For some, he will always be Pukey Nicholls, the troubled skinhead from Shane Meadows’ This Is England. For other equally early adopters across the pond, he’s James “Cookie Monster” Cook in the British teen show Skins. Maybe you discovered him in the intense prison drama Starred Up, standing toe to toe with Ben Mendelsohn, or first noticed him as the lead in Unbroken, Angelina Jolie’s biopic on lost-at-sea Olympian Louis Zamperini that was supposed to kick Jack O’Connell up the A-list. Oh, and the wounded outlaw in Netflix’s Western miniseries Godless? That was O’Connell, too.
No matter where you initially encountered the half English, half-Irish performer, however, he likely struck you as more than just another Intense Young Male Actor, U.K. Division. He’s got a presence that goes beyond the cut-rate male-model cheekbones, the screamo histrionics and/or moody brooding of most of his peers; check out his work in ’71, Yann Demange’s tense 2014 thriller about a British soldier lost in Troubles-era Belfast, and you’ll see how he conveys the sense of a lot going on under the surface. The combination of matinee-idol handsomeness, well-honed chops and a card-carrying membership in the elite “he makes projects better just by being there” club makes you wonder why his profile isn’t more prominent, or hasn’t quite hit that breakthrough moment we thought would happen in 2014.
We sing O’Connell’s praises so loudly because he’s really the only reason to check out Max Winkler’s tale of blood bonds, brotherly love and bloody bareknuckle bouts, and to remind you that sometimes, even the best and brightest can’t save something so banal and by-the-book. (It hits theaters — remember those? — today, and VOD on November 10th.) His character, Lion Kaminski, is a boxer who coulda been a contender, a somebody instead of a bum. And if he hasn’t quite cashed in his one-way ticket to Palookaville, that’s probably because his brother, Stanley (Charlie Hunnam), used it as collateral in a bet and gambled it away. Stanley was Lion’s manager, and can be considered the brains of the outfit only by default. Now he sets up his sibling in penny-ante underground fights, the kind where the gloves are off and the legality of the proceedings are none of your damn business. In between matches, the brothers squat in an abandoned house that’s technically in Western Massachusetts but is really in Metaphorical Skid Row, USA.
Stanley owes a lot of money to a local gangster named Pepper (Jonathan Majors, doing a lot with very little), because of course he does, but luckily for this chump and his punch-drunk champ, there’s a way out. It’s called Jungleland, and it’s a big bareknuckler battle-royale happening in San Francisco. If Lion can best all comers and win the $40,000 pot, Pepper says they’re even. There’s one catch, however: The duo have to drop off a “package” in Reno on their way to the Bay Area. Which turns out to be a young woman named Sky (Jessica Barden), who will turn out to by a somewhat unwilling participant in this cross-country trip, and that will cause a rift in the Kaminskis’ relationship and, well, you probably get a sense of where this is going.
Two brothers, a tough but troubled damsel in distress, one final make-or-break fight — you get the drill. It’s a mash-up of stories as old as the Bible, or at least Golden Boy and Of Mice and Men. (Lion’s brass-ring dream is for a dry-cleaning business run by him and Stanley; one assumes there will be a menagerie out back so he can pet the rabbits any time he likes.) Winkler and his co-writers Theordore Bressman and David Branson Smith tweak these formulas just enough to make them seem a little different — our broke travelers end up settling a car-repair bill by having Lion take on two greasemonkeys at a time — and not enough to make you feel you’ve seen a lot of this before, only done with more deftness and fleetness. Hunnam gives you a hustler who’s development starts at “oily” and ends at “oilier,” while Barden ping-pongs between pouty and petulant. Even the late-breaking reason behind her needing to go west, while genuinely unsavory, isn’t surprising. There are plenty of landscape shots that feel like stock images for “gritty America,” and more than a couple of sad scenes of people having sad, furtive sex in public places. You don’t get the title Springsteen cut, though on the plus side, you do get Bruce’s stellar cover of Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream.”
All that’s left is O’Connell’s feral, wounded bird of a fighter, a guy who’s smart enough to know he’s no longer a heavyweight in the mental department, that he’s running out of time in this zero-sum game and just wants his fuck-up brother to straighten out. There are brief moments when you actually think you see the lights dim behind his eyes. And there are even briefer moments when you see a whole other movie on the edge of this one, in which all of the other elements rise up to meet the actor’s compelling sad-sack of a pugilist and try to make an honest stand. No dice. After the dust settles, O’Connell is still gonna be a contender. Jungleland, not so much.