In Max Winkler’s “Jungleland,” Jack O’Connell and Charlie Hunnam have a very familiar movie-sibling dynamic, playing brothers respectively “good” and ne’er-do-well, tough guys in the brutal business of boxing who’ve been knocked around a bit too much by life in general. This may inevitably recall the fairly recent likes of “The Fighter” and “Warrior,” excellent movies with other fine lead actors that likewise tipped hat to the gritty ’70s cinema of “Fat City” and “Rocky” — which in turn cast a critical yet longing gaze back to palooka dramas from Hollywood’s golden age.
“Jungleland” isn’t as good as any of those above-named films, but it’s good enough to make you wish it weren’t just so incredibly redolent of them. It’s the kind of enterprise that has everything but a single fresh idea, or even moment. It’s a very serious film in contrast to Winkler’s prior features, the underrated latter-day screwball farce “Celebration” and too-crassly-conceived teen black comedy “Flower.” Yet the sombre tone feels forced rather than earned, because everything here comes out of The Giant Golden Book Of Coulda Beena Contenda Cliches, from the little bro’s guileless pathos to the doom-ensuring mob trouble his blustery, secretly-insecure older sibling brings upon himself.
This movie feels so ’70s, it’s actually jarring when we first hear a cell phone’s ring. But then it occupies the cinematic ’70s, rather than being set in that actual decade. There’s a lot to admire and enjoy about “Jungleland,” not least those lead performances. In the end, however — from the very start, in fact — it stands in relation to various predecessors much as Andrew Dominik’s “Killing Them Softly” did to the overlapping subgenre of low-rung gangland trainwrecks: As such a studied, stylized homage to prior films that nothing feels organic, and the whole takes on an almost abstract quality of ritualized imitation.
The Kaminsky brothers are hard-luck scrappiness personified. Manic, mercurial, b.s.-spouting Stanley (Hunnam) is manager-trainer to “the talent,” kid brother Walter, aka Lion (O’Connell) — even if temperamentally his younger sibling is such a pussycat that (as with Alain Delon in “Rocco and His Brothers”) we marvel he has the aggression to hit other people for a living. It’s not much of a living, anyway. When we first meet them, the brothers are squatting in a condemned building, when not pounding pavement on the mean streets of Fall River, Mass. It later emerges that despite his skill, Lion can only get low-paid amateur bouts because some of Stan’s past hustles got them banned from pro circuits.
Stan has also gotten them in hock to Pepper (Jonathan Majors), the kind of local influencer whose thick-necked assistants aren’t joking when they say that tardy payments invite broken legs. The Kaminskys are busy fleeing that prospect when instead they’re handed an opportunity: Pepper will forgive their debt if they drive cross-country so Lion can fight for high stakes at “Jungleland,” a “no holds barred” underground ring in San Francisco. They’re even given a car and travel money. The only catch is that they must also transport Sky (Jessica Barden), a close-mouthed likely teen runaway who needs to be deposited at the Reno doorstep of feared crime boss Yates (John Cullum). Failure to obey could result in fatalities for all concerned.
No one is happy with this arrangement, least of all Sky. When Stan insists on living large at their first-night hotel, she pulls a fast one on the gullible minder Lion and attempts an escape — very poorly, to the disabling misfortune of their SUV. The misfortunes continue to pile up, even if the three leads do indeed (and quite improbably) manage to cross the planned San Francisco finish line.
The episodic progress en route is entertaining. But it always feels second-hand, with the actors gamely going where too many other actors have gone before. Namely, an intersection between sad pugilist films like “The Boxer” and sad petty-criminal ones like “Donnie Brasco,” albeit with more emphasis on everyday miserabilism than sport or suspense.
There are interesting locations (presumably chosen because they look like they’ve been gathering dust since the ’70s), directorial grace notes and strong performances here. Hunnam (also at Toronto Film Festival with “The True Story of the Kelly Gang”) plays a previously unheard key in his considerable range; the equally versatile O’Connell is as endearing as he is ripped. But they and Barden — yet another Brit capably playing Yank — are all ultimately hemmed in by their roles’ stereotypical conceptions and arcs.
“Jungleland” is periodically drenched in an ennobling score by Lorne Balfe that references Copland, even Wagner, and which duly elevates the onscreen action. Still, we can never quite buy the tragic grandeur Winkler and his co-scenarists aim for. The events here never seem predetermined by cruel fate, but by the conventions of familiar prior fictions. An end-credits Springsteen song (not “Jungleland,” actually) arrives with the same corny predictability as Lion’s big monologue about his pathetically humble “dream” (owning a dry cleaning business). He has a beloved whippet dog, and there are no prizes for guessing that hound will exit the story in a piteous way.
Attractively shot by Damian Garcia (“Museo,” “Desierto”), this movie is so thoughtfully acted and crafted you’d like to feel every emotion it’s communicating as strongly as it hopes you will. But those emotions, like the characters selling them, never lose the plastic scent of much-recycled artifice. “Jungleland” can be counted a success only if the goal was to remind viewers how fondly they remember past films all too much like this one.