“Jungle” hurls characters into the wilds of Bolivia’s then-uncharted Tuichi River region for a harrowing and hallucinatory trek from the middle of nowhere to the suburbs of nowhere.
It’s based on a true story, stars Daniel Radcliffe, and features almost everything you expect in such “man tests himself against nature” tales — snakes, storms, self-surgery and quicksand.
These are indulged college-age lads with no Bear Grylls to bail them out of their self-produced predicament. Who among them will survive?
Aside from our narrator, the Israeli Yossi Ghinsberg, who narrates the story and is played by the film’s star, I mean.
But what sets this genre picture apart is not just the usual intensity, guilt and hopelessness Radcliffe brings to the role. He’s spot on, as always, and puts us right into Yossi’s foot-rotting boots. It’s the chilling paranoia of the dark unknown, city lads in a jungle where everything noise from the night’s tiniest insects to the glowing-eyed jaguar is out to kill you, the fear that you’ve volunteered for a death march and that you’ve roped friends into it with you.
Yeah, director Greg McClean (“The Belko Experiment”) and screenwriter Justin Monjo have made this Australian production (shot in the jungles of coastal Oz) a horror movie, a living nightmare of ill-prepared uncertainty, Darwinian choices and utter despair.
Not that Yossi’s new friends, the Swiss backpacker Marcus (Aussie actor Joel Jackson) and his more outdoorsy American photographer pal Kevin (Alex Russell of “Chronicle” and “Carrie”) are warned that this awaits them. They’re having a high old time, seeing the sights, trying the local drugs and hitting it off with hot backpacking girls (Lily Sullivan) who read “A Happy Death” by Albert Camus to them.
“It takes time to live.”
But Yossi wants to top off his sightseeing/sex and hallucinogens “year off” before college with something that separates him from “every other tourist.”
And that’s what the Indiana Jonesish Karl (Thomas Kretschmann of “The Pianist”) promises. Unknown tribes, rivers running with gold, photographs no one else has taken, trails no one else has blazed. Yossi is sold, and Kevin and Marcus are persuaded. They’ll follow the rifle-packing he-man into nowhere.
“I’ll be an adventure,” Yossi promises. And he delivers. Before they’ve made much headway at all, the insects and damp have revealed Marcus as a weak link. Factions set up. Karl seems a bit of a savage — shooting monkeys, leaving them to fend for themselves for long, lost stretches.
The quest comes to a head when they all argue about how best to extract themselves form this “Lost City of Z” Hell. A raft?
Events conspire to separate the quartet, and lost and alone, Yossi contemplates his choices, hallucinates his recent exploits (gambling in Vegas is re-imagined in James Bond tones) and remembers the Jewish talisman he was given to protect him and the disapproving family he left behind.
And that’s when the steep learning curve of surviving the “Jungle” hits Yossi — hard.
The best of these movies put us in the jungle with our hero, and this one manages that — hopeless choices, futile hiking and hacking, gruesome meals and the consequences of spending too much time in a place not meant for the coddled.
Kretschmann, one of my favorite actors, manages a mysterious swagger as Karl, a callous, cocky in his competence “Papa” to the boys.
“I know everything,” he says, and they kind of buy it, even if we don’t.
But this is Radcliffe’s movie, another challenging low-budget indie drama that puts the diminutive star in peril that no magic wand or spell can save him from. He’s tackled his version of “Lost City of Z,” tested himself and done it with an Israeli accent.
There’s no much new here, but it’s as engrossing the better entries in this formulaic quest and that’s largely owing to his charisma and focused self-martyrdom. He’s suffering for his art, and he convinces us to suffer with him.
MPAA Rating: R for language and some drug use
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Thomas Kretschmann, Alex Russell, Joel Jackson
Credits: Directed by Greg McLean, script by Justin Monjo, based on the Yossi Ghinsberg memoir. An eOne release.
Running time: 1:55