Max Winkler’s Jungleland has a strange sense of familiarity. It’s yet another tale of brothers and boxing, a film where the brutality of broken knuckles meets the tragedy of an unfulfilled life and fragile dreams. Other films, such as Gavin O’Connor’s Warrior and the Oscar-winning, David O’Russell -directed The Fighter pull off mightier punches, but Jungleland gives us something many have been craving for - a truly, authentically great performance from Charlie Hunnam.
Stan Kominsky (Hunnam) trains and manages his younger boxing brother Walter (Jack O’Connell), whom he calls Lion. Stan is all talk - he has big plans for them both and has a sense for how Lion is going to win the next fight which will likely be their long-awaited ticket to fame and success. The pair are involved with crime boss Pepper (Jonathan Majors) and, of course, owe him money. To forgive their debt, Pepper promises Lion can fight in Jungleland, a boxing tournament across the country, but they also have to transport a mysterious, young girl Sky (Jessica Barden) with them to a shady address.
For a film that feels so quintessentially American, it’s surprising that all three leads are in fact British. Barden, Hunnam and O’Connell all share wonderful chemistry and Barden - known for the fantastically bonkers and off-beat End Of The F***ing World - more than holds her own against the more seasoned Hunnam and O’Connell.
Hunnam, who is often so wooden and unconvincing, turns in his best, almost career-making performance here. Stan is a tragic character and Hunnam taps into his emotional core with ease and commitment. The role is considerably meatier than anything he has done in years and it’s a pleasure to see the actor do a role worthy of his talents. The only thing holding him back is a script that lacks nuance and something unique.
O’Connell and Barden work well together and while O’Connell is clearly talented, he’s a little bland. Lion comes across as a blank canvas of a character, someone to be moulded by the actor himself, but next to Hunnam’s electrifying turn, O’Connell never quite manages to portray Lion’s internal struggles as strongly. It’s not a bad performance, just a tad uninspired at times, but when needed, O’Connell turns everything up and towards the end, finds the emotional beats that are sorely needed for Lion’s personal narrative to have an effect.
While Jungleland is mostly an engaging watch, there is something missing. It never quite comes together and feels generic, perhaps because the subject matter has been done so many times in recent memory. The ending doesn’t hit quite as hard as it should, to no fault of the actors, but perhaps Winkler needed to shake it all up a little more. Clichés are clichés for a reason and they can be executed with grace and effectiveness, but Jungleland promises more than it can deliver, which is a shame because there’s a lot of good here, but much like the Kominsky brothers’ life, it’s all unfulfilled potential.
Visually, Winkler and DP Damián García focus on a lot of close ups and handheld cameras to convey the recklessness and lack of focus in the brothers’ life. Especially in the film’s first 20 minutes, there’s poetry to the images Winkler and García produce. While there isn’t nearly as much boxing as you’d expect from a film like Jungleland – it morphs into a road movie early on – the fights are bloody, sweaty and bruising, physical in a way that makes you feel every punch in your gut as you watch them land on O’Connell.
Jungleland might be a frustratingly uneven film, but it is enjoyable and watchable. The chemistry between the leads and ambitious visuals make up for the lack of a better script but they aren't enough to save it. It does finally provide Hunnam with a role he can sink his teeth into and show off his variety and range as an actor, something that has been lacking in his career to date.
Jungleland is out on limited release November 6 and PVOD and digital November 10 in the US. It will also be available to download and rent in the UK from November 30.