I am, obviously, scared of Vinnie Jones. Even though he is calling from New York, 3,000 miles and five hours away, I keep expecting him to click his neck three times and pull me into a breathless headlock. But instead, he is sleepy and then charming, and doesn’t threaten to kick my face in once.
He is sleepy because he was up until 2.30am shooting Law & Order: Organized Crime, in which he appears in the recurring role of Albanian gangster Albi. “Going toe-to-toe with Christopher Meloni,” he smiles, “a legend in the acting world.”
The Law & Order gig helps mark a third epoch in Jones’s acting career, one that, at 23 years and counting, now far eclipses his time in professional football. The first boom era saw him back-to-back in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Gone in 60 Seconds, Snatch and then Swordfish, before his first lead role in Mean Machine. It was capped by a triumphant turn in 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand, in which he delivered arguably cinema history’s first ever meme-inspired line of dialogue (“I’m the Juggernaut, bitch!”). Then came era two: a fairly significant period in which Jones would turn up and do a head-butt in every straight-to-DVD release you ever saw.
“If you look at my career, it flew off the rails,” reflects Jones, 56. “Went up, went to Hollywood, everything else: bang, bang, bang, bang, bang. The wheels were going, it was a downhill train and everybody was on it – the train was full! There weren’t a spare seat! – and we loved it and enjoyed it and it was a fantastic part of my life. Never take it back.”
He pauses for breath. Jones, it turns out, loves an extended metaphor. “But then the train starts going uphill, and slowing up. And you’ve got to reinvent yourself; you know, you’ve got to get the train to the top of the hill, so you can go again.”
The current stop is Rise of the Footsoldier: Origins, the fifth instalment in the franchise, originally based on writer Carlton Leach’s account of his days as a bouncer turned nutter in the 80s Essex ecstasy-dealing scene that ended in thebuthas evolved its own complex mythology.
Origins follows Tony Tucker – still, head-spinningly, played by Terry Stone – as he rises through the ranks from muscled playboy to a drug addict making increasingly desperate and misguided plays for power. It is a classic Footsoldier film: shot in venues owned by mates, featuring cameos from people the producers have clearly made friends with on nights out, but still a glossy and lovingly made movie with car chases, head kickings, people mislaying important holdalls and a script so generous with the C-word you assume they are going for some sort of record.
Jones plays Bernard O’Mahoney, real-life security detail and one of the stars of thedocumentaries. He’s capable of great and powerful acts of violence, obviously (his first scene sees him biting off an ear) but guided by an unshakeable – if singular – moral compass.
While Tony goes off the rails, Bernard stays firmly on his, which is why the real O’Mahoney is able to talk about it all today. “He came on set, brought his family down, and we had a good chat,” Jones says. That’s why he was such a good fit for the part, he reckons. “Bernard is his own man. Yes, he licks it with the lads. But when it was time to get out, he got out – and it wasn’t about being scared, or anything like that. He just knew that the balloon was going to go up.”
British true-crime movies – often based on survivors’ self-aggrandising accounts, often funded by the same men who did so well out of the scene they so lovingly depict – are now a significant genre in their own right: a film movement with its own beats and tropes, a homegrown counter to the three-hour American mob epics.
These films – giddily violent, inescapably blokey, British in a very specific way – play to what Jones calls the “young lad generation” who idolise him on Instagram. The problem, of course, is their quality. Some are great. Most – not so much. Jones again plunders the metaphor chest. “It’s kind of like the ice-cream store. If there’s two or three flavours, it’s great – but all of a sudden it gets flooded with 30, 40 flavours. And the two or three flavours start off great, but then they start cutting corners. I do think you can make a British gangster film very cheaply, and this is a problem because you can get away with it.”
He is pleased with Footsoldier. “All I’ve had in the past two weeks is: ‘Oh my God, Vin, you’re going to be so shocked. Your role is absolutely brilliant.’ And I’m chuffed with that.” But this pride comes from having fallen. For the first time in our conversation he pauses. “Do you do some jobs for money? Yeah. Someone comes in and offers you money for a few days. That does happen.”
Jones’s wife, Tanya, died from cancer in 2019; the two had known each other since they were 12 and have a son, who is now in the army. In an emotional interview with Piers Morgan last autumn, Jones said he would never remarry.
He ends our chat cheerful but sage. “You never know,” he says, “I mean: did you ever think I’d score the winner against Man United? Did you think I’d win the FA Cup? Did you think I’d win best British actor [for Bullet-Tooth Tony in Snatch at the 2000 Empire film awards]. And I’ve won loads of awards with[a recent thriller with Malcolm McDowell], as a producer and a film-maker and an actor. Where does it stop?”
Acting now feels less weird than being a footballer, he says: “With Law and Order I find myself totally at home in a big role.” He has been seeing a therapist, he says, who asked him when he last thought he had dignity, when he had the most pride in himself. Aged 18, he told him. “And he said: ‘And when did you start drinking?’ And I said, ‘Eighteen’” He lets out a short laugh that sounds more like a fight ending than a dust-up starting.
Rise of the Footsoldier: Origins is released on 3 September