The title obviously genuflects to the epic blue-collar poetry of the classic Bruce Springsteen song, but it’s the bard of New Jersey’s 2014 cover of “Dream Baby Dream,” heard on the end credits, that better encapsulates the themes of Jungleland. The underclass drama follows two brothers — one a talented boxer, the other his screw-up trainer and motivational coach — whose pursuit of the good life leads them from the depressed textile-manufacturing town of Fall River, Massachusetts, to the golden destination of California, with unplanned detours along the way. It’s a story cut from familiar cloth that’s absorbing enough but never quite escapes its whiff of cliché.
It seems odd that such a quintessentially American tale should feature three British leads — Charlie Hunnam and Jack O’Connell play the sibling strivers, with Jessica Barden from cult series The End of the F***ing World as the cargo they are forced to take along on their cross-country journey. But the performances are solid and the characterizations convincing, which should at least guarantee the film a streaming berth.
The screenplay by Theodore B. Bressman, David Branson Smith and director Max Winkler wastes no time defining its loser-dreamer protagonists as figures we know well from movies and literature. Stanley Kaminski (Hunnam) gazes out through a window at the morning light and speaks in tones of hushed wonderment to his sleeping brother Walter (O’Connell), known as “Lion,” of the riches and rewards waiting for them in California. Only once we’re outside do we see that they’re illegally occupying a derelict building owned by the bank.
With a few brief but expressive shots of dying industry and urban decay, cinematographer Damian Garcia swiftly establishes the milieu of working-class blues the brothers are angling to leave behind.
Backing up his dreams with big talk and swagger, Stan is the driving force of the pair, while younger brother Lion does what’s required of him, reluctantly but without much complaint. Their ticket out of the town and their low-paying factory-floor jobs is a fight in which Lion seems a surefire winner, prompting Stan to place a large bet he can’t cover. When Lion gets distracted during a crucial round by the presence of local hustler Pepper (Jonathan Majors), a criminal associate from Stan’s past, he loses the fight.
That puts them deep in debt to Pepper, who offers them the chance to wipe the slate clean by entering Lion in a $100,000 “Jungleland” bare-knuckle boxing contest in San Francisco. As part of the deal, they have to deliver a young woman, Sky (Barden), to Reno, no questions asked. Pepper fronts them a car, a roll of cash and a Chekhovian gun in the glove compartment, then sends them on their way.
Sky initially gives away very little about herself, though she rolls her eyes with skepticism about Stan’s ability to achieve his “spectacular goals.” But it gradually emerges that she has traded her suffocating Christian family in Indiana for an even more constricting situation in Nevada, with a sleazebag crime lord named Yates (John Cullum). Sky has no intention of going back there.
The dilemma is complicated by Lion’s growing closeness to her. He shares his modest dream of setting up a dry-cleaning business, and she plants doubts in his mind as to whether Stan really has his best interests at heart or is just using him.
That simmering conflict explodes in a confrontation in a diner during which Lion calls his brother out for exploiting his talent, with no concern about the physical toll boxing is taking on him. It’s a strong scene in a drama that too often suffers from flagging momentum, and while Hunnam has the flashier role, it’s O’Connell’s wounded intensity that really registers.
The shift into the more gnarly thriller territory of the sinister Yates and his goons becomes formulaic, its derivative neo-noir nastiness not helped by distinguished stage veteran Cullum being so miscast. The revelation of the real reason Yates is so determined to get Sky back is more than a little preposterous, and the eruption of violence handled without much impact. Director Winkler and his co-writers lack the firm grasp of genre storytelling to steer Jungleland through all the twisty turns of its late action with assurance, so while there’s poignancy in the sacrifice made by Stan at the final fight to reaffirm his devotion to his brother, it feels like a mechanical plot point.
Production companies: Romulus Entertainment, in association with Scott Free Productions and Big Red Films
Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Jack O’Connell, Jessica Barden, Naheem Garcia, Fran Kranz, Patrick Walsh, Jonathan Majors, Meredith Holzman, John Cullum
Director: Max Winkler
Screenwriters: Theodore B. Bressman, David Branson Smith, Max Winkler
Producers: Brad Feinstein, Jules Daly, Kevin J. Walsh, Ryan Stowell
Executive producers: Ridley Scott, Joseph F. Ingrassia, David Gendron, Ali Jazayeri, Theodore B. Bressman, David Branson Smith, Max Winkler, Ted Deiker
Director of photography: Damian Garcia
Production designer: Jeremy Reid
Costume designer: Michelle Thompson
Editor: Tomas Vengris
Music: Lorne Balfe
Casting: Douglas Aibel
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Sales: CAA, Mister Smith