Review: ‘The Big Ugly,’ starring Vinnie Jones, Malcolm McDowell, Nicholas Braun, Leven Rambin, Lenora Crichlow and Ron Perlman

July 31, 2020

by Carla Hay

Vinnie Jones in “The Big Ugly” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“The Big Ugly” 

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.

Brandon Sklenar in “The Big Ugly” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

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.

Review: ‘I Am Vengeance: Retaliation,’ starring Stu Bennett and Vinnie Jones

June 20, 2020

by Carla Hay

Stu Bennett in “I Am Vengeance: Retaliation” (Photo courtesy of Saban Films)

“I Am Vengeance: Retaliation”

Directed by Rob Boyask

Culture Representation: Taking place in unnamed cities in England, the action flick “I Am Vengeance: Retaliation” has a predominantly white cast (with a few black people and Asians) portraying highly trained government mercenaries and the criminal underworld.

Culture Clash: A mercenary for hire ends up leading a team to capture a rogue former agent who’s become an outlaw fugitive.

Culture Audience: “I Am Vengeance: Retaliation” will appeal to people who like an action flick to be ultra-violent and don’t care if the movie is dumb.

Vinnie Jones in “I Am Vengeance: Retaliation” (Photo courtesy of Saban Films)

Even before anyone watches a second of the action film “I Am Vengeance: Retaliation,” it’s easy to see that it’s mindless schlock that doesn’t try to pretend that it isn’t. There are hints at the end of the movie that the filmmakers (including writer/director Rob Boyask) hope that it can turn into a franchise. But if there are any sequels to this movie (which won’t have a large audience), then don’t expect there to be any improvements. You can’t turn noxious garbage into a gourmet meal.

“I Am Vengeance: Retaliation” doesn’t waste any time in showing its nonstop parade of violent killing sprees and hand-to-hand combat. The opening scene is of mercenary-for-hire John Gold (played by Stu Bennett) storming into a strip club with an assault rifle. He sees three goons who are in charge at the club and demands that they confess to the kidnapping and homicide of a young woman whose murdered body was found the day before.

John tells the assembled thugs that he was hired by the young woman’s parents to get justice for her murder. John says that he knows that the strip club was the last place where she was seen alive before she disappeared two weeks prior. The three hoodlums at the club (who are also armed with guns) refuse to confess, so John proceeds to kill them all. He shoots two of them to death, and he murders another one by breaking his neck.

This is the kind of movie where someone who is outnumbered and outgunned still manages to pick off opponents, one by one. It’s the type of action sequence that happens over and over until it becomes a very boring and predictable repeat loop that strangles any type of suspense this story could have had.

After committing this murder spree in the strip club, John steps outside to find a secretive government agent named Frost (played by Mark Griffin) conveniently waiting for him. Frost tells John that he wants John to lead a team to find and capture one of John’s former colleagues named Teague (played by Vinnie Jones), who was declared dead but the government has recently discovered that Teague is actually still alive.

Teague is a former government operative who went rogue several years ago, by turning on his team (which resulted in the murder of several members), and he went underground to become a mastermind criminal. Teague’s dirty dealings include assassinations, arms deals and illegal smuggling.

And what’s in it for John if he helps capture Teague? Frost tells John that the government will wipe John’s entire slate clean. It’s left up to this movie’s viewers to imagine what that means.

The next thing you know, John is in a bunker type of room, in a secret meeting with Frost, a crusty leader named Commander Grayson (played by David Schaal) and the five other members of the operative team tasked with finding Teague. Commander Grayson tells the team that their mission is to transport Teague to an “off the books” airbase then fly him to an “ever so hush-hush” area where “he’ll live out his days in a steel box.”

Two members of this team are the ones who spend the most time with John on the assignment: tough-as-nails Rachael (played by Lainy Boyle) and John’s right-hand man Shapiro (played by Sam Benjamin), who acts as if he wants to be like Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt character in the “Mission: Impossible” movies. The members of this team don’t have very distinct personalities from each other because they’re basically written as people who act like programmed robots or characters in a video game, by going into automatic fight mode when the situation calls for it.

It doesn’t take long for the team to capture Teague, but he escapes when the van they’re in is attacked by a mysterious, masked sniper. This sniper is named Jen Quaid (played by Katrina Durden), and she has an agenda that’s different from John’s team: She wants to kill Teague. Her reason for doing so is extremely predictable, as if the movie’s title isn’t enough of a hint.

The rest of the movie then shows John’s team battling with Teague’s group of thugs to re-capture him, while both groups are also trying to fight off Jen, who’s a one-woman army with martial-arts skills and some hidden tricks up her sleeve. Because there’s not much of a plot to this mindless fightfest, “I Am Vengeance: Retaliation” repeatedly shows Teague being captured and then escaping and then being captured. Rinse. Spin. Repeat.

The “I Am Vengeance: Retaliation” costume design by Emily-Rose Yiaxis has to be singled out here as especially unimaginative and (quite frankly) lazy. Everyone in the movie’s fight scenes is dressed head to toe in black, except for Teague’s “trophy girlfriend” fiancée Pearl (played by Jessica-Jane Stafford), who’s decked out in a fur coat and a low-cut red dress to show off her ample cleavage. Not surprisingly, Pearl doesn’t really do much except stand around and observe the action. Wouldn’t want to mess up that fur coat.

One of the funniest things about “I Am Vengeance: Retaliation” is it repeatedly does what bad action movies do: When someone is captured or has a gun to their head, instead of being killed right away (which is what would probably happen in real life), the captor spends a lot of time talking while holding the gun (or knife or grenade or whatever weapon is used) to someone’s head/neck/whatever, thereby leaving enough time to be caught off guard and overtaken. It happens so many times in this movie that as soon as someone with a weapon pauses to talk in the middle of a physical fight, it’s almost a guarantee that the motormouth is going to be ambushed.

John is apparently a legendary mercenary because even some of Teague’s thugs are slightly in awe of him. When one of Teague’s henchmen named Renner (played by Bentley Kalu) holds a knife to John’s neck and is about to kill him, Renner drags out the moment by striking up a conversation with John. When one of his cohorts admonishes Renner for taking his time to kill John, Renner says, “Don’t rush me. I’m killing a hero here.” Renner then asks John, “Any last words?” John’s reply: “Prepare to be deeply embarrassed.”

It goes without saying that the movie’s terrible dialogue can make watching this dreck somewhat bearable if people can laugh at how bad it is. In one scene where Rachael wishes John good luck when he temporarily goes off on his own to find Teague, she says to him, “Don’t get killed and stuff.” In another scene when John and Teague have an inevitable one-on-one showdown, Teague says to John: “You’re like herpes. I can’t get rid of you.”

There is no cure for herpes, but there’s a cure for anyone who experiences this stupid junk pile of an action film: Watch a “Mission: Impossible” movie instead.

Saban Films released “I Am Vengeance: Retaliation” on digital and VOD on June 19, 2020.




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