‘Jungleland’: Charlie Hunnam and Jack O’Connell Try To Beat the Odds in Gritty Underdog Journey

There is nothing like an underdog who never had anything to lose from the start. The heroes of “Jungleland” have the familiar dreams of many movie scrappers and the same predilection for macho combat sports. What it does with enough grit is capture a feeling of being trapped and trying to work from zero. It is a terrain familiar only to those in a certain sector of the economy who have to struggle with little hint of any sort of safety net. 

Stan (Charlie Hunnam) and Lion (Jack O’Connell) are two brothers living on their own. By day they work at a sewing factory and at night try to make some kind of a living through underground bare-knuckle boxing, with Lion being the one stepping into the ring. Lion is the more level-headed of the two but Stan is the ambitious go-getter, convinced he and Lion will soon reach the heights of fighting stardom. He also has a bad habit for gambling. When his debts run too high Stan has to answer to a gangster, Pepper (Jonathan Majors), who offers him a way out: He can pay the brothers’ way to a major tournament in California called Jungleland, but only if they deliver a young girl named Sky (Jessica Barden) to a specific address in Reno. Stan and Lion embark on the road trip but getting Sky to the designated spot will prove to be a personal and deadly challenge.

In terms of overall material there isn’t much that is particularly new in director Max Winkler’s approach. Fans of movies like “Southpaw” and “Warrior” have been here before with the rundown homes, tough guys with hearts of gold and underdog hassles. What makes the screenplay by Winkler, Theodore Bressman and David Branson Smith stand out is that the fighting aspect gets pushed to the background of the plot. This isn’t one of those “sports movies” where every development intercuts with some intense fight sequence. The angle involving gangsters and where Sky is supposed to go also takes a back seat to the movie’s very tone. ”Jungleland” is that kind of movie where the execution elevates the material. Working with Winkler is cinematographer Damian Garcia, who brought a baroque style to the Mexican underworld in Netflix’s “I’m No Longer Here.” He helps Winkler give “Jungleland” a gritty eloquence, as if we’re watching an economically hollowed out update of Norman Rockwell. Even a fancy hotel where Stan, Lion and Sky stay for the night takes on a mournful, shadowy air. 

The characters are also engaging beyond the usual trappings of a siblings on the run drama. Stan and Lion are tragic because they both dream but have nothing to back it up. They are examples of how the years can catch up quickly when you’re operating on few resources. What the movie is really about is perfectly captured in a diner scene where Stan and Lion empty out their real feelings. Stan knows his brother is talented, but he also sees him as an overgrown baby that needs caring, while Lion reminds him that if he’s wasted away his fighting career following his brother’s bad leads. His hands have arthritis, and he resents being made to work at a sewing factory. Sky presents a glimmer of hope for Lion since she likes him. But she comes with her own history and the brothers are aware her destination is to be handed off to a crime lord (John Cullum, who oozes toxicity with ease). Lion’s own life goal is to eventually open a dry cleaning business. Seems reasonable enough. But as Stan reminds him, with what credit line? These may also seem like working class movie stereotypes, but they seem more authentic than the usual flashy sports movie, where the heroes tend to start off with either a lot of cash or superpower talent. The characters of “Jungleland” at least feel realistic, as do their obstacles. You don’t need to be in debt to gangsters to know starting a business is difficult for the downtrodden. When the movie is about these themes it works best, despite Winkler throwing in clichés like Stan having random sex with a woman partying at a bridal shower in the same hotel, or Lion nearly punching out a college jerk at a bar. A somewhat more entertaining cliché comes in a scene where the brothers settle the cost of fixing their car at an auto shop with fists, literally. 

Charlie Hunnam and Jack O’Connell are used to playing rugged types trying to beat the odds. Hunnam in particular is always popping up in jeans, rarely shaving, and delivering lines with a serious baritone. But he does it well and his one-note style works here for Stan, who doesn’t realize he’s a control freak, focusing on everyone else’s problems except his own. O’Connell counters him convincingly as the brother with less assertiveness who needs Sky (very well played by Jessica Barden) to give him needed wings. Less convincing is Jonathan Majors, who seems too kind and even jolly to play a stone cold killer. Again, take away the crime and the boxing and the better moments in this movie involve strong set pieces like the three wanderers breaking into a high school for shelter, and sharing about their lives on an empty theater stage. 

“Jungleland” eventually does end in the ring with fists crunching bone, but it is hard to fault Winkler for pulling it off efficiently. It’s a thoughtful drama masquerading as a boxing movie. Cinema knows better than any medium that even when riddled with clichés, the underdog always speaks to us.

Jungleland” releases Nov. 6 in select cities and Nov. 10 on VOD.