Synopsis – Two brothers try to escape their circumstances by travelling across the country for a no holds barred boxing match that becomes a fight for their lives.
My Take – If you could point out two genres which end up spurting out multiple entries each year, it would be road films and boxing films. Genres which filmmakers of all kind rigorously continue to explore despite their growing familiarity, all in the hopes of creating their ultimate vision of a tale which will be remembered even decades later, like the likes of Rocky, Raging Bull, Midnight Run and Easy Rider.
However here, director Max Winkler (2017’s Flower) mashes these two genres together, all in order to demonstrate an old-fashioned portrait of the sport’s seedy underground that has rarely seen proper spotlight. Debuting at 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, the film is, on some level, a boxing film, but it has almost none of the tropes you’d expect. There is no inspirational training montage, no glitz or glamour, in all honesty, very little fighting, nevertheless, director Winkler’s film works as a well-established character study that doesn’t glorify its grounded dynamics, but manages to be moving and allegorical, mainly due to its wonderful acting.
Sure, not much about the film is wholly original, in fact the familiarity certainly hurts it, but the execution is good enough to never mask its inherent charms, making you relish the narrative instead of resenting it. If you have enjoyed films like Warrior and The Fighter, consider this one as their third cousin.
The story follows Lion (Jack O’Connell) and his overprotective older brother Stanley (Charlie Hunnam), two drifters living on the outskirts of society. Living in a run-down house with their utterly patient dog, who looks on as Stan cooks little brother’s breakfast, stretches his muscles, cracks his back and his neck. After all their main means of making ends meet derives from Lion’s raw boxing ability, as he establishes himself as a powerful force in the bare-knuckle fighting scene.
Unfortunately for them, Stan is also in deep with a local gangster, Pepper (Jonathan Majors), and Lion just lost a fight. They’re desperate, and Stan’s cocksure, smooth-talking tactics aren’t working on Pepper anymore. Although they shouldn’t trust him, they accept the terms of his offer: If they transport Sky (Jessica Barden) to Reno, Nevada, for Pepper, he’ll allow them an entry into a bare-knuckle-boxing tournament called Jungleland in California, were the winner would net $100,000, and if Lion is really as good as Stan says, then this should be easy money.
Right from the moment this plot point kicks in, you have a good idea of where this story is going. There isn’t much to elevate it, and few surprises emerge over the course of its 90-minute runtime, but the narrative and Winkler’s direction keeps you engaged, with the performers enhancing the decently-written characters.
Most boxing films gravitate towards the publicized platform of grand prize fights, with the protagonist often battling it out for pride and a championship belt. This film refreshingly changes that course, with every minor conflict being a life-or-death battle for Lion and Stanley. Director Winkler’s film grounds itself in vivid real-world steaks, enhancing the character’s desperate escape from the poverty line with striking agency and seedy environments.
The script by Theodore B. Bressman, David Branson Smith and Winkler never spoon-feeds emotion or information, letting naturalism rule. He doesn’t glamorize the bloody results of boxing either but instead shows a tenderness and brutality in alternate scenes, with classical music layered into the basest of scenes.
Regardless, the film ultimately works best as a character piece, especially when it adhere to an aimless approach, allowing audiences to breathe and grow alongside its complex characters. For example, Lion is too sensitive to let things unfold as agreed but Stan is too determined to let him ruin this opportunity. So they use each other, turn on each other, and inevitably arrive at a confrontation that’s surely been years in the making. Who really has control in their relationship? Who is more valuable? Have they done all that they have just to sacrifice their souls for nothing more than a chance at happiness? Or will they find the courage to stand-up, not only to each other, but also to the world that’s done everything in its power to keep them down? And how far will they go to preserve what they have upon realizing it’s enough?
We also know how things are going to go when the boys come face to face with Sky’s personality. She is basically their hostage but begins to create a connection with Lion even though he’s got a massive blind spot when it has to do with his own brother. Questions are asked throughout the film but just because you won’t find any profound revelations, though, doesn’t mean the experience is without merit.
And a big hand for that goes to the performances. Jack O’Connell and Charlie Hunnam for some reason are still wildly overlooked despite their success, with both actors imbuing familiar roles with emotional depth and weight. The duo forms a tight-knit dynamic that sells their desperate journey throughout, often digging beneath the surface of their fragile relationship. While Hunnam has made a career of playing the too-cool guy whose every move is confident and slick, here it’s such a relief to see him undermine every element of that image with this performance.
On the other hand, O’Connell juxtaposes Stanley’s presentation with a far more subdued performance, portraying Lion as a quiet warrior who ponders his escape from the fighting lifestyle. Jessica Barden also offerings some of her best work as Sky, forming a winning pair with O’Connell onscreen, while using some of the same tics as she did in The End of the F***ing World, capturing the frustration of a young woman used to being pushed around by men and intent on breaking the pattern of patriarchal abuse in which she’s trapped.
In a smaller role, Jonathan Majors as a local gangster is pretty much wasted. On the whole, ‘Jungleland’ is a strong character-driven drama which despite the absence of an original narrative works largely due to its superb direction and ensemble cast.
Directed – Max Winkler
Rated – R
Run Time – 90 minutes