Film Review: Jungle

In this fact-based survival thriller, four friends sign up for a wilderness adventure trip that turns into a life-or-death ordeal.
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Bolivia, 1981: Israeli Yossi Ghinsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) is looking to defer the start of predictable adulthood by backpacking his way around wherever the day takes him. He meets up with gentle Swiss teacher Marcus Stamm (Joel Jackson), who's spending his sabbatical expanding his horizons, and Marcus’ best friend Kevin Gale (Alex Russell), an American who's been knocking around South America building up a portfolio he hopes will launch a career as a photographer.

They're all relatively experienced travelers, but the rainforest is new territory, which is why they're thrilled to meet Karl Ruchprecter (Thomas Kretschmann), an Austrian ex-pat who mesmerizes them with stories about the jungle at night, the electric pulsing of life large and small, of meeting tribal people who still live the way all men lived at the dawn of human history, and lamenting that between the rapacity of mining companies and the work of Christian missionaries it—along with the rest of the "hidden worlds"—will soon be lost forever. Kevin and Marcus have their doubts about Karl, but Yossi is sold and persuades the others to join him on what proves a real-life trip into the heart of darkness.

Produced and directed by Australian Greg McLean, who made a splashy debut with the fact-based serial killer film Wolf Lake (2005), Jungle is a tourism commission's worst nightmare: Once the cocky young men find themselves far from civilization, it becomes increasingly apparent that Karl is a loose cannon who may not be as capable as he first appeared and that they're in no way equipped to manage without him. Their only hope lies in sticking together, but fear, pain and physical privation fray their bonds and bodies.

It would be easy to suggest that McLean puts a horror-movie gloss on Ghinsberg's memoir of elemental survival, but given the wide range of unpleasantness jungle environments have to offer (parasites! fire ants! flesh rot!), the bare facts of his experiences hardly need it—they were previously chronicled in an episode of the bluntly titled Discovery Channel Documentary series "I Shouldn't Be Alive.” It’s no wonder that his post-rescue career includes motivational speaking, even if it's faintly disillusioning that one of his presentations is called "Bringing Amazon Survival Skills to Business."

Strong performances all around keep the story from feeling like an exploitation shocker, with extra credit due to Jackson—Marcus is the obvious weak link in the ill-fated group, but Jackson never plays to the cliché and you come away painfully aware that he was fit enough for the trip he bought into, just not for the disaster it became.

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