It would be easy to dismiss Max Winkler’s impressive new film Jungleland as another in a long line of pretenders to the boxing/MMA/fighting sub-genre. Given that the trailers and the poster lean heavily on such plot points to drive interest in the film, you immediately have a picture in your head of what you’re going to get and the narrative choices that will be taken. However, remove your preconceived notions before you give it a whirl as, underneath its sporting shell lies a reflective, moody character piece that is well worth your time.
The film focuses on two brothers, Stanley (Charlie Hunnam) and Walter (Jack O’Connell), who are desperately trying to get out of the endless hole they find themselves in, emotionally, mentally, and financially. Walter is a talented bare-knuckled fighter and an upcoming fight could spell the end of their fiscal worries. But their luck is wearing thin and the loan sharks – namely Jonathan Majors‘ Pepper – are circling. So they cut them a deal: head to a fighting competition called Jungleland to win whilst taking the mysterious young Sky (Jessica Barden) with them, no questions asked.
Winkler’s atmospheric, dark-tinged visuals add depth to the story in tandem with cinematographer Damian Garcia, whilst Lorne Balfe‘s wistful, optimistic score flows underneath with panache. Indeed, the film is most alive when the focus is on the brothers’ relationship, fraught with danger, regret and heartbreak, always one step away from something life-changing but always just too far out of reach. This is where the film gets is power.
What lets it down is those damn cliches, a retreading of what has gone before: it almost relies too heavily on them and ultimately makes the film feel derivative and repetitive despite Winkler and co’s efforts to try to get out from underneath them. Where The Fighter, for example, spent its time trying to undo the convention of the gifted fighter – and his brother – who’s big on talk but delivers very little, Jungleland, sadly, fails to elevate itself, becoming more formulaic than it ought to be. With a narrative so intrinsically linked to themes of broken dreams, redemption, and catharsis through literally blood and sweat that it’s almost impossible to break through, it is thanks to three excellent central turns the film just about stays afloat.
Anyone who has seen Starred Up or ’71 will know of O’Connell’s talents but his turn here may just be his best yet, with a sombre, thoughtful portrayal of a fighter pushed to breaking point, while the superb Jessica Barden continues her quick acceleration into the stratosphere with a dynamite turn as Sky. Hunnam, too, is excellent – which isn’t always the case with him, see King Arthur, for example – but with the right material, he can be great on his day, as he proves here.
Drama | USA, 2019 | 15 | Digital Download, VOD | 30th November 2020 (UK) | Paramount Pictures | Dir.Max Winkler | Charlie Hunnam, Jack O’Connell, Naheem Garcia, Jessica Barden