Acting as a modernization to the nitty-gritty pulp of classic westerns, The Big Ugly operates as an old-school throwback that proudly wears its genre influences. Despite its earnest approach, the film ironically lives up to its ill-fated name, offering an expired experience that never distinguishes itself from the crowded pack of actioners.
The Big Ugly follows Neelyn (Vinnie Jones), a violent enforcer who’s spent his life loyally working for the London crime boss Harris (Malcolm McDowell). While assisting him on an oil deal with old-time friend Preston (Ron Perlman), Preston’s son Junior (Brandon Sklenar) unknowingly murders Neelyn’s girlfriend in the process. Friendships are then put to the test as Neelyn embarks on a relentless pursuit for retribution.
The Big Ugly isn’t without some shameless pleasures. Ron Perlman and Malcolm McDowell continue to display their assured acting ability, developing a lived-in relationship despite rarely being a central focus. McDowell’s quiet presence bodes well in depicting Harris’ controlled menace, while Perlman personifies Preston’s frontiersman charm with personality and depth. Perlman is the sole actor who is able to unearth a semblance of humanity from his role, offering a resonant third act speech that packs a potent punch. I also can’t deny my satisfaction with the film’s action-oriented finale, as director Scott Wiper thankfully grounds his setpieces with a refreshing quaintness that enhances the character’s internal conflicts.
While it may end with a proper bang, much of The Big Ugly’s runtime lingers in machismo conventions. Similar to other actioners (looking at you Force of Nature), there’s a reliance upon conventions that show their age, especially female characters utilization as mere victims of male destruction or gratification. Scott Wiper and Paul Tarantino’s screenplay never imbues its characters with proper dimension, substituting a contrived “code of honor” as the only motive behind their actions. Some actors are able to hold their own with the lackluster material (Vinnie Jones is a competent straight-laced action star), while others suffer substantially from the lack of help (Brandon Sklenar’s mustache-twirling villain never captures the magnetism of his intended purpose).
All would be forgiven if The Big Ugly was infused with a semblance of originality. Unfortunately, Wiper’s direction lacks a much-needed creative spark, flatly developing visuals that never breathe life into the action at hand. I appreciate the director’s dedication to creating an authentic Appalachian landscape (the general concept was based around his family history), yet his stylistic identity relies upon an overused soundtrack to infuse some sort of pulse into the material. Its clear Wiper desperately wants this to be a swaggering noir in the vein of a Guy Ritchie or Martin McDonagh film, but his effort never reaches those lofty aspirations.
Wasting a promising set-up, The Big Ugly never rises to the heights of its genre counterparts.
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