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It’s a toss-up as to which substance flows more freely in Scott Wiper’s Appalachian-set thriller — alcohol or testosterone. There’s plenty of the latter on display, to be sure, thanks to the presence of such supremely macho actors as Vinnie Jones, Ron Perlman and Malcolm McDowell and the sort of hard-boiled dialogue that mainly smacks of a writer’s overheated imagination. But, no, it’s the booze that wins out, whether it’s Jones ordering “milk and whiskey in a pint glass” at a seedy bar or McDowell making the toast “Let’s drink” with the solemnity of a pastor announcing to his flock, “Let’s pray.”
In this noirish exercise seemingly fueled by the filmmaker’s overindulgence in B-movies, Jones plays the ostensible hero, Neelyn, an enforcer for British gangster Harris (McDowell), who accompanies his boss to West Virginia on a business trip. The purpose is to set up a money laundering deal with a swaggering oilman (is there any other kind?), Preston (Perlman), although for some reason the two Brits have also brought along their respective significant others, Fiona (Lenora Crichlow) and Jackie (Elyse Levesque).
Release date: Jul 31, 2020
The night of the arrival, a drunken Neelyn stumbles to his hotel room and immediately passes out, leaving Fiona to wander out and have a drink with Preston’s equally swaggering but more malevolent son, Junior (Brandon Sklenar). The next morning, Neelyn wakes up to discover that Fiona has disappeared. Aided in his search by a local barmaid (Leven Rambin), he soon finds her dead body abandoned in the woods and sets out to exact revenge on the murderous Junior.
Cue the ensuing series of increasingly violent skirmishes, accompanied by such vintage pop hits as “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress” and “Kiss You All Over” and punctuated by long, philosophical discussions in which both the Brits and Appalachians wax pseudo-poetically about the brutal lives they’ve chosen for themselves. Asked if he feels better after fatally dispatching an enemy, Neelyn opines, “Killing never makes it feel better…it’s the booze that makes it feel better.”
Alas, viewers will find no such comfort, unless they take the opportunity to play a drinking game while watching the film (available in on demand and in digital formats) at home. Director/screenwriter Wiper (The Condemned) applies such a veneer of solemnity to the turgid proceedings that any possibly enjoyable guilty pleasure is lost, unless you count the climactic gun battle that represents the silliest duel committed to celluloid since Woody Allen shot himself in Love and Death.
The slow-paced proceedings are dragged out even further by the inclusion of unnecessary subplots, including one involving Preston’s foreman (Nicholas Braun, Succession), whose attempt to do the right thing doesn’t exactly pan out.
What makes The Big Ugly watchable are the authentic locations and the veteran actors who bring admirable conviction to their tough guy roles. Although Jones doesn’t really have the emotional range to pull off his character’s inner turmoil, his powerful physical presence makes up for it. McDowell can do this sort of icy villainous thing in his sleep, but he never gives the impression that he’s going through the motions. And Perlman continues his string of wildly enjoyable, charismatic performances in subpar films that make you breathe a sigh of relief just to see his name in the opening credits.
Available in virtual cinemas and on demand
Production company: 4G Vision
Distributor: Vertical Entertainment
Cast: Vinnie Jones, Malcolm McDowell, Ron Perlman, Nicholas Braun, Leven Rambin, Brandon Sklenar, Lenora Chrichlow, Bruce McGill
Director/screenwriter: Scott Wiper
Producer: Scott Wiper, Vinnie Jones, Karri O’Reilly, Tarquin Pack, Michael Downey, Nancy Hirami
Executive producers: Michael Angelo, Josh Crook, Malcolm McDowell, Ron Perlman, G. Gibson Williams
Director of photography: Jeremy Osbern
Production designer: Ren Blanco
Editor: Jordan Downey
Composer: Alex Heffes
Costume designer: Zachary Sheets
Rated R, 106 min.
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