It feels like we’re watching the same fight over and over. Some time ago, boxing films seemed to collectively decide to feature the exact same plot and most of the same characters as one another. Ever since then, they’ve all been fighting the same fight and dreaming the same dreams.
Jungleland tells the story of Lion (Jack O’Connell, sporting a very unfortunate rattail), a barely semi-pro boxer, and his brother/manager, Stanley (Charlie Hunnam) as they try to make it big and rise above their less-than-ideal circumstances. When they take a deal with a crime boss named Pepper (Jonathan Majors) to escort a young lady, Sky (Jessica Barden), to California before a big fight, they accept, setting off on a sort of blue collar odyssey across the midwest.
If you couldn’t tell, Jungleland doesn’t feature a very original or imaginative plot. You have a strained brotherly relationship, a fighter in over his head, a person who enters their lives and turns them upside down, an ugly and temporary falling out, the whole nine yards. It does garner some points for following the brothers’ trajectory to its logical and ugly end, but for the most part the plot is more of a greatest hits collection of cliches rather than a satisfying story, no matter how beautifully presented.
And I will give it this: Jungleland is a beautiful film to watch. Cinematographer Damián Garcia makes sure to fill the screen with muted greens and oranges, lovingly capturing the hardscrabble lifestyle these characters live. Everything from cheap hotel suites to the grimy rings that Lion fights in are captured with a sort of romanticism; characters are often framed centrally amid the chaos of their lives, as if the entire world is constantly surrounding and weighing down on them.
Now, where the plot and script lack, the performances often make the tedium worthwhile. Charlie Hunnam is the clear standout as Lion’s older brother and manager, who often leaves you guessing which role is a priority for him. His roughness and ego are rooted in a deep pain, and Hunnam conveys that with every desperate smile and narrowing of the eyes. O’Connell, whose performance is mostly physical, also steps up as a fighter who wants more but doesn’t know how to get there—that, or he’s being held back. Jessica Barden is also terrific, though the writing never gives her much to work with. She’s a very human character with very human flaws, and it’s clear that Sky is the first person in a while who sees him as a person and not a product, though she has her own issues too.
Director Max Winkler is clearly very passionate about this story and these down-on-their-luck characters, unafraid to show them at both their ugliest and their most vulnerable—occasionally capturing that in the same breath. However, it’s also clear that he’s seen films like The Fighter and Warrior a few too many times. For all his efforts, he can never truly escape cliche.
Jungleland has many, many familiar elements presented in a very familiar way. For all its blue collar poetry performances and beautiful, understated cinematography, it can never quite escape the predictability and cliche that weigh it down.
The film’s final scene does not feature the Bruce Spingsteen song that it shares a name with, but the Boss does appear to hammer home the film’s central notion one more time. It isn’t subtle, and you might even roll your eyes a bit, but it’s beautiful in its own way. It’s one last blow from a man in a losing fight, it’s one more desperate shot at redemption. It’s a dream, in all its ugly, bloodied, tried-and-true glory.
Jungleland is available to download and keep and to rent on digital formats from 30th November.