Charlie Hunnam is the most interesting of movie stars. His latest, Jungleland, stars the British thespian as one half of a brotherly duo that are a literal one-two punch.
Stanley (Hunnam) trains, manages, and does everything he can for his bare-knuckled boxing brother, known as Lion (Jack O’Connell).
When Stanley gets into a bit of gambling trouble, he is given a task by the man holding the debt, Pepper (Jonathan Majors of Lovecraft Country). Lion and his older brother must take Sky (Jessica Barden, The Lobster), who they believe may be a prostitute, to Reno.
In the Nevada city awaits Yates (John Cullum), who believes Sky is his property. Yeah, not the nicest guy.
Not only do Lion and Stanley have the opportunity to erase the latter’s debt, but Pepper has promised Lion a spot on the card of an epic (and titular) Oakland-based boxing tourney after they drop off Sky in the Silver State’s second largest city.
Now, if only they can get there. Despite being given keys to Pepper’s Range Rover and a stack of cash for lodging and other expenses, their arrival in Oakland is hardly a given. Neither is Reno for that matter.
In Jungleland, Hunnam has scored himself an incredible character with a rich arc. The English star has chosen well in terms of parts after achieving fame with his breakthrough role in Sons of Anarchy.
Unfortunately, he has had a few cinematic misses that were never his fault. Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur fell on deaf ears, and although beloved in a cult classic kind of way, Pacific Rim was not necessarily greeted with greatness.
One of his best roles came in The Lost City of Z, but sadly, hardly anyone saw it. There’s a laundry list of others, such as Papillon and 3, 2, 1 … Frankie Go Boom. Hadn’t heard of it? That’s not surprising.
With Jungleland, perhaps the uber-talented thespian has found his vehicle to illustrate that this man is supremely gifted and not simply easy on the eyes.
The heartstring-pulling story of brotherhood features top-notch performances across the board. It comes from director Max Winkler (who helmed a handful of New Girl episodes). His ability to marry a number of storytelling tomes with his latest is supremely impressive.
It’s a road trip film that also works as a familial tale with the importance of blood being thicker than water. There’s also a small swath of romance. Jungleland also works as a boxing movie and a gangster flick.
That is no easy task, balancing all those plates in the air. But the young filmmaker makes his first impactful indelible mark in the cinematic arts since first wielding a camera in 2006.
The helmer wraps his audience up in this blissful blanket that is a brotherly tale. He captures the entity that is brotherhood so brilliantly that when landmines dot their landscape, the audience inherently pulls strongly for these poor souls to succeed. Just once. Would that be too much to ask?!
O’Connell mirrors Hunnam in the role choosing and resonance department. He supremely impressed in the Angelina Jolie-directed true tale Unbroken. The fellow Brit also blew us away back in 2014 with his turn in another stunner, the Irish unrest film ’71. What he achieves in Jungleland ought to elevate his audience awareness factor.
Lion would do anything for his brother, almost to a fault. Soon after the brothers and Sky commence their cross-country journey, the trio have an accident and the Range Rover is undriveable. Keep in mind that Lion’s fists are his livelihood and the key to the siblings’ success in Oakland.
Yet when they cannot pay for their SUV to be fixed, Stanley orchestrates a “bet” that his brother can win a fight with not one but two mechanics of the owner’s choice. Ever faithful, Lion agrees -- fully knowing that he is personally risking everything over a car repair bill.
There is a quiet grace to O’Connell’s turn that is spellbinding. One wonders repeatedly what exactly is going on in his head. The character is a study in contrasts.
On one hand, he is a brute who is incredibly adept at the sport of boxing. On the other hand, there is a sensitivity to him that emerges whenever Sky feels threatened or simply needs reassurance.
Often, actors secure a place in pop culture lore when they can make the walls shake from a performance... for example, Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men when he utters, “You can’t handle the truth.” It takes a supreme talent to elicit strong emotive responses from audiences solely with subtleness.
Also, when Lion does speak up (usually involving something Stanley has promised that he must deliver), it is with commanding panache that mirrors the power he summons from his fists. It all adds up to a spellbinding turn from a thespian that should be more of a household name.
Barden -- it could be argued -- has the most thorny of minefields to navigate with her character, Sky. She is unwilling to share her lot in life with the brothers when their journey begins. Sky barely even wants to give them her name.
Lion and Stanley make assumptions about the young woman and how she found herself being “delivered” to a gangster in Reno. Although she puts up a hardened front, Sky shares a quiet internal fortitude with Lion that is downright touching.
Sky has secrets, and it is only when the boxer lets down his guard with her that she responds in kind. There is a bevy of emotions that define this woman. Barden weaves this complicated web with a firm command of her actor’s toolbox that is utterly impressive.
Winkler (who is Henry Winkler’s son!) has worked extensively in television. The helmer makes an impressive cinematic announcement with Jungleland. His storytelling command is fierce. As the credits roll, one feels as if we have just witnessed the richest of underdog tales with layers of nuance.
Yet, it clocks in at a tight 90 minutes.
That takes a gift. Too often directors fail to know exactly when to yell “cut.” They become obsessed with establishing shots or lingering on close-ups to milk every last ounce of emotion from a scene. Winkler is an efficient filmmaker who proves that sometimes with drama, less is more.
Joel D. Amos is the Senior Editor of The Movie Mensch and writes film reviews for TV Fanatic. He has been an entertainment journalist for two decades now, focusing on penning reviews for film, television and streaming content of all kinds. He also has conducted hundreds of interviews with stars as varied as Harrison Ford to Elton John and Angelina Jolie. Joel is a founding member of the Hollywood Critics Association and in his free time, is all about his family.