Boxing’s violent ferocity has taken center stage on the big screen before (Rocky, Raging Bull, Southpaw), but the sport’s seedy underground has rarely seen proper spotlight. That’s where Jungleland comes in, hitting release after its debut at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. While the film adheres to familiar trappings, director Max Winkler’s effort thankfully unearths a soulful, character-driven experience.
Jungleland follows Lion (Jack O’Connell) and his overprotective brother Stanley (Charlie Hunnam) two drifters living on the outskirts of society. There only 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. In order to make up for Stanley’s debts, the two must transport Sky (Jessica Barden) across the country while competing in a heavy-weight boxing match.
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. Jungleland refreshingly changes that course, with every minor conflict being a life-or-death battle for Lion and Stanley. 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 (this is one of the rare movies to not glorify its road trip trappings, with the character’s journey through rustic America not being played as a simplistic travelogue).
It could have been easy for Winkler’s film to sugarcoat its harsh reality with theatrical pleasantries, but the nitty-gritty presentation evokes the character’s dire straights effectively. Whether it’s a championship fight or a brawl in the parking lot, each hard-hitting fight registers a brutal impact that aptly represents Lion’s bare-knuckle style. Winkler’s direction ensures that each punch registers a weighty impact while incorporating a coherent, shaky-cam style that captures the wild furry of each punch.
Under all the swaggering aesthetics, Jungleland ultimately works best as a character piece. Jack O’Connell and Charlie Hunnam are still wildly overlooked despite their success, with both actors imbuing familiar roles with emotional depth and weight. Hunnam steals the film as the lighting rod Stanley, whose fast-talking and vulgar style masks his deeply-seated adoration for his younger brother.
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. The duo forms a tight-knit dynamic that sells their desperate journey throughout, often digging beneath the surface of their fragile relationship (this is one of the few films where the fighter approaches the sport as a source of survival rather than a genuine career pursuit). Jessica Barden also offerings some of her best work as Sky, forming a winning pair with O’Connell onscreen.
Jungleland is at its bruising best when Winkler and company (co-writers David Branson Smith and Theodore Bressman) adhere to an aimless approach, allowing audiences to breathe and grow alongside its complex characters. Outside of these frames, the script embraces far too many sport movie cliches, especially in its initial set-up. The first act struggles to find its voice, implementing over-written plot dynamics that bring this personal story to a needlessly cinematic place. Winkler’s film dances between a formless and narrative-heavy approach without much ease, straddling audiences with exposition that overwhelms its personal core.
The familiarity certainly hurts Jungleland, but it doesn’t mask its inherent charms. Winkler’s film works as a well-established character study that doesn’t glorify its grounded dynamics.