The Big Ugly
by Hope Madden
When my son was young, we liked to watch Animal Face-Off, an educational program that proposed hypothetical battles between animals that wouldn’t normally fight. Sperm Whale v Colossal Squid, African Lion v Nile Crocodile, Walrus v Polar Bear.
Ohioan Scott Wiper delivers a similar culture clash movie: Brit gangster v hillbillies with money. The filmmaker drops us in the Appalachians along with London mob elite Harris (Malcolm McDowell), his muscle, Neelyn (Vinnie Jones), and Neelyn’s girl, Fiona (Lenora Crichlow).
After decades of hard, dirty work, these men are about to make a deal with an oilman who can’t get legal money to drill. They finance Preston (Ron Perlman) and his son Junior (Brandon Sklenar) now, and it pays off for the rest of their lives.
Bills are exchanged, drinks are drunk, but when the dust clears the next day, Fiona comes up missing.
Even at 55, Jones is still an intimidating presence. He’s looking a bit worse for the wear here, but the effect gives Neelyn a weariness that serves the character well. And while it’s always wonderful to see veterans McDowell and Perlman with real characters to dig into, it’s Sklenar who impresses most.
His entitled sociopath schtick slides fluidly from charming and hateful, and the fact that he and writer/director Wiper offer the character both intelligence and physical prowess makes this a villain who may just stand a chance.
It’s also to the filmmaker’s credit that the West Virginians are rarely the oversimplified hillbilly clichés we’ve come to expect.
Which isn’t to say the film is full of nuance. Though the tone is less laughable, The Big Ugly sometimes takes on a Roadhouse feel about it. Plot contrivances and obvious resolutions mark a film that’s clearly breaking no new ground.
The subplot about the heads of the families carries too little weight and too much screen time. It’s hard to complain about an honor-among-thieves conflict between two such beloved genre veterans as Perlman and McDowell, but Wiper tells of the bond more than he shows it, so the payoff feels unearned.
Still, for a B-movie, The Big Ugly delivers what it needs to. Our favorite Animal Face-Off was Hippopotamus v Bull Shark because we love it when the big, lumbering beast you’d bet against turns out to be the badass. Doesn’t everybody?