Bruce Springsteen’s “Jungleland” isn’t actually heard at any point in Max Winkler’s hardscrabble new boxing drama of the same name (even if the Boss still manages to carry most of the emotional payload in the film’s stirring final scene), but simply referencing that epic song about the inescapable beauty of blue-collar life is enough to set the tone. This isn’t just a movie about the sort of hardscrabble Americans who dream themselves to death every day in this country, it’s also — at least to some extent — a swift and punchy Springsteenian meditation on the mythic nature of those dreams, and how they can harden into cliché if left dangling in the night air for too long.
“Jungleland” tells the story of two desperate people who can feel themselves sinking into stereotype, and a third who’s already there and couldn’t possibly care less; his name is Stanley (a career-best Charlie Hunnam), he’s “the hungry and the hunted” all rolled into one, and he’ll be anyone he needs to be as long as it feeds into his fantasy of becoming someone better. Alas, that’s a type unto itself. For now, Stanley is a scruffy Masshole factory worker who moonlights as a manager/hype man for his little brother Lion (a winsomely implosive Jack O’Connell), a lightweight boxer who’s forced to compete in bareknuckle underground fights because Stanley’s antics have gotten them barred from anything more reputable.
Stanley doesn’t give a shit that he comes off like a bootleg version of the guy who Christian Bale played in “The Fighter,” or that his very sincere intention of moving to California, starting a sportswear brand, and “getting sucked off by movie stars” isn’t exactly what they meant by “manifest destiny.” Stanley loves his brother — the tenderly possessive touch that Hunnam brings to that dynamic helps this movie hold its own against the other boxing stories it’s sparring with — and he swears he can see their future with his eyes closed, but he’s kept them shut for so long that he’s lost sight of where he’s going. America depends on men like him to grow desperate and drag each other down, and Stanley has invested so much in his striver persona that he might never be able to play another role.
Lion, on the other hand, is constantly shadowboxing his own self-image. Nothing makes him smile wider than when someone tells him he doesn’t look like a boxer. The sweet-natured kid is a scrapper in the ring, but it makes him sick to think he’ll spend the rest of his life on the ropes; all he wants to do is start his own dry-cleaning business someday, and maybe earn a measure of happiness that he doesn’t have to fight for in the basement of a Chinese restaurant. Lion knows that he isn’t what people see when they look at him, but every welt on his face and punch to the head makes it harder for him to remember that.
When Pepper offers the brothers a chance to win a $100,000 purse in a San Francisco prizefight — and sweetens the pot by offering them a new Range Rover for the cross-country drive West — neither of them can think clearly enough to question the catch: They’ll have to escort a withdrawn teenage girl named Sky (Jessica Barden) to a dangerous Reno mob boss along the way. The boys think she’s a sex worker, and Sky only comes out of her shell to call them out for making lazy assumptions about her. She and Lion have that in common; people underestimate people like them. But the way they stare at each other, well, it’s enough to liberate them both from the way they’ve always been seen. And it’s only a matter of time before that Range Rover starts to seem like a getaway car.
That’s a lot of plot to chew on for a 93-minute programmer that races towards California with the sinewy feel of a ‘70s throwback and the run-and-gun posture of “They Live by Night,” but Winkler’s small body of work already suggests that he’s most comfortable when things are a little off-balance (see “Flower” for more proof and a killer Zoey Deutch performance). “Jungleland” would be easy to write off as the flinty and familiar drama that Lorne Balfe’s horn-driven score wants you to believe that it is, but the po-faced sincerity of the music only calls further attention to the ways in which this movie is trying to shed its own skin.
As raw and engaging as the disconnect between Stanley and Lion becomes as they tumble toward California, the real tension of “Jungleland” lives in the ever-constricting space between its three main characters and the respective clichés they’re each trying to rope-a-dope into submission. That conflict, written into the margins of Winkler, Theodore B. Bressman and David Branson Smith’s threadbare script, is so palpable that it starts to reorient the gravity of everything around it and make you theorize if casting Brits in all three of the lead roles was part of some galaxy brain strategy to accentuate how Stanley, Lion, and Sky are all at war with their own identities.
Some passages — like the nothing of a scene where the crew visits Sky’s parents — are trite in a way that suffocates that kind of thinking, but there are ultimately just a handful of moments where things flatline to the point that it feels like these characters are in search of a better movie. On the contrary, they’re each more enthralling on the screen than they would be on paper because the movie around them is so determined to drag them down. It’s a dynamic that Winkler leverages in unexpected ways, none of them more powerful or surprising than how Sky’s whole “ruined girl with a heart of gold” routine gradually un-clouds into a suffocating portrait of inescapable misogyny.
Similar to how Lion sports a rattail because he likes to exploit lowered expectations, “Jungleland” is willing to risk being written off because it needs you to lower your guard. In a country that insists everyone gets a title shot when most of them aren’t even allowed in the ring, Winkler rope-a-dopes us into a strange and rewarding story about three people who dare to punch above their weight class no matter what kind of beating they have to take for that temerity. They “try to make an honest stand,” Springsteen sings, “But they wind up wounded, not even dead.” Where his “Jungleland” heard something bittersweet in that last refrain, Winkler’s claws a pyrrhic victory from the jaws of defeat, and finds a measure of transformative strength in the mere act of putting up a fight.
Vertical Entertainment will release “Jungleland” in theaters on Friday, November 6. Paramount Home Entertainment will release it on Premium VOD on Tuesday, November 10.
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