Jack O’Connell as Lion Kaminski
Charlie Hunnam as Stanley Kaminski
Jessica Barden as Sky
Jonathan Majors as Pepper
Owen Burke as Meadows
Fran Kranz as Buck Noble
John Cullum as Colonel Yates
Co-Written & Directed by Max Winkler; Co-Written by Theodore B. Bressman and David Brannon Smith
The sports drama genre is one of the most frequently revisited and long-lasting in film that, when executed properly can retell the same stories without much ire from critics or audiences, as a heartwarming tale is sometimes all that’s desired from the genre. While Jungleland can certainly be chastised for borrowing story elements from a number of past genre outings, it should more be embraced for its heartwarming welcome of some of the genre’s major tropes and the powerful performances that carry it from start to finish.
Stan (Charlie Hunnam) and Lion (Jack O’Connell) are two brothers struggling to stay relevant in the underground world of bare-knuckle boxing. When Stan fails to pay back a dangerous crime boss (Jonathon Majors), they’re forced to deliver an unexpected traveler as they journey across the country for a high-stakes fighting tournament. While Stan trains Lion for the fight of his life, a series of events threaten to tear the brothers apart but their love for one another and belief in a better life keep them going in this gripping drama that proves family pulls no punches.
The story feels like an odd mish mash of sports movies of the past like The Fighter and Hardball, from its central sibling relationship in the ring to the gambling-addicted nature of Keanu Reeves’ coach looking to get out from under his debts. Utilizing the formulas of these films, the plot of the film doesn’t take very many unexpected twists or turns, from risky run-ins with locals driven by rifts of frustration between the brothers to the only female character turning into a love interest instead of a person with agency and a desire to change their life. But, you know what, it’s honestly the film’s only major flaw.
How many times have we sat down in front of our screens for an underdog sports biopic expecting anything other than a heartwarming tale and been upset when it happens? The answer is never. In fact, it’s the rare instances in which a film delivers a tragic ending that we find ourselves wondering whether to love or hate the tale unfurled beforehand, and even in those that deliver a “loser” finale, they still find a way to leave audiences with something to soothe the heartbreak, be it Rocky and Adrian’s professions of love for one another or Doug “The Thug” Glatt expressing his feeling that he thinks he nailed Ross “The Boss” Rhea in their fight while also suffering some major, potentially career-ending injuries (until the so-so sequel).
What the film truly gets right is the fact that for us to tolerate the familiarity of its story, we as an audience have to have an emotional connection to its central characters and Stan and Lion are truly easy to root for. Clearly struggling with how to get out from under his debts without burying himself further or making it all about himself, Stan is a flawed human that many people can relate to, and thanks to the powerful performance from Charlie Hunnam, it’s a character you want to see grow and improve. Hunnam graces the screen alongside fantastic turns from The End of the F***ing World breakout Jessica Barden, who brings a quiet warmth and subtle snark to her indebted escort wanting to break free, while O’Connell nicely taps into the angst of younger brother Lion looking to bet out from his brother’s shadow, but not in the sport he’s already dedicated much of his life to.
In the end, the familiarity of its story may prove to be too distracting for some viewers, but for those looking for a funny, emotional and heartwarming tale led by Oscar-worthy performances from its three leads, then step into the ring and enjoy Jungleland.
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