“Jungleland” premiered back in 2019 at the Toronto International Film Festival to mostly positive reviews, but like most films these days, it has since fallen into the COVID blender and received a small theatrical run before releasing on VOD.
That’s a real shame, considering this is a film I would have loved to see on the big screen. Harkening back to the glory days of 1970s gritty cinema, everything you see feels so tangible and “lived-in.” From the locations and the performances to the directing style and story, there’s a certain authenticity and commitment here that is contagious – enough so to allow audiences to forgive the somewhat frustrating and derivative nature of the story.
Two brothers, Stanley (Charlie Hunnam) and Lion (Jack O’Connell), are a bare-knuckle boxing duo. Stanley is the ne’er-do-well older brother who plays the role of manager and hype man, helping train and keep his brother on track, while Lion is the boxer, once an up-and-comer in the ring who has now resorted to shady backroom brawls for a few hundred bucks if he’s lucky.
It’s evident from the beginning that Stanley is the brains of the operation, as he seeks his own self-interest over Lions at every turn. This behavior leads the brothers into the debt of the wrong people, and broken promises put them up against the wall with a local hustler named Pepper, played by the outstanding Jonathan Majors, who eats up every second of his minimal screen time. Pepper tells them he will wipe their slate clean if Lion enters a big fight in San Francisco with a $100,000 prize. On top of that, the brothers also have to “deliver” a young woman named Sky (Jessica Barden) to a man in Reno, no questions asked. Desperate and broke, the two reluctantly take the deal and hit the road, as Pepper fronts them a car, cash and a gun.
At this point, there are about 15 other films off the top of my head that follow the same basic premise and characters. “The Fighter” and “Warrior” come to mind, and they’ve both done a better job. The advantage that “Jungleland” has, though, is its focus on the relationship between the brothers. Hunnam and O’Connell are great, but it is Hunnam who shines the brightest. This is his movie and it delivers a great argument for his role as a character actor. His cocksure attitude and schemes may feel familiar, but he brings such depth and nuance to the role. The subtleties in his acting when things continue to worsen is so empathetic. He feels compelled to take care of his brother, either from the guilt of getting them into the mess, or that innate brotherly sense of duty. Either way, you can connect with their plight and you feel those emotions. They are squatting in bank-owned houses and hustling back-alley deals just to survive, hoping to make enough money to have a chance at living their dream.
The supporting character of Sky brings life to the story. She quickly catches the attention of Lion and helps him begin to question the antics of his brother, ultimately helping him stand up against his gaslighting and lies. Barden’s role is not just that of motivation for Lion, she is also at the bottom looking up, trying to navigate the same world that has taken advantage of her, too.
In “Jungleland,” director Max Winkler has crafted a story of survival that feels familiar, both cinematically and personally. The direction is solid and clear, leading to a visceral reaction in the climax, rather than succumbing to a cliché conclusion. The fight scenes are few, but they are well choreographed and quite brutal, leaning into the realistic as opposed to the flashiness of some of the film’s peers.
In the end, it’s the humanity and gritty reality that send this film into the upper echelon of sports dramas.
Film critic and member of the North Carolina Film Critic Association.