Director Max Winkler came onto my radar with 2017’s “Flower” starring Zoey Deutch which was a unique spin on the teen “romance” genre. It was a film that was raunchy, audacious and surprisingly ambitious with where it took its story. When I saw Winkler’s name over the credits of his latest film,“Jungleland," I was incredibly surprised since this is a very different film. The story follows two brothers, a boxer named Lion (Jack O’Connell) and his trainer Stanley (Charlie Hunnam) who, after almost getting killed by a gangster named Pepper, (Jonathan Majors) end up being forced to take a mysterious girl named Sky (Jessica Barden) across the country. According to Pepper, if they succeed he will put Lion on the list for an infamous boxing tournament known as Jungleland. What follows is a road trip movie about broken people hustling to survive, which is a nice change of pace for the boxing subgenre.
Over the years, boxing cinema is something that’s become a staple for certain filmgoers. This certainly isn’t a film that redefines that genre, but it does enough to make it stand out from the overcrowded field. Its three central performances drive the story over its brisk 93 minutes and keeps you quite engaged. It’s tightly structured and presented in such a way that the immediacy in the plot grips you in. Winkler knows the story he wants to tell and does so in a way that is atypical compared to the normal boxing film. The “fight” our characters want to enter isn’t necessarily anything special, but a journey that’s worth taking. It’s this feeling that occurs due to our central performances.
Understated is a word that I’m not particularly fond of, as it can be a nice way of saying there isn’t a lot of detail. That detail can come from characters, the dialogue or even something as mundane as the plot. Here, the performances are what allow the subtle nature of the storytelling to be as effective as it is. Take an actor like O’Connell, someone who portrays a quiet character with an air of mystery. Much like his performances in films like “71," his role as a quiet boxer is able to be more than simply a Rocky-like character. Who really stands out here is Charlie Hunnam, who to many people will be known from “Sons of Anarchy.” He gets to be a larger than life persona that focuses on making him someone who is flawed, but incredibly likeable. It’s a nice change of pace for the actor who really hasn’t won me over as a performer. This isn’t necessarily the role that did the job, but it showed me he’s got more than I ever thought.
I also would like to give a shout out to actress Jessica Barden as the woman forcibly thrown onto Stanley and Lion. Much like Hunnam’s performance, it isn’t anything you haven’t seen before, well made and quite entertaining. The only aspect of the performances that disappointed me was how little Jonathan Majors “Pepper” actually ended up being in the film. Majors is a phenomenal actor and when he’s on screen, he shows a real threat and menace that definitely sets a tone for our characters. The unfortunate thing is that he’s only given two scenes (including one over the phone conversation) to portray that menace. It’s an unfortunate hiccup in what otherwise is a talented cavalcade of performances.
“Jungleland” is definitely something that I don’t want to oversell to anyone in terms of its content. Being more in the indie film pedigree there’s never a great sense of scope in this world. The story is more designed to be about people figuring out how to find their place in a money hungry world. In a boxing film for characters struggling to make it, I found it appealing to see a change compared to your typical sports “beat the bad guy” structure. None of these are new and or exciting ideas, but they’re delivered in the best way possible. For something with a brief theatrical run and now on VOD, you could do a lot worse than “Jungleland."