The film premiered in the United Kingdom on 7 December 2001. It was released internationally under the name Formula 51 in October 2002, where it grossed $14.4 million, just over half of the budget.
In 1971, a policeman catches Elmo McElroy, a recent college graduate with a degree, in smoking marijuana. Because of his arrest and conviction, he is unable to find work as a pharmacologist. In the present day, a drug lord called "the Lizard" calls a meeting of his organisation, hoping to sell a brand new substance invented by Elmo. The meeting goes badly when Elmo, in a bid to escape from the Lizard's control, blows up the building, killing everyone but the Lizard. Vengeful, the Lizard contacts Dakota, a contract killer, who previously killed the only witness in a case against the Lizard. Dakota initially refuses the hit, but accepts when the Lizard offers to clear her gambling debts and give her a $250,000 bonus.
Elmo leaves for Liverpool, England, where he meets Felix DeSouza, a local "fixer" who has been sent by Leopold Durant, head of a local criminal organisation, in exchange for two tickets to a sold-out football match. At the meeting, Elmo pitches POS 51, a synthetic drug that can be produced with minimal facilities and is 51 times as potent as other drugs. A second opinion from Pudsey, Durant's chemist, confirms Elmo's claims, and Durant gives him over a million dollars in bonds. Since it is $18 million short of the agreed payment, Elmo threatens to leave.
In a room across the street, Dakota is about to take a shot at Elmo's head when the Lizard calls cancelling the hit; not wanting to kill Elmo until he has the formula. Instead of killing Elmo, she is to kill anyone who meets with him. She switches rifles to an automatic weapon and kills everyone but Elmo and Felix, who is shot in the buttocks. As Elmo and Felix leave the hotel, a gang of skinheads who seek the drug attack them. Elmo protects them with a golf club. Detective Virgil Kane arrives on the scene and gives a chase. He is soon lured into a game of chicken by Elmo, who escapes. Kane returns to the crime scene and demands 50% of Durant's deal with McElroy. A miscommunication leads to Durant's death.
Felix contacts a gun dealing club owner and drug distributor named Iki, promising him the formula for £20 million. As Elmo and Felix acquire the ingredients necessary for the drug's manufacture, all of which are over-the-counter products, the now-armed skinheads capture them. Elmo is unflustered, as the skinheads claim they have a lab, though it turns out to be a broken-into animal testing facility. Elmo makes two batches of the drug; one blue and one red. He claims that the red pill is the stronger version, and after he takes one, the skinheads try it. While they are partying, waiting for the effect of the drug, in the next room Elmo spits out his red pill. He tells Felix it is a powerful laxative; Elmo and Felix leave after throwing rolls of toilet paper to the incapacitated skinheads.
At Iki's rave club, Elmo initiates his deal and delivers the drug to the waiting crowd. Kane and the police interrupt the deal and arrest Felix. When Dakota appears, she reveals that her real name is Dawn and that she and Felix were romantically involved. She captures Elmo and leaves with him via the roof. Elmo gets the upper hand, suspending her over the edge of the roof. Having no choice, she strikes a deal with him and they escape from Kane. Meanwhile, Kane blackmails Felix during a police interrogation and forces himself into the deal with Iki, which Felix sets up for him.
Felix, Elmo and Dawn meet Iki in a private viewing box at the football game at Anfield. This time, the deal is interrupted by the Lizard, who shoots Iki and demands the formula to POS 51. The Lizard celebrates with a drink, as Elmo reveals that the drug is a placebo and POS stands for Power of Suggestion. Kane interrupts them as Elmo's cocktail, an explosive ingested by the Lizard, takes effect. Kane is knocked unconscious and arrested, and the others escape. Dawn and Felix give their relationship another chance, and Elmo purchases a castle once owned by the man who owned his ancestors.Samuel L. Jackson as Elmo McElroy
Robert Carlyle as Felix DeSouza
Emily Mortimer as Dawn "Dakota" Parker
Meat Loaf as the Lizard
Sean Pertwee as Detective Virgil Kane
Ricky Tomlinson as Leopold Durant
Rhys Ifans as Iki
Ade as Omar
The DVD commentary reveals that the script was originally written with Laurence Fishburne in mind, sometime before Samuel L. Jackson became a star.
Screenwriter Stel Pavlou came up with the idea for The 51st State in 1994 while studying at university in Liverpool, loosely basing some of the characters on his friends. Pavlou described the idea of the film being based on Liverpool's history in the slave trade and transferring it to modern day in the form of the drug trade. Pavlou and his business partner Mark Aldridge showcased their idea at the Cannes Film Festival in France which led to film development company Focus Films offering funding for development. Soon the film caught the eye of Samuel L. Jackson, who eventually came on board as both a producer and star of the film.
Originally Pavlou budgeted at around £1 million and intended to direct it himself. Due to difficulty getting funding Pavlou stepped aside and took a co-producer credit while the matter was being resolved. After five years The 51st State was finally budgeted at $28 million, with financing coming from Canada and the UK via Alliance Atlantis and the Film Consortium.
Actor and film producer Samuel L. Jackson recommended Hong Kong director Ronny Yu to direct the film with belief that the film's overall style was suited to that of Yu's previous credits, such as his 1998 film Bride of Chucky. With the roles of Elmo McElroy (Samuel L. Jackson) and Felix DeSouza (Robert Carlyle) both secured, producer Andras Hamori suggested Meat Loaf to play the antagonist. This was approved by director Yu, who called the idea a "truly inspired piece of casting".
Almost all of the film was shot on location in Liverpool apart from the opening scene which was shot in Los Angeles, a driving scene which was filmed outside Liverpool in the city of Manchester, and another scene which was filmed at Cholmondeley Castle in Cheshire. Major locations used in Liverpool included the River Mersey and docks, Pier Head, the India Building, Water Street as well as Liverpool Football Club's stadium Anfield. Other famous Liverpool landmarks can be seen throughout the film in the background such as St George's Hall and the Liver Building.
Production designer Alan Macdonald used the film's production base in Boundary Street to build various sets for interior scenes, as well as a vast disused warehouse space in Blackstock Street.
The film was released on both VHS and DVD. The DVD version was released on 7 October 2002. Special features include an audio commentary, making-of and production featurettes, a photo gallery, trailer, and cast and crew interviews.
For its US release, the film was renamed Formula 51 as the original title was seen as potentially offensive to American audiences. The expression 51st state, in this context, refers to US dominance over England so the change was made.
On review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes, the film received a 25% based on reviews from 102 critics, with an average rating of 4.3/10, and the consensus reading: "Filled with profanities, Formula 51 is a stylized and incoherent mess that doesn't add up to much." On Metacritic, the film gained a 23 out of 100 based on reviews from 29 critics.
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper called the film "a farce", giving the film one out of four stars, and particularly negative comments on the film's content and script. Generally positive reviews were given by both BBC and Empire reviewers, with Alan Morrison of the latter calling it "full-on fun" and that the film "goes beyond the boundaries" of British films. IGN.com also gave the film a generally positive review, concluding that "you get exactly what you pay for" and that the film was overall very "enjoyable".
The film had its world premiere on 7 December 2001, in London's West End Curzon Cinema.
In total, the film earned over $14.4 million at the worldwide box office, $5.2 million of that in the U.S. and $9.2 million elsewhere.
The soundtrack was written by Darius Kedros, Caspar Kedros and Barney Quinton under the band name Headrillaz, and also featured artists such as PJ Harvey, Run–D.M.C., Nelly and Stephen Day.