July 31, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Scott Wiper
Culture Representation: Taking place in Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains, the crime drama “The Big Ugly” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people) representing the wealthy, middle-class, working-class and criminal underground.
Culture Clash: British criminals who are in Virginia for a shady business deal find themselves at odds with a longtime American ally who is a powerful oil baron with a troublemaking son.
Culture Audience: “The Big Ugly” will appeal primarily to people who like formulaic B-movie crime thrillers and don’t mind if the movie’s pace is much slower than it should be.
British footballer-turned-actor Vinnie Jones is known for starring in high-octane B-movie action schlockfests that showcase his fighting abilities, so viewers of “The Big Ugly” (written and directed by Scott Wiper) might be disappointed to see how slow-paced this movie is. And it’s not just because the movie takes a long time (about two-thirds of the film) before a really big fight scene happens. This is the type of movie where the people speak with long pauses in between sentences, as if they’re zonked-out on medication or their brain cells are being killed by some of the moronic dialogue that they have to utter.
The movie begins with a group of British criminals on a private plane, as they fly to Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains to do a business deal: laundering money with a local millionaire oil baron named Preston (played by Ron Perlman, in yet another menacing role as a ruthless and shady character). The movie’s title comes from an area of the Appalachians called the Big Ugly, where Preston’s employees do a lot of their work.
The story’s main protagonist is a brooding thug named Neelyn (played by Jones), and he’s accompanied on the trip by his girlfriend Fiona (played by Lenora Crichlow), whom he’s been dating for six years. Also on the plane is the British crime group’s boss: a suit-wearing, bespectacled overlord named Harris (played by Malcolm McDowell), who has his underlings do his dirty work for him. “Back in London,” Neelyn says of the criminal hierarchy there, “Harris is the king.”
Harris is on this trip because he personally wants to deliver $32.7 million (which is about £25 million) in cash to Preston, who owns a large swath of land in the Appalachians, where he employs a loyal group of redneck types to mine the land for precious resources, such as oil. Harris and Preston are longtime allies who became friends after one of them saved the other’s life years ago. (It’s shown as a flashback in the movie.)
The reason for the trip, as Neelyn explains in one of his many gruff, Cockney-accented voiceovers in the film: “Preston needs cash flow. Harris needs a cleaner. Win win—for most.” It isn’t long before viewers see that Neelyn and Harris have a strained relationship with each other because Neelyn tends to be a bit rebellious. We see later in the film that Neelyn is the type of employee who will sometimes question what his boss tells him to do instead of blindly following orders.
The cash tradeoff happens smoothly after the private plane lands on the tarmac. Preston might be involved in illegal deals, but he wants everyone to know that he’s got a noble conscience when it comes to race relations and respecting the environment. But when it comes to murdering people who might get in his way, Preston’s “morality” flies right out the window.
After he gets Harris’ money, Preston has several employees gathered outside, when he sees that a few of his scruffy male employees have arrived in a truck displaying a Confederate flag. Preston immediately rips the flag from the truck, because he says he’s “read history” and he knows that the flag represents divisiveness. When the employees object to Preston taking the flag, he reacts by throwing the flag in a nearby garbage can. “This shit offends me,” Preston growls. “Riding around with [this flag] just says, ‘I’m a fucking loser.'”
Preston also starts lecturing to employees about his political philosophies: “You know, one of our biggest crimes as Americans is that our righteous morality towards nature rarely extends beyond our own backyard … I don’t frack. I don’t use bullshit chemicals. I treat the land with honor and leave it like God intended it to be.”
Now that viewers know that Preston is a criminal who hates the Confederate flag but loves the environment, it isn’t long before the source of the story’s conflict is shown: Preston’s only child Junior (played by Brandon Sklenar), a sleazy and entitled troublemaker who uses his father’s power to bully people and commit all kinds of mayhem because he knows he can get away with it. Preston has some loyal enforcers to carry out his wishes (and clean up Junior’s messes), including top henchman Mitt (played by Bruce McGill), Thomas (played by David Meyers Gregory) and Stoney (played by Dan Buran).
Now that Harris and his posse have done their business deal with Preston, these British criminals don’t expect to be in town for long. There’s a random scene in a barn, where Neelyn is pointing a gun at a older man who arrived with the group on the plane. “We had a good run, you and me,” Neelyn tells the man, who clearly knows what’s going to happen next. The man replies “Yeah,” before Neelyn shoots him dead.
What is the purpose of this poorly written scene? Harris shows up near the barn right after the shooting, so it’s implied that Neelyn shot the guy because Harris ordered him to do it. But it’s never really explained what this murder victim did to deserve being killed in such a cold-blooded manner. If Neelyn has any remorse over this murder, he doesn’t show it.
Meanwhile, at a local bar called 86 Roadhouse, which appears to be the only hotspot in town, Neelyn and Fiona party with their group and some of Preston’s employees. In one of the restrooms, Neelyn and Fiona do cocaine together. Harris looks very out of place in this seedy bar, as if he’d rather be downing cocktails at the ritzy Savoy Hotel in London.
And when Harris sees a coked-up Neelyn, he expresses his disapproval at Neelyn’s intoxicated condition. You see, Harris wants his people to be “classy” criminals, as if he somehow forgot that murdering someone in cold blood in a dirty barn isn’t exactly “classy.” Neelyn inevitably gets in a rough physical fight with a couple of bar patrons, and Neelyn is thrown out of the place.
Harris is outside of the bar and furious with Neelyn. Harris yells at Neelyn: “Only you can can get eighty-sixed from a bar called the fucking 86! I mean, wild animals can’t get thrown out of that fucking place! You are a humiliation to us! You are a fucking embarrassment!”
Neelyn replies, “You finished? Or shall I pull up a chair?” Harris snaps back, “Wind your neck in son, or I’ll cut it off.” That’s a typical example of the cringeworthy dialogue in this movie.
While Harris is verbally ripping into Neelyn outside, Junior is inside the bar making moves on the paid escort named Jackie (played by Elyse Levesque) who accompanied Harris on this trip. Junior’s seduction technique is to ooze out cheesy lines such as “Your beauty is so bright, it hurts my eyes,” while holding up a hand to his face. Jackie is either really drunk, desperate or both, because Junior’s smarminess works on her.
The next thing you know, Jackie and Junior are having sex outside in a not-so-secluded area near the bar. One of the people who sees this impromptu tryst is mild-mannered Will (played by Nicholas Braun), one of Preston’s employees. Junior happens to be Will’s immediate boss, so Will (just like most people who don’t want to see their boss having sex) backs away and says nothing.
Meanwhile, Neelyn and Fiona (who are both drunk and high) are in their hotel room, where they get into a little bit of a lovers’ spat because she wants him to talk about where their relationship is headed, after six years of dating each other. Neelyn is not in the mood for that kind of talk, so Fiona storms out of the room in a huff.
While she’s smoking a cigarette outside, Junior comes sidling up to her like a snake ready to pounce. (He definitely gets around fast.) Junior starts flirting with Fiona and invites her to go back to 86 Roadhouse with him. She politely declines, but he keeps insisting. And then when he walks away, he says she can still change her mind.
When a very hungover Neelyn wakes up the next morning, he notices that Fiona is missing. Harris and the rest of his group are getting ready to board their plane back to London, but Neelyn is frantic over finding Fiona. Harris and Neelyn get in another argument, where Harris orders Neelyn to leave with the group, but Neelyn insists on staying so that he can find Fiona.
Meanwhile, Junior has moved on to another potential sexual conquest: Will’s girlfriend Kara (played by Leven Rambin), who works as a bartender/waitress at another local bar. Kara rebuffs Junior’s aggressive advances (and he uses the same “you’re so beautiful, it hurts my eyes” line with her too), but it’s clear that he doesn’t want to take no for an answer.
Junior later tells Will that Kara is a “hot piece of ass” who doesn’t need to belong to one man. It’s a test of Will’s moral strength in defending his girlfriend from Will’s sexual harassment, but Junior is also testing how far he can abuse his power as Will’s supervisor. People in the area know that Junior is an out-of-control bully, but they’re afraid to do anything about it because they know that Junior’s powerful father Preston will protect him.
Neelyn does some private-detective sleuthing into Fiona’s disappearance. Actually, he just goes back to the 86 Roadhouse and bribes the owner/manager Tomi (played by Joelle Carter) to give him information. To no one’s surprise, Neelyn finds out that Junior was the last person seen with Fiona, because they were hanging out together at the bar until closing time, and Fiona and Junior left the bar together.
Fiona left her wallet behind (a sign of probable foul play), and Neelyn checks his phone and finds a disturbing voice-mail message from Fiona that sounds like she’s being attacked and is yelling for help. When Neelyn confronts Junior about being the last person seen with Fiona, Junior insists that he walked Fiona back to the hotel and that she was perfectly safe the last time he saw her. (No one in this movie bothers to ask for any surveillance video.)
Junior is obviously the main “person of interest” in Fiona’s disappearance, but when Neelyn tells Harris about his suspicions, Harris tells Neelyn to back off of going after Junior. Harris knows that Preston is very protective of his rotten son, so Harris doesn’t want anything to happen to put his own friendship with Preston in jeopardy
Does Neelyn obey Harris’ orders to “back off” of Junior? It’s pretty easy to see where the rest of the movie will go from here, so when the inevitable showdown happens, there’s nothing really unique or surprising about it. “The Big Ugly” isn’t an unwatchable film. It’s just a very forgettable and derivative film that tries to be very lofty and serious-minded, as if it’s pretending that it’s not a substandard B-movie.
In the very beginning of the film, Neelyn is heard declaring in a monotone voiceover: “God. Land. Oil. It’s often said that war is waged for just these three … I didn’t come hear to West Virginia for God.” Actually, the battles in this movie are about none of those three things. “The Big Ugly” might give the impression that there will be a lot of thrilling fight scenes, but instead the movie is an often-tedious drama that takes too long to get to the real action.
Vertical Entertainment released “The Big Ugly” in select virtual U.S. cinemas on July 24, 2020. The movie’s digital/VOD release date is July 31, 2020.