The British footballer turned action star Vinnie Jones is featured most prominently on the poster for the modern-day Western “The Big Ugly,” and his mob enforcer Neelyn is the narrator and driving force for the story, but I was more intrigued by the supporting players, a colorful array of wrong-side-of-the-law types including:
• Ron Perlman’s Preston, a West Virginia oil man/crime boss with a strict ethical code when it comes to respecting the sanctity of the land.
• Bruce McGill’s Milt, Preston’s loyal consigliere and gunman, who owes his life to Preston and will do his bidding, no questions asked.
• Brandon Sklenar’s Junior, a hybrid of two of Don Corleone’s sons from “The Godfather.” Junior has the volatile temper and violent streak of Sonny — but he’s as weak and sniveling as Fredo.
• Nicholas Braun’s Will, a recovering alcoholic who works for Preston and runs around with Junior, trying to keep him out of trouble, and Leven Rambin’s Kara, a tough but tender bartender who met Will in a recovery meeting and has fallen in love with him.
• Malcolm McDowell’s Harris, a London crime boss who forged an unlikely bond with Preston many years ago.
Throw ’em all together and what do you get? “The Big Ugly” (so named for a jagged tributary of the Guyandotte River), a wildly entertaining, over-the-top, blood-soaked, noir-Western from director/co-writer Scott Wiper that’s filled with stunning visuals of the breathtaking and sometimes foreboding countryside (with Morehead, Kentucky, standing in for West Virginia) and searing performances from the ensemble cast.
“The Big Ugly” kicks off with Jones’ Neelyn, the longtime muscle for McDowell’s upscale crime lord Harris, running through the woods and trying to dodge gunfire while voicing grave narration about how he “didn’t come here to West Virginia for God,” which seems pretty obvious given he’s a mob enforcer and he’s in the middle of a gunfight.
Flashback to a few days earlier, as Preston awaits the arrival of a private jet carrying Harris and Neelyn and their respective companions: Jackie (Elyse Levesque), a high-end sex worker on a permanent retainer with Harris, and Fiona (Lenora Crichlow), Neelyn’s longtime girlfriend. (I guess the fellas thought it would be a peachy idea to take the gals on a glamorous vacation trip from London to … Appalachia?)
Preston needs financing for his sprawling and very illegal drilling project; Harris is looking to launder some 25 million quid. It’s a win-win! Preston wears an oversized cowboy hat and rules the region with an iron fist, but he’s no stereotypical Western villain. He doesn’t frack, he takes care of the local mountain folk by providing them with food and jobs, and he doesn’t have any use for good ol’ boys displaying a Confederate flag from their pickup truck, telling them the flag is a tribute to men “who ripped our nation apart until finally [they just] quit. They gave up. They lost. You want to fly a flag, hey, go win something. Riding around with this just says, ‘Hey, I’m a f---ing loser.’ ”
After Preston and Harris consummate the deal, a night of wild celebration ensues. (“Only you could get 86’d from a bar called the f------ Eighty Six!” Harris exclaims to Neelyn after a barroom brawl.) Things really go sideways after Neelyn passes out and the troublemaking Junior invites Neelyn’s girlfriend Fiona to have one more drink. Cut to the morning after, and Fiona has gone missing, and her story will not have a happy ending.
At that point “The Big Ugly” becomes a revenge thriller, with the headstrong Neelyn ignoring orders from Harris to return home while vowing to end Junior, who is almost certainly responsible for Fiona’s disappearance. With power rock such as “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress” blasting on the soundtrack, “The Big Ugly” introduces a number of subplots, from the romance of Will and Kara; to a backstory involving Preston’s beloved wife and how she was killed, to a seemingly peripheral character who is bound to resurface at a key moment in the story, or else why would we be introduced to him in the first place?
Jones is rock-solid as Neelyn, an anti-hero who is at the point in his “career” where he’s not going to win a fight against a much younger tough guy unless he finds a handy rock at just the right time. Brandon Sklenar gives a screen-popping performance as Junior; he’s fantastic as a monster cloaked in a James Dean persona. Best of all, “The Big Ugly” gives us 70-year-old Ron Perlman and 77-year-old Malcolm McDowell playing two very different sides of the same coin, who respect the hell out of one another but understand the rules of the game they’ve chosen to play, and find themselves sitting across from one another, each with a glass of something strong, each with a gun.