Formula 51
"Side effects include drowsiness and irritability"
Dir. Ronny Yu; writ. Stel Pavlou; feat. Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Carlyle, Emily Mortimer, Meat Loaf, Rhys Ifans (R)

What hath Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie wrought? More importantly, if you're a filmmaker wanting to make a lame Tarantino rip-off, wouldn't you have done it back a couple of years ago, when QT wasn't getting set to unleash another dose of the real thing on the world, making you look like an idiot?

The filmmakers might be forgiven for assuming that Samuel L. Jackson was cool enough to carry a film that had no other redeeming value. Truth is, he is that cool — but he's not going to make up a plot and dialogue for you on the fly. In lieu of an intelligent script, director Yu (just so you get it straight: that's a Hong Kong director, making a film about an African American with a Scottish complex, that takes place in England) tosses in a random assortment of silly affectations: Look, Mom, eccentric drug dealers! Meat Loaf in a caftan! A mobster who has hemorrhoids! In between the stolen jokes and continuity errors, there's a plot involving the formula for a superdrug, which Jackson (he's a brainiac chemist, but that doesn't explain why he wears a kilt for the duration of the film) wants to sell for $20 million. There's a lot of unconvincing English slang, the relocation of Manchester's famous Hacienda club to Liverpool (that'll come as a shock!), and one reasonably cool scene in which Jackson beats some skinheads with a golf club.

By the way, the drug's code name is POS 51. Jackson does say at some point what P.O.S. stands for, but I think discerning film viewers can figure that one out for themselves. John DeFore

Just a Kiss
"Alternative plots for flat characters"
Dir. Fisher Stevens; writ. Patrick Breen; feat. Ron Eldard, Kyra Sedgwick, Marisa Tomei, Breen, Marley Shelton, Taye Diggs, Sarita Choudhury, Zoe Caldwell (R)

According to the lyrics of "As Time Goes By," the song that haunts Casablanca, "a kiss is just a kiss" — but that movie's plot suggests a buss can drive the world. An attempt to document the monstrous consequences of an errant embrace, Just a Kiss begins in a hotel room in Brussels, where Dag (Eldard), a New Yorker who directs TV commercials, succumbs to the advances of Rebecca (Shelton), a ballerina who is his best friend's girlfriend. "This is going to be one of those terrible mistakes," predicts Dag, even before the opening credits. Just a Kiss illustrates just how terrible it is, by following its effects on: Dag's girlfriend, Halley; Rebecca's boyfriend, Peter; Rebecca's lover, Andre; and Andre's wife, Colleen — who is also Peter's lover.

In addition to crosscutting among amorous combinations, director Fisher Stevens shuffles the chronology, to suggest alternative chains of causation. And about an hour into the proceedings, he rewinds the tape to the fateful scene in Brussels, to imagine another outcome to the encounter between Dag and Rebecca. It is all very clever, but details of the screenplay — such as a traveler who chooses flights according to the onboard movie, and a psychopathic waitress who works in a bowling alley and lurks in a hospital — are dictated by whimsy more than inspiration. Except for Zoe Caldwell playing an aging, autocratic choreographer not afraid to speak her dirty mind, the characters are chess pieces; the viewer is the bored. — Steven G. Kellman

Knockaround Guys
"Two tastes that taste lame together"
Writ. & dir. Brian Koppelman, David Levien; feat. Barry Pepper, Vin Diesel, Seth Green, Andrew Davoli, Dennis Hopper, John Malkovich, Tom Noonan (R)

One would rather not judge a film by its trip through the Hollywood release machine, but for what it's worth, Knockaround Guys was first shown in Spain in November 2001, then wound its way through four other countries before appearing here.

This second effort by the writing partners behind Rounders finds four friends trying their hand at gangsterhood, and despite their leather and haircuts, failing badly. Matty (Pepper) commissions his cokehead pilot pal Johnny Marbles (Green) to pick up a bag of money in Spokane and fly it home to Brooklyn. Soon both guys, and two more, are in Wibaux, Montana, trying to retrieve the cash from the local sheriff. They don't take nearly as many punches as one might expect, but they get slapped around a bit.

Knockaround Guys is sincere enough, but forgets whence it comes. Buddy films and gangster films are doubtless not destined for frequent successful marriage. We have learned from the latter genre that crime does not brook true friendship. In the end, you die alone. Even if you get out of the life, it'll hurt. The audience has to hurt, too, but that pain will only come from sympathy, and as far as the screenplay draws these friends as too bland, or too dumb, to build pathos. Throw in a silly premise for Marbles losing the money, and a silly accent for John Malkovich, and wave bye-bye to the box office. Let's wish better things for the next Koppelman/Levien joint, The Runaway Jury, should it ever get to see a projector. Jonathan Marcus
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