W. VIR­GINIA MOUN­TAIN MAY­HEM

Vin­nie Jones leads film’s sear­ing cast of tough guys and col­or­ful char­ac­ters

Chicago Sun-Times - - ENTERTAINM­ENT - RICHARD ROEPER MOVIE COLUM­NIST rroeper@suntimes.com | @RichardERo­eper

The Bri­tish foot­baller turned ac­tion star Vin­nie Jones is fea­tured most promi­nently on the poster for the modern-day Western “The Big Ugly,” and his mob en­forcer Neelyn is the nar­ra­tor and driv­ing force for the story, but I was more in­trigued by the sup­port­ing play­ers, a col­or­ful ar­ray of wrong-side-of-the-law types in­clud­ing:

♦ Ron Perl­man’s Pre­ston, a West Vir­ginia oil man/crime boss with a strict eth­i­cal code when it comes to re­spect­ing the sanc­tity of the land.

♦ Bruce McGill’s Milt, Pre­ston’s loyal con­sigliere and gun­man, who owes his life to Pre­ston and will do his bidding, no ques­tions asked.

♦ Brandon Sk­le­nar’s Ju­nior, a hy­brid of two of Don Cor­leone’s sons from “The God­fa­ther.” Ju­nior has the volatile tem­per and vi­o­lent streak of Sonny — but he’s as weak and snivel­ing as Fredo.

♦ Ni­cholas Braun’s Will, a re­cov­er­ing al­co­holic who works for Pre­ston and runs around with Ju­nior, try­ing to keep him out of trou­ble, and Leven Ram­bin’s Kara, a tough but ten­der bar­tender who met Will in a re­cov­ery meet­ing and has fallen in love with him.

♦ Mal­colm McDow­ell’s Har­ris, a Lon­don crime boss who forged an un­likely bond with Pre­ston many years ago.

Throw ’em all to­gether and what do you get? “The Big Ugly” (so named for a jagged trib­u­tary of the Guyan­dotte River), a wildly en­ter­tain­ing, over-the-top, blood-soaked, noir-Western from di­rec­tor/co-writer Scott Wiper that’s filled with stun­ning vi­su­als of the breath­tak­ing and some­times fore­bod­ing coun­try­side (with More­head, Ken­tucky, stand­ing in for West Vir­ginia) and sear­ing per­for­mances from the ensem­ble cast.

“The Big Ugly” kicks off with Jones’ Neelyn, the long­time mus­cle for McDow­ell’s up­scale crime lord Har­ris, run­ning through the woods and try­ing to dodge gun­fire while voic­ing grave nar­ra­tion about how he “didn’t come here to West Vir­ginia for God,” which seems pretty ob­vi­ous given he’s a mob en­forcer and he’s in the mid­dle of a gun­fight.

Flash­back to a few days ear­lier, as Pre­ston awaits the ar­rival of a pri­vate jet car­ry­ing Har­ris and Neelyn and their re­spec­tive com­pan­ions: Jackie (El­yse Levesque), a high-end sex worker on a per­ma­nent re­tainer with Har­ris, and Fiona (Lenora Crichlow), Neelyn’s long­time girl­friend. (I guess the fel­las thought it would be a peachy idea to take the gals on a glam­orous va­ca­tion trip from Lon­don to … Ap­palachia?)

Pre­ston needs fi­nanc­ing for his sprawl­ing and very il­le­gal drilling project; Har­ris is look­ing to laun­der some 25 mil­lion quid. It’s a win-win! Pre­ston wears an over­sized cow­boy hat and rules the re­gion with an iron fist, but he’s no stereo­typ­i­cal Western vil­lain. He doesn’t frack, he takes care of the lo­cal moun­tain folk by pro­vid­ing them with food and jobs, and he doesn’t have any use for good ol’ boys dis­play­ing a Con­fed­er­ate flag from their pickup truck, telling them the flag is a tribute to men “who ripped our na­tion apart un­til fi­nally [they just] quit. They gave up. They lost. You want to fly a flag, hey, go win some­thing. Rid­ing around with this just says, ‘Hey, I’m a f---ing loser.’ ”

After Pre­ston and Har­ris con­sum­mate the deal, a night of wild celebratio­n en­sues. (“Only you could get 86’d from a bar called the f---ing Eighty Six!” Har­ris ex­claims to Neelyn after a bar­room brawl.) Things re­ally go side­ways after Neelyn passes out and the trou­ble­mak­ing Ju­nior in­vites Neelyn’s girl­friend Fiona to have one more drink. Cut to the morn­ing after, and Fiona has gone miss­ing, and her story will not have a happy end­ing.

At that point “The Big Ugly” be­comes a re­venge thriller, with the head­strong Neelyn ig­nor­ing or­ders from Har­ris to re­turn home while vow­ing to end Ju­nior, who is al­most cer­tainly re­spon­si­ble for Fiona’s dis­ap­pear­ance.

Jones is rock-solid as Neelyn, an anti-hero who is at the point in his “ca­reer” where he’s not go­ing to win a fight against a much younger tough guy un­less he finds a handy rock at just the right time. Brandon Sk­le­nar gives a screen-pop­ping per­for­mance as Ju­nior; he’s fan­tas­tic as a mon­ster cloaked in a James Dean per­sona. Best of all, “The Big Ugly” gives us 70-yearold Ron Perl­man and 77-year-old Mal­colm McDow­ell play­ing two very dif­fer­ent sides of the same coin, who re­spect the hell out of one an­other but un­der­stand the rules of the game they’ve cho­sen to play, and find them­selves sit­ting across from one an­other, each with a glass of some­thing strong, each with a gun.

VER­TI­CAL EN­TER­TAIN­MENT

A Bri­tish brawler (Vin­nie Jones) goes hunt­ing after his girl­friend dis­ap­pears in West Vir­ginia in “The Big Ugly.”

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