Review By: Jonathan W. Hickman
Made in the classic tough-guy tradition, writer/director Scott Wiper (see 2000’s “A Better Way to Die”) partners, once again, with actor Vinnie Jones on “The Big Ugly,” a handsome slice of moody, neo-noir.
In the film, an English crime boss named Harris (Malcolm McDowell) strikes a deal with American oilman, Preston (Ron Perlman), to launder ill-gotten gains. Preston is desperate for funding for a West Virginia drilling operation. He tried traditional lenders, but loans proved to be impossible. Harris, beaten down by years of running his dangerous operation, sees Preston’s business as a way to go legit and retire.
Traveling to the rural American job-site, Harris brings with him from England his chief enforcer, Neeyln (Vinnie Jones). And after tying up a loose end, Harris, Preston, and Neeyln engage in some much needed partying. Neeyln is an alcoholic, and Harris is a recovering one.
The next morning, Neeyln wakes up to find his beloved wife, Fiona (Lenora Crichlow), not beside him. Hung-over and disheveled, Neeyln stumbles to the bar to ask questions. What he discovers is disturbing and, inevitably, leads to the discovery of Fiona’s body in a nearby creek. Naturally, Neeyln doesn’t want just answers; he wants justice, and that means someone’s gonna get hurt, and someone’s gonna die.
There’s nothing particularly unique about Scott Wiper’s script for “The Big Ugly.” It’s a familiar revenge narrative, punctuated by solid performances by rugged faces. If there’s a deviation from the standard revenge yarn, it’s that Neeyln isn’t a superman capable of dispatching a gang of roughnecks with a single blow.
Wiper takes time to develop the investigation. And that gives the otherwise stoic Jones a chance to emote into his role. It’s a fairly good piece of acting, if undercut by some uneven performances by the younger parts of the cast.
As always, Perlman is a formidable presence, playing the oil-drilling patriarch, who spoils his philandering son, Junior (Brandon Sklenar). McDowell is particularly good as a world-weary gangster. He’s played this role in better films (see Paul McGuigan’s “Gangster No. 1,” for example), and, over the year’s, he's developed “the stare,” that sees through the violence recognizing painful realities. Memorable character actor Bruce McGill serves well as the menacing, violent, American counterpart to Neeyln.
“The Big Ugly” looks terrific. It's shot by cinematographer Jeremy Osbern, a Kansas-based cinematographer and filmmaker (see the highly-recommended “Air: The Musical”). Osbern worked in Newnan on the locally made feature “The Fat Boy Chronicles.” With “The Big Ugly,” he gets the look exactly right—capturing a sweaty, dusty, and unforgiving landscape.
“The Big Ugly” is a perfect drive-in release this weekend. It’s a film that harkens to that very American outdoor cinema experience, watching lurid, vulgar pictures from the comfort of our vehicles. But no matter how gritty and violent this movie is, Wiper’s ambition was to make it about the West Virginian experience, where there’s a conflict between fracking and less destructive drilling techniques.
There’s a movie in that social and environmental issue. While “The Big Ugly” contains an undercurrent devoted to the local, long-time landowners squeezed by large corporate entities, this is ultimately a b-movie actioner. Revenge on-screen never seems to go out of style.
A RottenTomatoes.com Tomatometer-approved critic, Jonathan W. Hickman is also an entertainment lawyer, college professor, novelist, and filmmaker. He’s a member of the Atlanta Film Critics Circle, The Southeastern Film Critics Association, and the Georgia Film Critics Association. For more information about Jonathan visit: FilmProductionLaw.com or DailyFIlmFix.com