Once an actor lands that iconic role that catapults him or her to mainstream stardom, few are ever able to truly escape its shadow. Yet, despite playing The Boy Who Lived in eight films over the course of a decade, former Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe has all but left Hogwart’s behind. In just a few short years, Radcliffe’s work in offbeat — to put it mildly — releases like Swiss Army Man and Horns has proven his willingness to take on challenging projects and provides sufficient evidence that he’s much more than the bespectacled child who won the world’s heart way back in 2001. Now, his latest film, Jungle, continues that string of intriguing and divisive choices.
Based on a true story, the movie follows Yossi Ghinsberg (Radcliffe) and a pair of globe-trotting friends (Joel Jackson and Alex Russell) as they embark on a journey through the Bolivian jungle. Along the way, they encounter a mysterious guide (Thomas Kretschmann) and tangle with the perilous forces of nature. While the primary conflict of the film is clearly that of man versus nature, director Greg McLean infuses a sort of commentary on the nomadic lifestyle the characters lead and the mistrust that can cultivate amidst this no-frills existence, creating a somewhat richer experience than your standard men-in-the-wilderness pic might offer.
What ultimately undermines the film is not its premise or the execution of its story — the structure of which is as tried-and-true as they come — but the fact that its pacing comes across a bit jarring. A sharp detour in narrative focus midway through the film endeavors to serve as a surprising development but instead leaves Jungle feeling a bit unfocused. For nearly half the 115-minute running time, the movie has been an ensemble piece, allowing the four leads (all name-checked above) to cultivate a shaky dynamic that really works. But, due to a development that we won’t spoil here, Radcliffe himself eventually takes the reins on the film for the duration.
In lesser hands, that kind of drastic shift might have sunk it. Thankfully though, Radcliffe has the chops to carry the dramatic weight Jungle places on him. Although the entire cast is solid, the former Harry Potter star overcomes his rocky accent work (more on that shortly) to deliver a passionate performance that manages to smooth over some of the film’s flaws and even elevate the storytelling a bit as a result. It’s not exactly the kind of revelatory work that he brought to Swiss Army Man, but an actor rarely gets the chance to literally breathe life into a flatulating corpse.
The one disappointing aspect of Radcliffe’s role in Jungle is, quite frankly, the fact that he was cast as the Israeli-born Ghinsberg. In a year rife with whitewashing controversies on both the big (Ghost in the Shell) and small (Iron Fist) screens, the continued underrepresentation of Asian talent stains the film a bit. Ghinsberg’s real-life tale might have been the perfect vehicle for a Middle Eastern actor looking for his breakthrough role. As it stands, it’s simply another solid addition to an already established big-name star’s filmography. We’re not expecting everyone to be Ed Skrein in this scenario, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t at least hold Jungle accountable for its questionable decision here.
Casting issues aside, the production values of Jungle certainly convey the sense of intimacy and foreboding required for any film with a centrally environmental threat. McLean is thus far best known for last year’s horror-thriller The Belko Experiment, and Jungle builds on the same distinctive aesthetic as his previous work in interesting and ambitious ways. At times, Jungle does feel like it’s aiming to be a smaller-scale take on The Revenant, as both films share some thematic ground regarding the transformative power of nature. However, it never quite reaches those heights. Nonetheless, the editing effectively capitalizes on the few truly shocking moments here, allowing them to pack a real emotional punch for both the characters and the audience alike.
Jungle may not be an earth-shattering addition to its genre, but the combined efforts of McLean’s cast and crew make it a solid enough way to spend a spare couple of hours if you’re so inclined. Still, given the harrowing true story behind it, it could have been a much more powerful experience. Rather, the split focus of the film’s story feels like a device designed to conceal the lack of payoff for what its first half promises, and neither the production design nor Radcliffe’s performance is ultimately enough to compensate for its somewhat anticlimactic conclusion. For Radcliffe devotees or those hungry to experience the wildlife from the comfort of their own home or local theater, Jungle might be a worthwhile outing. Otherwise, it’s hardly required viewing.
Daniel Radcliffe does what he can to elevate the survival story at the heart of Jungle, but the film's awkward pacing and over-reliance on cliche hold him back.