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The cinematic triumph of the underdog will never go out of style, as everyone wants to cheer for the downtrodden getting their moment in the spotlight. Of course, just because this time tested storyline feels evergreen doesn’t mean it’s not easy to screw up. Max Winkler's Jungleland is the latest movie to take a tale of two brothers trying to make it big in hard times, and spin gold out of the results. Thankfully, the formula is revived with enough genuine concern for its characters that it makes for a fresh entry in a legendary genre.

By day, Jungleland’s protagonists Lion (Jack O’Connell) and Stanley (Charlie Hunnam) make a meager living working in a garment factory, but their true passions are boxing and men’s fashion, respectively – both of which are funded by Lion’s career as a bare knuckle boxer. The main action of our story kicks off when Stanley’s gambling ways lead to debts with a local gangster (Jonathan Majors) that can only be cleared by delivering a young woman (Jessica Barden) across the country while the brothers make their way to the titular title fight.

In the great tradition of American drama, Jungleland is a touching examination of a family on the edge.

Naming your movie after a song from someone as iconic as Bruce Springsteen feels like a shot that, if called, absolutely has to hit. Co-writer/director Max Winkler absolutely had this in mind when crafting Jungleland, as this story harkens back to a tragedy you’d hear throughout the entire discography that The Boss has given to the world. Watching Jack O’Connell and Charlie Hunnam eking out a meager existence while running towards the next big dream or scheme that’ll put them on the map is familiar territory that needs a hook in order to survive.

Maybe it’s the times we live in, or maybe it’s just the conviction that O’Connell and Hunnam put into their characters, but Jungleland manages to take a classic American drama and bring it back to life. Never pummeling its characters so hard with tragedy that the audience falls into a depression, the movie does allow its protagonists some joy, especially when teaming the brothers Kaminski with their female companion. What could have been a simple family drama turns into a road trip where this fraternal relationship could change forever, adding another new frontier to the textured brotherhood.

Brotherly love fuels the story of Jungleland to a heartbreaking extent.

A pair of brothers striking it out in the world is a trope so well worn in films similar to Jungleland that some might have it pegged as merely an exercise in old hat storytelling to try and tell that sort of story again. As individual characters, Jack O’Connell’s Lion and Charlie Hunnam’s Stanley each have their own pitfalls to overcome. With Lion being the brawn of the operation, sacrificing his body in the name of winning family glory, O’Connell’s meeker brother starts to come out of his shell. Whereas Hunnam’s half of the equation is always out of his shell, but still hiding the fact that everything he does is truly for his brother’s benefit.

Both halves come together in Jungleland as a portrait of brothers who, while caring dearly for each other, can’t really figure out the best way to go about expressing that love. The push and pull between their methods and motivations makes for a powerful battleground, with both Jack O’Connell and Charlie Hunnam delivering some of their best work. That’s not the full extent of Jungleland’s acting talent though, as Jessica Barden’s Sky is the perfect challenge to force these siblings to grow, and her vibrantly unpredictable energy keeps both of them in the fight for keeps. While the stakes are pretty huge on the outside, the internal environment is where the movie’s focus lies, right down to the nail biting finale.

Even when it walks down some very familiar paths, Jungleland manages to feel unique.

Jungleland possesses a rather interesting cocktail of influences, as everything from the populist tragedies of Bruce Springsteen and John Steinbeck to some plot elements that feel very similar to The Fighter are in play. There’s even a slight detour that feels like it’s ever so slightly borrowing a plot point from Mad Max: Fury Road, with an execution more grounded in reality. But with all of those sources in its blueprint, Jungleland uses unique characters and true to heart drama to weave a tale of struggle and triumph, as two brothers and the woman they’re trusted with make their way from coast to coast.

Co-writer/director Max Winkler has delivered an emotional tale that doesn’t take shortcuts, and manages to pack some surprises up its sleeve. With a strong core trio of performances in Charlie Hunnam, Jack O’Connell, and Jessica Bardem, Jungleland goes for the knock out, and it absolutely wins when the decision comes down. It will warm your heart in some places, and it’ll tear it down in others, but the end result is something that’s absolutely worth experiencing every single moment of.

8 / 10 stars
Rating: movie reviewed star rating out of five
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