The Big Ugly
2020, R, 106 min. Directed by Scott Wiper. Starring Vinnie Jones, Malcolm McDowell, Ron Perlman, Lenora Crichlow, Brandon Sklenar, Nicholas Braun, Leven Rambin.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., July 31, 2020
Since Michael Caine took a trip to the coast in Get Carter, the idea of the gangster off their own turf has been an alluring one, and here it's attracted Vinnie Jones. As aging London enforcer Neelyn, he's not top of the heap, but he's loyal to his boss, old school Cockney kingpin Harris (McDowell) even heading to West Virginia with him when he strikes a new moneylaundering deal with an old friend, Appalachian oil man Preston (Perlman). Neelyn's twitchy away from his home turf, even with his girlfriend, Fiona (Crichlow), trying to get him to calm down, step away from his brutish ways, maybe even relax a little bit. When she goes missing, and Preston's preening bully of a son, Junior (Sklenar), is seemingly involved, all Neelyn can possibly do is fall back on his knucklebrained brutality.
No one steers too far away from their established personas, and why would they? Perlman is the definitive soulful redneck heavy, McDowell has perfected the aging gangster, and when you want a hair-trigger South London legbreaker, you may as well just say "I'm looking for a Vinnie Jones type." When The Big Uglyworks is when they're allowed to be a little more contemplative than normal. There's a little dose of Jack Nicholson and Michael Caine in the oft-forgotten 1996 neo-noir Blood and Wine when Harris and Preston have their inevitable final sitdown/stand-off - two old dogs knowing their days are numbered, loaded down with regrets (if only McDowell put as much effort into the rest of the film as he does in this one scene). Meanwhile Jones does, well, the Jones thing but with a more mournful twist than usual, knowing that he's wasted more lives than just his own, and with no tools to build something better. It's the Jones persona, but with a little more introspection - playing off the rules he laid down for himself two decades ago in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and stretching them to their logical ends.
While not exactly rote, the script undeniably feels a little derivative in places (Junior and Preston's relationship is note-for-note the tension between Viggo and Iosef Tarasov in John Wick). Hell, the whole story has more than a dash of Bruce Willis and Walter Hill rewriting Yojimbo as Last Man Standing. Writer/director Scott Wiper definitely finds more depth here than in action schlock like The Marine 3: Homecoming that he churned out for the WWE, but The Big Ugly needed to pick one target, rather than its scattershot multitude. A major subplot between involving Junior's handler/wrangler, Will (Braun) and bartender Kara (Rambin) is well-executed, but doesn't add as much as it could or should have, slowing the story and taking attention away from the old men and their self-destructive regrets. If this blunderbuss had been a sniper rifle, maybe it would hit a little harder.