Directed by Greg McLean
An Israeli, a Swiss man and an American walk into the jungle…
Though it sounds like the set up for a joke, JUNGLE is anything but. Based on true events, the film follows Yossi (Radcliffe) and his friends Marcus (Jackson) and Kevin (Russell), as they venture into the Bolivian rainforest led by Austrian tour guide and obvious villain, Karl (Kretschmann). Longing for a peak at the Amazon in all its tooth-and-claw glory, the quartet set off, bound for madness and disaster.
Already aware of Yossi Ghinsberg’s memoir, I was excited to see what director Greg McLean would deliver. Plus, any story where nature picks a fight with pretentious poetry-reciting, henna-tattooed backpackers is right up my alley. (I was one such backpacker once upon a time). That’s why I was initially disappointed with McLean’s offering. JUNGLE takes…its…time. It isn’t until the halfway point that the setting becomes a threat. Until then, the characters bicker like a gaggle of washerwomen in cramped shots. Scale is definitely something the film struggles with. Glorious panoramic views of steam rising from emerald thickets are squeezed between claustrophobic dialogue-driven scenes. What’s more, considering writer Jean Monjo only has four characters to work with, they’re sadly underwritten. Besides an introductory voiceover from Radcliffe, we’re given little insight into who these men are.
But then something miraculous happens. At the halfway point JUNGLE rises from the ashes and becomes wonderfully entertaining! Action-packed set pieces of raging rapids, jaguar attacks and rescue attempts resurrect the film. The sound design kicks into high gear, reminding us that the jungle is alive and crawling with danger (particularly at night).
Once Radcliffe’s character is separated from the others, we get to witness his thrilling battle for survival. At this point in Radcliffe’s career, being a fan of his often feels like being a soccer mom cheering on a kid with a sprained ankle. I’ve always enjoyed watching him, but I have to admit I admire his dorky enthusiasm in interviews much more than his onscreen performances. However, with JUNGLE, my loyalty finally paid off. Yossi is a vibrant, endearing figure and Radcliffe captures him perfectly. Whether he’s inspecting an oozing abscess on his forehead – ‘Oh great, it moves!’ – or freeing himself from quicksand, Yossi is a compelling underdog whose wit and determination had me cheering by the end.
JUNGLE owes a great debt to Danny Boyle’s visceral drama 127 HOURS, especially in its hallucination scenes. In Boyle’s film, he used fantasy to help sculpt James Franco’s character, but here the hallucinations are mostly meaningless. One of Yossi playing high-stakes poker feels as though it’s been plucked from a completely different film.
It’s hard to know how to feel about JUNGLE. The film restores my faith in the boy wizard, which is something I suppose. It also serves up some delicious gross-out moments, as well as a true dynamo of a protagonist. Although the film takes a huge upward swing halfway through, for some it may be too little, too late.