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Review: Max Winkler’s boxing road movie ‘Jungleland’ packs a punch

Charlie Hunnam and Jack O'Connell in the movie "Jungleland."
Charlie Hunnam, left, and Jack O’Connell in the movie “Jungleland.”
(Dana Starbard/Paramount Pictures)

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“Go west, young man, and grow up with the country.”

This phrase, often attributed to author and newspaperman Horace Greeley, is a central exhortation of 19th century Manifest Destiny philosophy, but the idea resonates, even after the West was won. California looms large in the imagination of Massachusetts scrapper Stanley Kaminsky (Charlie Hunnam), the slick-talking antihero of Max Winkler’s boxing road movie “Jungleland.”

Stan himself doesn’t get in the ring — that’s his younger brother, Walter “Lion” Kaminsky (Jack O’Connell) — but it feels like Stan has his dukes up to the world, the doubters and the debt collectors. He trains his younger brother; he’s his coach, his corner man, not to mention manager and de facto father, but he’s just as quick to sell his brother out, offering Lion’s fists as payment for everything from mysterious debts to car repair.

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When Stan stretches a line of credit too thin with suavely suited gangster Pepper (Jonathan Majors), he lands the brothers in a strange pickle. The young men have to go west, to San Francisco, for a bare-knuckle boxing match called “Jungleland.” Win the fight, erase the debt. The only catch? Pepper saddles Stan with another delivery: Drop a young woman by the name of Sky (Jessica Barden) at a pet supply store in Reno in the care of a man named Yeats, a transaction to which Sky is vehemently opposed.

This dire and dreamy road movie is impressive work from director and co-writer Winkler (he co-wrote with Theodore Bressman and David Branson Smith). His third feature (after 2010’s “Ceremony” and 2017’s “Flower”) shows Winkler to be expanding the scope and genre of his work while remaining tightly focused on character.

That focus makes this an actor’s picture, with a trio of English actors tackling working-class American dreamers, to remarkable results. Hunnam excels in roles that utilize his gift of gab and natural, almost ingratiating charm, and O’Connell disappears into the role of the stoic, strong and loyal Lion. Barden holds her own against the two as the enigmatic Sky.

Shot with heightened naturalism by cinematographer Damián García, certain images are incredibly striking, seemingly plucked out of the existing landscape, especially from authentic locations in Fall River, Mass., Reno, Nev., and San Francisco. Winkler and editor Tomas Vengris build a rhythm that ebbs and flows, sound overlapping image to push the pace, and occasionally allowing it to grind to a halt, observing how tensions rise on this increasingly disastrous journey.

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There’s a mythic quality to their cross-country odyssey, which is bloody and emotionally and physically brutal but also poignant. With Stan’s dreams of California’s bounty, it almost feels like the Gold Rush.

In this strange little family, Stan is a stern, paternal figure to Lion, demanding more and more of him physically, proclaiming that it’s for his own good, that he’s special, talented. But it’s just to take more and more, which Lion offers freely for the care and attention of his older brother, his only family. Ultimately, Lion and Sky are just packages, vessels, prized for their abilities, not their souls. Their chosen names are symbolic, representing his ferocity and loyal heart and her desire for freedom. Despite the odds stacked against them, when these two realize they can be free, the sky’s the limit.

Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.

‘Jungleland’

Rated: R for pervasive language, some sexual content, violence and nudity

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Playing: Starts Nov. 6 in limited release where theaters are open; available Nov. 10 on VOD and digital

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