Life is hard. Trying to escape the oft-times vicious cycle of blue-collar life while chasing your dreams is even harder. Director Max Winkler‘s (“Flower”) latest feature “Jungleland” tells the hard-knock story of two brothers, Stanley (Charlie Hunnam) and Lion (Jack O’Connell), who are down on their luck but trying to make a honest go at it on the back of Lion’s knuckles as he tries to make enough money to buy a new life fighting in underground bare-knuckled boxing matches.
Older brother Stanley is the “brains” behind the operation as Lion’s manager and hype-man — but does he have little brother’s best interests in mind? Lion had his boxing license revoked because of Stanley’s prior bad acts and choices and always seems to be cleaning up big brother’s messes. In order to pay off a debt, Stanley and Lion accept an invitation from mid-level crime boss Pepper (Jonathan Majors) to fight in Jungleland (think Jean-Claude Van Damme‘s no-hold’s barred “Bloodsport” minus the “to the death” part). But there’s one condition — they have to transport/”chaperone” a troubled runaway Sky (Jessica Barden) across country to Reno to local crime boss, Yates (John Cullum). The brothers are now in over their heads. Along the way, the trio is hit with obstacles, roadblocks and revelations that threaten not only the brothers’ bond but also their lives.
The brothers have a tragic backstory filled with a deadbeat dad, a mother who died young and an older brother who has taken responsibility the best way he knows how — even though at times it seems like he is a screw-up who is just using Lion and his talents and doesn’t consider the consequences or the lasting effects on. Is Stanley just a selfish a**hole?! Hunnam does an excellent job and pulls no punches in his portrayal — he makes a damn unlikeable character who in the end is just a flawed individual (just like the rest of us) doing the best he knows how. He definitely makes you feel some type of way about him — good or bad.
Jack O’Connell (“Unbroken” “’71” “Skins”) also delivers a noteworthy performance as the sensitive and trusting, more naive brother — but there’s still some edge and grit in him. He loves his brother and he has his own dreams that he’s literally fighting tooth and nail to achieve even though life (and his brother’s decisions) keep knocking him down. They say broken, tragic people tend to gravitate towards each other and we see that with Sky, who comes in with her own tragic story and starts to form a wedge between the brothers — although she believes that she sees Lion for who he really is and believes in him and encourages him to stand up for himself. Jessica Barden seems perfect for Sky — although I’m starting to feel like she’s being typecast as a teenage handful with a tragic backstory and a hard-knock life (don’t get me wrong, she plays it well — seems almost second nature) — things don’t come easy for her (“The End of the F***ing World” “Holler” “Penny Dreadful”).
Solid acting performances aside, “Jungleland” feels really familiar and predictable. The entire film is somber and bleak — from the storyline to the lighting, locations and feel of the film. Filled with clichéd characters, assumptions and toxic relationships, the film struggles to get off the ropes — it goes all twelve rounds, but it sure ain’t pretty. And please don’t look for any fairytale endings — its raw, bleak, tragic and realistic with just a sliver of hope. It puts up a solid fight, but when the final bell rings, we’re all but ready to throw in the towel.
“Jungleland is in select theaters today (November 6) and available on Premium Video-On-Demand and Digital November 10, 2020.