Greg McLean’s biographical man vs wild tale has some nice moments, stunning cinematography and a solid turn from Daniel Radcliffe but that’s about it. An absence of substantial character development for the central players make this film, sadly, a disengaging experience.
Granted the prestigious slot of Opening Night Film at the 2017 Melbourne Film Festival, Greg McLean (Wolf Creek, Rogue, Wolf Creek 2) switches gear with Jungle, a biographical tale of 22 year old Yossi Ghinsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) and his misadventures in the Bolivian Jungle. The feature sports some of McLean’s signature style, some smatterings of extended sequences of violence, and his deft ability to frame perilous situations, yet the most important part of a tale like this he is unable to obtain – emotional engagement.
The year is 1981 and Yossi, at the consternation of his father (which isn’t revealed until far too late in proceedings), has taken a gap year to go wandering in South America. Whilst in Bolivia he befriends Swede Marcus (Joel Jackson) and American Kevin (Alex Russell) whom pal up and get talked into going on a Jungle tour to remote villages by Karl (Thomas Kretschmann). The romance side of the adventure into the wilderness wears off soon enough before injury splits the group in two and, finally, Yossi finds himself hopelessly lost and without anyone in the heart of the Bolivian jungle.
Sounds like rousing stuff. It really should be, yet right from the outset the film stumbles. Opening to one of the most erratically edited and truncated establishment sequences, the three central characters are given absolutely no time to reveal themselves. There’s no back story given to Yossi, no reason why he befriends Marcus outside helping him get on a boat and no justification why Kevin is along for the ride. Within 5 minutes they’re off at some bush party drinking peyote (or some hallucinogenic plant), getting high without any reason and before you know it Karl’s in the picture convincing Yossi to go wandering in the jungle with this complete stranger.
McLean, working with screenwriter Justin Monjo (INXS: Never Tear Us Apart), seems less interested in establishing these characters than just getting you in the wilderness so they can start the fight for survival elements. What results is, as the situation descends, a series of actions between the characters that have no emotional weight whatsoever. Yossi decries himself as selfish yet you know nothing about him, Kevin is some sort of river navigating God but you’ve been given nothing to justify that, Marcus asserts that he and Yossi are close friends yet they’ve spent no meaningful time on screen together – instead of engaging with them, you look on nonplussed.
.. and it’s this that is Jungle‘s exposed mortal wound. You just don’t care about any of it.
It’s not that Radcliffe, especially when on his own in the last act, doesn’t give it his all. It’s just that everything he is doing has little to no resonance. You don’t care about him. It isn’t until the final act where, in dream like flashbacks, we learn about Yossi and his motivations but it comes way too late in proceedings to have an impact.
The action sequences are well handled, the photography is plush and immersive, and the physical effects work are all top notch but it means nothing when the characters engaged in them mean nothing.
Gunning for a man vs wild overcoming adversity hero biopic and only making it halfway, Jungle is like Wizard of Oz‘s Tin Man, it’s all tough and shiny on the exterior – it’s just missing its heart….
JUNGLE screens at 2017 MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL