that way and then a shot of Jackson's character inexplicably walking off a golf course buck naked. The symbolism simply eludes me.
As far as the performances are concerned, Jackson certainly makes the film a bit easier to watch since we never know what he might do. Yet, beyond a few moments of his standard and intense angry man outbursts, he's somewhat of a disappointment here thanks to a poorly written role.
Robert Carlyle ("The World is Not Enough," "The Beach") shows up apparently to fulfill the film's profanity and smoking requirements and somehow miraculously manages to heal quite quickly from a sniper shot to his gluteus maximus. That's supposed to be another form of the film's humor that also includes some rather graphic diarrhea moments and a cocktail that somehow manages to make a man explode in a grisly fashion.
Emily Mortimer ("Lovely & Amazing," "Disney's The Kid") plays the deliverer of that bullet (and many others) who just so happens to be his ex-girlfriend-turned sniper. She's decent in the role, but the film never runs with her character like it should. Rhys Ifans ("Little Nicky," "Notting Hill") appears as a flamboyant businessman/drug dealer and offers a few laughs, but is similarly hampered by an underwritten role, while Sean Pertwee ("Soldier," "Event Horizon") shows up as a completely unmemorable, corrupt cop.
Lacking the necessary comedic and dramatic double-crossing, complications or twists that are necessary for an effort like this to work, the film has a few enjoyable moments, but otherwise fails in its attempts to combine its various ingredients or fool viewers into thinking it's as cool or hip as it purports to be. As a result, "Formula 51" isn't likely to entice, let alone hook many viewers. It rates as just a 3 out of 10.