Yikes! Back to 1990, and my first invite to a film set; David Leland’s drama was hoped to herald a new era of British film as a world-beater. Adapting a novel by writer William McIllvanney, The Big Man was designed to take local issues and put them on a global scale, and despite good intentions, it failed at the box office. Retitled Crossing the Line in the US, it’s rarely been seen since VHS, but drops onto Prime in a sharp print that still can’t quite dispel the purposeful moral murk of the story.
The background is the miners’ strike of the 80’s, and the film’s attitude is very much in solidarity with the wronged workers. But unemployed Danny Scoular (an early action lead for Liam Neeson) is a big man worthy of the title, and his physical prowess attracts the attention of Matt Mason (Ian Bannen) a gangster who casually dabbles in the illegal sport of bare-knuckle boxing. Scoular leaves his wife (Joanne Whalley-Kilmer) for the dim sodium lights of Glasgow, where his preparations for the big fight begin, but it’s a battle he can’t win…
The Big Man starts confidently; when Scoular goes for a job interview, he’s assailed by details about his past; ‘it’s not a criminal record, it’s a political record ‘ he explains to a weedy authority figure, but the differentiation is lost on those who seek to misuse his idealism. Danny Scoular hopes to win the day and get back to his family, but Leland’s film makes no bones about this being a Pyrrhic victory. Scoular is dismantled by his experiences, notably a gritty fight scene that seems to go on forever, but certainly makes a point about the limitless potential of man’s inhumanity to man. So a film that starts like a Scottish Rocky, as the big man’s community rallies round him, ended up on a downbeat note with the same community welcoming him back as a broken man.
‘The last time I saw one of these, Hitler was in it…’ Danny notes of Mason’s German-brand luxury car, and The Big Man does best when railing against the corruption of the rich. Mason is a ‘boy from the Gallowgate’ who destroys what he touches, but sees himself in line with the direction of society when he speaks of his birthplace ‘It’s not there now, it’s all rubble, that’s progress,’ he opines, and The Big Man certainly convinces us of the moral poverty of our overlords. McIllvanney was a great writer, one I was lucky enough to share a fly cigarette break with while serving on a BAFTA jury years later; his fluent Laidlaw crime novels would probably have translated better to the big screen than this one. If The Big Man is largely forgotten now, it wasn’t far off a winning formula. It certainly set Neeson in a hot, new tough-guy direction that’s still smouldering today; and it’s a film of historical interest, not least for featuring a cast including Billy Connolly, Peter Mullan, Johnny Beattie, and Maurice Roeves by way of local colour, and even some early Hugh Grant thrown in for a bit of down south action.