The plot of The Big Ugly doesn’t exactly hold many surprises. It’s a revenge story, starring the muscled-up enforcer exacting violence upon those who done him wrong. What is surprising, though, is the execution of writer-director Scott Wiper’s film, which begins as the story of an oil deal that will make a couple of careers and establish a few questionable alliances. One might expect a half-hearted, action-heavy thriller about a turf war between stock types. What one receives instead could almost count as a character study for most of its middle section, which also happens to include a lot of guns and fistfights.

With that deceptive setup, we get the lowdown on an impending deal between Harris (Malcolm McDowell), a London crime boss, and Preston (Ron Perlman), a West Virginian oil baron and old friend of Harris’. The agreement is mutually beneficial, as Harris needs a place to launder his millions and Preston needs a loan to drill within the States. Along for the ride on Harris’ end are his enforcer/middleman Neelyn (Vinnie Jones), Neelyn’s girlfriend Fiona (Lenora Crichlow), and Jackie (Elyse Levesque), Harris’ own sex worker on retainer. Accompanying Preston are his son and eventual heir, Junior (Brandon Sklenar), Junior’s own lieutenant, Will (Nicholas Braun), and Preston’s mostly silent, unblinking enforcer, Milt (Bruce McGill).

Negotiations come to a distinct and sudden halt, though, when Fiona is found dead at the base of cliff, from which she fell after a night on the town. Neelyn is convinced that Junior, with his hunger for power, had something to do with it. Much of the second act, on the face of it, is formulaic: Neelyn finds and attempts to stop Junior and fails miserably. Underneath that surface, though, is a disarming somberness, as Neelyn disappears into alcohol—egged on by a pretty bartender (Joelle Carter) who introduces him to a new favorite drink (milk with a shot or two of bourbon)—and comes up with feeble plans for revenge.

That isn’t what one expects of the movie, especially considering that Jones, with his rough-hewn features and intimidatingly shaved head, is the star. His performance here is a significant achievement in twisting the persona of the meathead movie star toward something quieter and more vulnerable. It’s a very good turn from an actor who doesn’t seem allowed to stretch those particular muscles very often. Wiper also uses this opportunity to shift focus on the supporting cast, played by actors who have crucially decided to take the opportunity seriously. McDowell and Perlman are having a lot of fun as the head honchos, and Sklenar is plausibly oily as the main heavy.

Even more surprising than all this, though, is the believable romantic drama that develops on the sidelines between Will and Kara (Leven Rambin), another pretty bartender in town. They’ve been dating in secret, behind the back of Junior, who has taken notice of Kara and would rather that Will left her to him. Junior is a raging misogynist—“I don’t do slow,” he says to Kara at one point, when she decides to remind him about the issue of consent—and Will is the likable foil. Braun and Rambin share nice chemistry onscreen, and the pair eventually becomes the moral center for the audience. That certainly isn’t Neelyn, with his fumbling plan for cold-blooded revenge.

Wiper understands this about Neelyn, so that, even with the film’s devolution into an action climax where the bad guy gets his comeuppance and the good guy prevails, the action is as driven by character as by situation. The filmmaker also manages all this in just over 90 minutes, meaning that there are not any distractions in reaching this end game. The Big Ugly is a solid argument for conciseness of story.

Summary
The Big Ugly could almost count as a character study—with guns and fistfights.
70 %
Impressively Concise
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