“Jungleland,”now available on VOD and playing in select theaters (I know for a fact it’s running at Goodrich Quality Theaters’ Brownsburg 8, Lebanon 7 and Eastside 10 in Lafayette, Ind.), feels like a film of yore. It very much gives off the vibes of a 1970s product what with its flawed protagonists, blue collar burnish, slow burn pacing and emphasizing character over plot. The movie it most reminds me of is Walter Hill’s 1975 Charles Bronson/James Coburn-fronted directorial debut “Hard Times.”
Stanley (Charlie Hunnam) and Lion Kaminski (Jack O’Connell, “Godless”) have appropriately enough fallen upon hard times. Their Dad didn’t want ‘em and took off. Their Mom died when they were young leaving the elder Stanley to care for the younger Lion. Lion has preternatural abilities as a boxer. Abilities that could’ve taken he and Stanley out of Falls River, Mass., the house they’re squatting in and their crappy gigs at a sewing factory. That is, had Stanley not been busted attempting to bribe a judge blowing Lion’s shot. Lion has since been relegated to bare-knuckle bouts in smoky back rooms.
Further complicating matters, Stanley owes substantial gambling debts to Pepper (Jonathan Majors, hot off of “Da 5 Bloods” and “Lovecraft Country”) and his associate, Buck Noble (Fran Kranz, best remembered as the stoner in “The Cabin in the Woods”). If he can’t pay, the men will most assuredly kill him. Pepper makes Stanley a deal – he’ll stake Lion in the San Francisco-based Jungleland bare-knuckle boxing tournament if they take Sky (Jessica Barden, “The End of the F***ing World”) along with them and drop her off to Yates (John Cullum) in Reno, Nev. After all, what’s a little human trafficking between friends?
“Jungleland,” co-written by Theodore Bressman (a staff writer on Hulu’s “Future Man”), David Branson Smith (co-writer of “Ingrid Goes West”) and Max Winkler (son of Henry – “Ayyyyyy!”), directed by Winkler and executive produced by Ridley Scott, is deeply sad despite being broadly entertaining. I’ve only seen bits and pieces of Winkler’s 2010 directorial debut “Ceremony” on cable (I enjoyed what I saw) and haven’t seen his 2017 follow-up “Flower,” but he proves to be an assured enough voice here that I’ll backtrack to catch up with his earlier efforts and look forward to whatever he does next. The dude obviously has a deft touch with actors. “Jungleland” is very much a three-hander relying largely on the performances of Hunnam, O’Connell and Barden – all of whom are captivating. Hunnam especially is a revelation. His Stanley is aggravating and sympathetic in equal measure. This is likely the best work of Hunnam’s career revealing dimensions heretofore unseen – besting impressive turns on FX’s “Sons of Anarchy” and in Guy Ritchie’s “The Gentlemen” from earlier this year.
As the mouthy older brother of a more athletically-gifted younger brother, I felt “Jungleland” in my bones. (I was grounded when I was 10 for gambling on one of my brother’s little league games.) Sports movies involving father-son and brother-brother relationships are emotional catnip to me. “Field of Dreams” is one of my Top 15 fave flicks of all-time. “Warrior” and “Creed” are two of my favorite films of the last 10 years and are two of my favorite sports pictures of all-time. “Jungleland” doesn’t quite reach this rarefied air and concludes a tad too neatly, but when Bruce Springsteen’s queued up late (it’s not the song you’re thinking, but rather “Dream Baby Dream” off of 2014’s High Hopes) you’ll be hard-pressed to not turn into a sobbing mess. This is cinema of catharsis.