[Review] ‘JUNGLELAND’ a harrowing odyssey about fighting and the love between brothers

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Preston Barta // Features Editor

JUNGLELAND

Rated R, 90 minutes.
Director: Max Winkler
Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Jack O’Connell, Jessica Barden, Fran Kranz and Jonathan Majors

There are enough boxing and fighting movies out there to make your head spin. No matter how many times we’ve seen training montages, blood oozing out of faces, and sweat shaking onto the screen, we gravitate toward these stories of victory, whether that means in gold or life. If these films got something worthwhile to say, which tends to involve families coming together, those are the punches that hit the hardest and give these titles value.

Jungleland doesn’t feature a boxer flipping over truck tires or running up some stairs before stepping into the ring. In Max Winkler’s new film, the gloves are literally off. It’s refreshing that it mostly concentrates on the mental training one must go through and how two brothers (commendably portrayed by Charlie Hunnam and Jack O’Connell) face fire and learn to extinguish it with love.

As Hallmark as that may read, Jungleland is rather gritty and includes some surprising dramatic themes. It’s a bit rusty at the start and suffers from stilted dialogue, but it soon finds its footing and adds up to being a solid companion piece to 2011’s Warrior, also about the emotional scars exchanged between brothers.

Winkler, director of 2017’s Flowers and various episodes of Brooklynn Nine-Nine and The New Girl, centers on the story of a reluctant bare-knuckle brawler (O’Connell) and his manager brother (Hunnam). The siblings must travel across the country with what little they have to settle a debt and make a big score. However, an unexpected travel companion (Jessica Barden) exposes the faults in the brothers’ bond that throws them onto a new path.

At the start, the brothers are squatting in a bank-owned home and picking up fights to make some cash. They rattle the cage of some bad people (including Jonathan Majors, who’s having quite the year), and we embark on a familiar journey of that “one last fight.” Hunnam’s character, Stanley, is the overly affectionate type who frequently kisses his younger brother, nicknamed Lion, on the head and punctuates almost every sentence with “bro.” But he’s also impetuous and isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty and takes advantage of Lion. Truths are revealed, and hearts sink.

Where Jungleland mostly succeeds is in its small moments. One scene involving a dog (don’t worry — no death) highlights how Stanley has his eyes so fixed on the prize that he’s oblivious to his brother’s feelings and let’s so much slip between his fingers. Stanley is someone who often rolls the dice without thinking of the consequences, and that complexity keeps you engaged, wanting to know the outcome of this dynamic. 

Another subtle element that calls attention to the film’s strengths is when the brothers’ road friend, Sky (a great Barden), revisits her childhood home to collect some money. Her mother, who she hasn’t seen in some time, is screaming for Sky and her friends to leave because she’s “poison” to the family. Amid the chaos, Sky steps into her old room to notice how it remains the same. It’s a few seconds that details how her mother still loves her daughter despite being this person she no longer knows. It also shows how Sky longs for normalcy again.

Jungleland‘s narrative and the little turns along the way make it worth viewing. You may occasionally roll your eyes at a line here or there, but the actors stay committed, and the journey leads to a satisfying conclusion. It’ll give you some things to think about with your own families, and for that, it’s not merely another boxing film.

Grade: B

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About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.