JUNGLELAND movie poster | ©2020 Paramount Pictures

JUNGLELAND movie poster | ©2020 Paramount Pictures

Stars: Charlie Hunnam, Jack O’Connell, Jessica Bardem, Jonathan Majors, Fran Kranz, John Cullum
Writers: Theodore P. Bressman & David Branson Smith & Max Winkler
Director: Max Winkler
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Release Date: November 10, 2020

JUNGLELAND at first seems like it’s going to be a fight film. We’re in Massachusetts, where older brother Stanley (Charlie Hunnam) trains his talented younger brother Lion (Jack O’Connell) like a regular boxer.

Even though Lion is powerful and determined fighter, Stanley seems a lot more stoked about the young man’s prospects than Lion does himself. The guys work in a sewing shop by day, but are undeterred by the fact that they’re squatting in an abandoned building with their dog, and by Lion’s inability to box in legitimate matches (Stanley’s activities got his kid brother’s card pulled).

It’s no big surprise to learn that Stanley owes money to a local mobster, Pepper (played entertainingly by Jonathan Majors). However, Pepper is willing to overlook the debt for a cut of Lion’s winnings in an upcoming bare-knuckles tournament in San Francisco. He’ll even throw in a truck so the boys can get there. One condition: Stanley and Lion must take along Sky (Jessica Bardem), a young woman who’s a “friend of the family,” and drop her off in Reno.

Lion likes Sky, Stanley distrusts her. Sky has her own agenda, which JUNGLELAND does a good job of obscuring without misleading us. She also quickly reads the dynamic between the siblings. We at first can’t tell whether Sky is thinking of Lion’s greater good or her own, but she starts talking to him about what she sees.

Director Max Winkler, who wrote JUNGLELAND with Theodore P. Bressman & David Branson Smith, creates a mood of grimy nostalgia. It’s not so much that any of the characters long for the good old days, but rather that JUNGLELAND has the feel of a ‘70s indie.

The film is set in the present, but modern tech doesn’t play a huge part in the proceedings, and its themes are timeless. This also means that a lot of JUNGLELAND’s elements are on the familiar side, but the filmmakers don’t hammer things too hard.

We blessedly don’t get too many fight cliches, partly because the character most invested in the sport isn’t the one actually engaged in it. The characters don’t fit what we think might be their initial molds either. Lion isn’t actually slow-witted, even though he lets Stanley run him. Stanley isn’t delusional, just desperate. As for Sky, she’s genuinely multifaceted.

All three of the leads – Hunnam, O’Connell, and Bardem – give lived-in performances. Veteran John Cullum provides a small but assured turn as a man to be feared.

JUNGLELAND doesn’t provide any revelations, but it does have the pleasures of fare from the days when movies could both broadly fit into the drama genre and still be idiosyncratic.

And a note for people like this reviewer, who will want to know this crucial information before committing to watch the movie: nothing terrible happens to the dog.

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