Jungleland is an effective boxing drama that benefits from bursts of black humor and a very strong Jack O’Connell performance.
Director Max Winkler’s background is in comedy. His resume includes countless recent television sitcom hits, among them Brooklyn Nine-Nine, New Girl, and Casual. I had seen his dramedy Flower a few years ago but had not realized his extensive comedic roots when I sat down to watch the film. I was surprised to find how many times I was laughing at was is ostensibly a very serious movie about a down on his luck boxer, and his opportunist brother traveling across country for The Fight That Will Change Their Lives at the behest of a crime lord.
So many times, as the movie chugs along, something genuinely miserable and unpleasant will happen, and the film will undercut with just enough self-awareness about the inherent over-the-top seriousness of its plot. See, as if the down on his luck boxer plot was not enough, the two are also tasked with transporting a girl, who may be a sex worker, to another crime lord en route. And yet, at each moment, the film chooses to slice the drama with a laugh: a fraught bar argument is interrupted by a moment of slapstick, a giant argument between the brothers is undercut by its setting (a family pizza restaurant) and the aghast expressions of onlookers, a scene of vicious violence has the feel of the Coens.
The film is blessed with a talented, appealing cast. Charlie Hunnam has a bit of the Brad Pitt thing going on – he’s a very handsome man who makes sense as a classical Leading Man, but he’s simply a more appealing performer when used as a character actor. Hunnam is immensely more compelling as a stoic adventurer in James Gray’s The Lost City of Z than he is as a blockbuster lead in something like King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. Here, he effectively undercuts his handsomeness with a dirtbag sort of performance, in line with the expectations of the gritty boxing drama. Jessica Barden (The End of the F***ing World) is an immensely talented straw that stirs the drinks of her scenes. Her slightly off kilter energy seems to keep her scene partners a bit on their heels next to her – it’s an effective skill. The lesser players, among them Jonathan Majors (Lovecraft Country), Fran Kranz (Dollhouse), and John Collum (Northern Exposure), all elevate small roles.
The real star, here, is Jack O’Connell, who remains an actor of tremendous physicality. Despite a fairly slight build, as an athletic performer he makes for a credible bare-knuckle boxer and exudes a sense of stoic masculinity – this is a not a man one wants to confront in anger. His other most noteworthy films, Starred Up, ’71, and Unbroken, are all based around the actor’s physicality. One as a soldier in Northern Ireland, one as a prisoner forced to fight to defend himself, and one as a POW tortured by Japanese soldiers, each showcases an essential toughness that O’Connell brings to the screen. It should not surprise that a scrappy overachieving fighter is deep in his wheelhouse as a performer. O’Connell, however, is a smart enough performer to play some of the most cliché bits of the plot with a twinkle in his eye. There’s just enough humor to the performance to humanize what could otherwise be yet another lunkhead pugilist – his performance alone is reason enough to check out Jungleland.
While the humor worked for me, I cannot help but feel the film is not going to get every viewer on its wavelength. Taken at face value, this is very serious, sad material and the humor is often fairly subtle. I would not be stunned if some viewers see some of the film’s big moments less as bursts of levity and more as distractions from an otherwise serious tone. All told, even if the humor does not click for you, Jungleland makes for a reasonably effective drama thanks to its enjoyable cast and solid production values.
Jungleland debuts in Select US Theaters November 6, 2020, and will be available on Premium Video-On-Demand and Digital November 10.
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