To be very reductive, I could describe Jungleland to you as a grimier version of The Fighter, that 2010 film in which Mark Wahlberg played Micky Ward, and Christian Bale lost approximately a billion pounds to play his half-brother Dicky Eklund, and Amy Adams was, once again, robbed of an Academy Award, this time by co-star Melissa Leo. If you recall that based-on-a-true-story film: Ward was a has-been boxer in Lowell, Massachusetts, being trained by drug-addicted Dicky and belittled by their mother, Alice, as he fell in love with waitress Charlene; the movie traced his rags to riches story and presented it as one of triumph. Come on, this was a Marky Mark movie! You expected him to agree to star in a movie in which he would lose?
There are riches lusted for in Jungleland, and a down-on-her-luck young woman with a heart of gold, and an uneasy relationship between two brothers. Surface-level, all that stuff lines up with The Boxer. But Jungleland succeeds by tracing how people scrape together a life in the margins, how you accumulate debt and miss out on opportunities, how one fuckup can lead to another fuckup can lead to an endless stream of fuckups. This all feels a bit like an Elmore Leonard story rather than a “sports movie,” honestly—small-town gangsters and underground crime syndicates, final dollars spent on diner coffee, the allure and impossibility of California. Not much of Jungleland is wholly original, but the execution is good enough that you’ll relish the familiarity of the narrative instead of resenting it.
The film from director Max Winkler (yes, Henry’s son!) and co-writers David Branson Smith (who penned modern classic Ingrid Goes West and the Shailene Woodley/Sam Claflin film Adrift) and Theodore B. Bressman doesn’t waste any time introducing us to brothers Stan (Charlie Hunnam) and Lion (Jack O’Connell), living in a run-down house with their utterly patient dog, who looks on as Stan cooks little brother Lion’s breakfast, stretches his muscles, cracks his back and his neck. They look like they’re barely scraping by—and then we learn the house isn’t even theirs; they broke into the bank-possessed property to spend the night, and things are even more dire than you initially think.
Because Stan is in deep with a local gangster, Pepper (Jonathan Majors, doing a complete 180 from his role in this spring’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco), and bare-knuckle-boxer Lion just lost a fight. They’re desperate, and Stan’s cocksure, smooth-talking, braggadocio tactics aren’t working on Pepper anymore. Although they can’t—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 entry into a bare-knuckle-boxing tournament in California. The winner of Jungleland could net $100,000, and if Lion is really as good as Stan says, then this should be easy money, Pepper reasons.
There is no such thing as easy money, though, and the road trip the brothers embark upon with Sky isn’t easy, either. Lion, so used to spending all his time with Stan, relishes the opportunity to interact with someone new: He’s gentle with Sky, asking her questions about her life, who she is, why she’s being dragged against her will back to Nevada. Sky, for her part, has no patience for this—she’s already planning an escape strategy, and she doesn’t really care if Lion gets hurt. But Lion is Stan’s meal ticket, and he’ll protect his younger brother by any means necessary—and he’s not above pulling a gun to get his way.
Hunnam has made a career of playing the too-cool guy whose every move is confident and slick (Triple Frontier, Papillon, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, and of course Sons of Anarchy), and it’s such a relief to see him undermine every element of that image with this performance. Stan is awful but also deeply pitiable, a person convinced of his own superiority and unaware of (or perhaps unwilling to see) his own mediocrity. He’s gotten by on his good looks and his ability to spin a story for a long time, but the movie never buys into his schtick. We see Stan for the Fredo Corleone that he is, a man who advises “Don’t trust the banks” (because he could never, ever secure a loan) and who sells out his brother to get out of a debt of his own making. There is humanity to this character, but a pathetic kind of it, and it’s the best Hunnam has been since Pacific Rim.
O’Connell and Barden, meanwhile, have to hold their own against Hunnam and his outsized character, and they both manage quite well. O’Connell combines the wiry energy of a young man used to far too much violence with the fragility we used to see in Anton Yelchin, and is thoroughly heartbreaking as a person who has almost nearly accepted that life will never get better than this. And Barden, using some of the same tics as she did in The End of the F***ing World, captures 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. O’Connell’s Lion and Barden’s Sky see in each other people fleeing from their families but unsure of where to go next, and their relationship is a good counter to the uber-masculinity of Stan and Lion.
“We fight,” Stan says of his and Lion’s way of life; “I fight,” Lion counters, and although the push-push of their dynamic isn’t unfamiliar, Hunnam’s and O’Connell’s performances are so good that you’ll get caught up in not only their brotherly bond but in the increasingly bloody world they occupy. Jungleland might not be the most original narrative concept, but the chemistry of the ensemble cast, the believable grittiness of this narrative, and the way it subverts your expectations for a boxing movie make it engrossingly worthwhile.
Jungleland was a special presentation film at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.
Header Image Source: TIFF