Jungleland (2019) ☆☆☆(3/4): Two brothers and a girl on the road

“Jungleland” is a simple but engaging story revolving around the relationship of two very different brothers. Right from its first few minutes, you can easily discern where their story is heading, and the story will not surprise you much, but the movie holds our attention well at least as diligently rolling its main characters along its familiar but solid narrative.

During its opening part set in Fall Liver, Massachusetts, the movie lets us get to know how hard and difficult things are for a young former professional boxer named Walter “Lion” Kaminski (Jack O’Connell) and his older brother Stanley (Charlie Hunnam). They have illegally lived in a shabby foreclosed house for a while, and they have earned their meager living as working in a local sewing factory, but Stanley believes that their luck will soon be changed. They have earned extra cash via illegal underground bare-knuckle fist fights, and, according to Stanley, they may get lots of money if Lion wins his latest fight which will be held in the upcoming evening.

Everything looks optimistic for them when Lion starts to fight against his opponent, but then, unfortunately, Lion happens to notice something quite wrong in his viewpoint. He spots a certain local gangster among the audiences watching the fight, and it does not take much time for him to discern that his fight was fixed from the beginning by that gangster dude and his older brother, who has incidentally owed lots of money from that gangster dude. Although he could just throw the final punch at his opponent who is almost beaten down, Lion deliberately lets himself defeated instead, and that surely leads to a big trouble for him and his older brother.

Lion and Stanley get caught shortly after they try to leave the town as soon as possible, but that gangster dude turns out to have a proposition which will solve their money problem once for all. In exchange of nullifying his debt, Stanley and his younger brother will have to take someone to Reno, Nevada, and then they also can go to San Francisco, where Lion will be allowed to participate in a $100,000 bare-knuckle prize fight held somewhere in the Chinatown neighborhood of San Francisco.

Once Lion and Stanley accept this seemingly generous offer, they meet the person they are supposed to take to Reno, and that person turns out to be a young woman named Sky (Jessica Barden). Because the figure who will receive her in Reno is involved with a certain criminal business field, Lion and Stanley are naturally concerned about whether they get themselves involved with anything seriously criminal, but then they have no choice but to do the job as instructed to them.

As they and Sky begin their long journey from Fall River to Reno, the mood becomes more awkward. It is apparent that Sky does not want to go to Reno at all for some reason she is not so willing to tell right now, but Stanley casually disregards her feelings while Lion comes to feel a bit sorry for her. Naturally, Sky attempts to appeal more to Lion, and they later become a little closer to each other as the first day of their journey is being over.

While they and Sky go through several expected ups and downs during their journey to Reno, we get to know more about not only Sky but also Stanley and Lion’s relationship. Much more desperate than she seemed at first, Sky is quite determined to try anything for avoiding being sent to Reno, and that naturally leads to more troubles for Stanley and Lion. While Stanley tries to handle these problems as much as he can, Lion comes to care more about Sky in addition to reflecting more on how his life and career have been damaged by Stanley, and Stanley is certainly not so pleased about that.

Around the narrative point where its three main characters are about to arrive in Reno, the screenplay by director Max Winkler and his co-writers Theodore B. Bressman and David Branson becomes more predictable, but the movie maintains its narrative momentum before eventually arriving at the finale which has already been waiting for Stanley and Lion right from the very beginning. We surely have a pretty good idea about what will happen in the end, but the movie continues to engage us, and there is some poignancy as Stanley comes to make a crucial decision for his dear younger brother.

The two lead actors of the movie did a good job of carrying the film together. Jack O’Connell, who has been one of the most promising new actors since his breakout performances in “Starred Up” (2013), “’71” (2014), and “Unbroken” (2014), deftly balances his character between physical toughness and gentle sensitivity, and he and Charlie Hunnam, who has been more interesting during recent years thanks to TV drama series “Sons of Anarchy”, complement well each other while conveying to us the long history between their contrasting characters. In case of the other main cast members in the film, Jessica Barden holds her own place well between O’Connell and Hunnam, and Jonathan Majors and John Cullum are also effective in their small but substantial supporting roles.

On the whole, “Jungleland” does not transcend its genre territory at all, but it is still watchable as a nice showcase for the considerable talent and presence of its two lead actors, and I also appreciate its succinct handling of story and characters. I surely knew what I would get, but the movie delivers as much as it promises, so I will not complain for now.

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