Above the desk of the great British screenwriter Bruce Robinson there is an old, yellowing copy of a photograph taken during an FA Cup match in 1988. It’s not even that Robinson – who made the peerless Withnail & I, before winning a Bafta for The Killing Fields – is a particularly die-hard football fan; he just has a keen interest in the ways humans try to gain and hold power over each other. That’s what draws him to the famous picture of Wimbledon enforcer Vinnie Jones reaching back one-handed to squash Newcastle playmaker Paul Gascoigne’s testicles like ripe plums. “That’s one of the funniest photos ever taken,” Robinson once told me. “If someone’s got you by the knackers, you’re f***ed.”
Jones is not your typical cinematic muse. He has a glare like someone’s just bad-mouthed his mum’s cooking and a giant granite head like he’s just pulled himself out of the dirt on Easter Island. Still, Robinson is far from the only filmmaker to find inspiration in the man who was once booked for committing a foul just three seconds after a game kicked-off.
Since starting his unlikely cinematic career with Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels in 1998, Jones has gone on to appear in some 80 films, often playing remorseless, taciturn types in a whole lorryload of British gangster capers, the odd American blockbuster and a string of international away days in productions as far afield as Japan (2004’s Survive Style 5+), Kazakhstan (2011’s The Liquidator) and Hungary (2012’s Magic Boys). He made his Hollywood debut in 2000’s Gone in 60 Seconds, sharing the screen with Nicolas Cage and Angelina Jolie, and followed it up with Swordfish – which turns 20 on Tuesday – alongside John Travolta, Halle Berry and Hugh Jackman.
Needless to say, it was all a far cry from rubbing shoulders with the likes of John Fashanu and Dennis Wise in the Wimbledon dressing room. As a player, Jones was the archetypal hard man who took great relish in a two-footed, studs-up tackle. He’d been semi-pro for non-league Wealdstone while working on a building site before he was signed by Wimbledon for £10,000 in 1986. By 1988, he was a key member of the famed “Crazy Gang” squad who pulled off a shock upset over Liverpool in the FA Cup final – a victory that owed at least something to Jones’s successful handling of Gascoigne in the fifth round.
Jones got his first taste of celluloid infamy in 1992 when he released a football compilation video of the sort that was all the rage in pre-internet days. Entitled Vinnie Jones – Soccer’s Hard Men, it compiled clips of clattering fouls and placed Jones in the tough-tackling lineage of Graeme Souness, Nobby Stiles and Ron “Chopper” Harris. (The whole thing is on YouTube – fair warning: it opens with Jones in just his tighty-whiteys.) The FA were horrified and fined Jones a record £20,000 for glorifying foul play. The Wimbledon chairman Sam Hammam called Jones “a mosquito brain”, although presumably not to his face.
The outrage did nothing to harm Jones’s newly minted reputation as Britain’s hardest man. That renown is exactly what Guy Ritchie was looking to trade off when he wrote Jones the part of debt collector Big Chris for his audacious gangster debut Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. “Guy wrote the script and he said, ‘Obviously the ideal person would be Vinnie Jones,’” remembers the film’s casting director Celestia Fox. “I got hold of him and he came in. He was completely delightful, always. It was very hard to believe that he was that ‘hard man’ at Wimbledon. Of course, now he plays a hard man all the time but he’s the gentlest, sweetest person and completely unlike that.”
Although Jones had no experience on stage or screen, Fox says she never doubted for a moment that he could convincingly pull off a role that required him to not only slam people’s heads in tanning beds and car doors but also sweetly dote on his foul-mouthed young son.
“He’d never acted before, but one can tell with certain people that they can act and it will be perfectly fine, and he was one of those,” says Fox, who compares Jones favourably to the other members of the cast. “Jason Statham couldn’t act. When we first met him, he was absolutely useless but it took such a long time to make the film that by the time we did it he’d vaguely got the hang of it. But Vinnie had this amazing star quality. He walks into a room and everyone looks at him. He’s very good looking. You know that gloss that people get when they become stars? He always had that. He has extraordinary presence.”
It wasn’t just Fox who thought so. Speaking toThe Big Issue last year, Jones reminisced about the time he received the seal of approval from two titans of British cinema. “After Lock, Stock I had people like Bob Hoskins and Michael Caine say to me, ‘You’ve got a career in this,’ and I said, ‘Really?’” he recalled. “And they said, ‘You have got a massive screen presence – the minute you come on screen you just take over, no matter who’s on the screen with you.’ Bob Hoskins and Michael Caine both said that to me.”
When Hollywood came calling, it was pretty much just Jones’s presence they were interested in. In Gone in 60 Seconds his character, Sphinx, is supposedly a “mute”. But then, from nowhere, he delivers a lengthy, show-stopping monologue, a twinkling jewel of sagacity played for laughs at the end of the film: “If his unpleasant wounding has in some way enlightened the rest of you as to the grim finish beneath the glossy veneer of criminal life and inspired you to change your ways, then his injuries carry with it an inherent nobility, and a supreme glory. We should all be so fortunate. You say poor Toby? I say poor us.” It’s an excuse, really, for Cage to crack a joke about Sphinx’s thick British accent: “Hey man, I thought you were from Long Beach?”
Reviewing the film for The Independent, Anthony Quinn noted: “The role is something of a step back after Jones’s turn in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, requiring minimal exertion and even fewer ‘verbals’ – a bit like 90 minutes on the subs’ bench at Wimbledon FC, only with bigger pay cheques.”
Jones played another strong and silent heavy in Gone in 60 Seconds director Dominic Sena’s follow-up Swordfish, although this time his big line was less philosophical and more graphically violent. “I know what you’re thinking,” he menaces a hostage. “You’re thinking: If that [rocket] launcher was a suppository, would that bad man stick it up my ass?”
Even at this early stage of his acting career, Jones was starting to become wary of always playing to type. “It’s frustrating for me,” he told The Independent on Sunday in 2001, “because everyone’s saying, ‘Well, you’re typecast now. You can only play the debt collector.’ And I wanna try and get these movies going, get them in the bag and say, ‘There you are, that’s what I’m trying to do.’” He added that he wasn’t motivated by money. “I haven’t got a million quid for all of them put together,” he said. “I earned my money as a footballer. I’m doing this because I enjoy it, and I want people to go to the pictures and get a good feeling about a British movie.”
Jones got the chance to prove his leading man credentials in a British movie with 2001’s Mean Machine, a remake of the 1974 prison comedy The Longest Yard starring Burt Reynolds as a former NFL player coaching a team of prisoners against their guards. Jones, finally given enough lines to prove how funny he can be, wrings humour out of not only his portrayal of a self-indulgent superstar brought low, but also the various footballing set-pieces – such as him repeatedly smashing free kicks at a hapless guard’s “carrot and onions”.
The Americans were clearly taking note of Jones’s comic chops because he was cast in a handful of comedies after that, including 2004’s The Big Bounce (in which he gets hit in the head with a baseball bat by Owen Wilson), EuroTrip (in which he plays a football hooligan who opens beer bottles with his eye sockets), and 2006’s She’s the Man (in which he plays a drill sergeant-style “soccer” coach). Loosely based on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, She’s the Man was written by Karen McCullah and Kirsten Smith and they were impressed by Jones’s natural comic ability. “I couldn’t understand most of his accent so I’m not sure if he said our lines or not,” recalls McCullah. “But he was funny.”
At first, Jones tried to resist his inevitable typecasting. In recent years, though, he’s leant into it with all the force of one of his signature headbutts, happily bouncing between American thrillers with aging action heroes such as Stallone and Schwarzenegger (in 2013’s Escape Plan) and low-budget European gangster flicks that often sound more fun to film than they are to watch. In 2012, on Never Mind the Buzzcocks, pop star Jamelia discussed starring in the Hungarian production Magic Boys alongside Jones and a massive live bear. “Vinnie Jones is basically pushing me into the bear enclosure,” she recalled. “Vinnie really gets into character, so he’s like, ‘Get in there!’” That was a busy year for Jones, who also voiced a rocket-powered trapeze dog in the big-budget animated comedy Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted – although I doubt even he could quotes any of his handful of lines from it (we’ll give you one: “Oi! Naff off, you muppet!”).
Surprisingly, despite the ease with which he can play a brutish and terrifyingly laconic henchman, his only ever appearance in a superhero film came 15 years ago, in X-Men: The Last Stand. He would later complain that his part had been cut down, but even with reduced screen time, it’s a delight to see the former Crazy Gang member as the hulking Juggernaut, one of Magneto’s goons. His oversized presence makes sense on a comic book scale, and he gets one of the film’s biggest laughs when, looking out at Alcatraz, he asks his boss how they’re going to get there as he can’t swim. He remains imposing despite the fact he spends much of the film wearing a mystical metal helmet that makes him look undeniably phallic. Jones even manages to pull that off. It seems somehow fitting for a man who knows the value of taking life by the knackers.