Daniel Radcliffe playing an Israeli surviving in the Bolivian jungle? You have this Jewish movie-lover's attention.
The Jewish Harry Potter star has thrown himself into numerous roles in films of all stripes since graduating Hogwarts, from Allen Ginsberg to a farting corpse in his previous survival film, Swiss Army Man. In Jungle, Radcliffe plays a different Ghinsberg -- Yossi -- in an adaptation of the real Ghinsberg's memoir of the same name.
The setup will ring true with the many way-finding Israelis and young American Jews out there: In 1981, Ghinsberg decided to travel the world and accumulating awe-inspiring experiences after finishing his three years in the Israeli army. His adventures took him to South America, and in Bolivia he meets fellow travelers and kindred spirits Marcus (Joel Jackson) and Kevin (Alex Russell). When a self-assured guide named Karl (Thomas Kretschmann) makes a sales pitch to take the trio into the jungle to see a secret native tribe and sights unseen, Yossi convinces them to go for it.
If that sounds exactly like the setup for a horror movie you've seen before, that's not an accident. Director Greg McLean made similar backpacker horror film Wolf Creek and killer croc flick Rogue, so he brings plenty of horror conventions to Jungle, but this film is foremost a survival story, and that's when it's at its best.
For fans of the man vs. nature narrative, McLean and writer Justin Monjo do a good job capturing the temperamental mood of the jungle, which at one minute can terrify you and the next minute can fill you with awe. McLean bounces between awe and terror to effectively tease us, making us unsure of whether we're watching a man-in-the-wilderness drama or horror film. Some shots (some filmed in South America but many in Australia) are beautiful and calming nature landscapes and some will make even seasoned horror fans' stomachs churn.
What's unfortunate is that Ghinsberg's Israeli identity, while not ignored, has little bearing on the story. Some very brief flashes to his life at home come a little too late to make us feel more for Yossi because of his Jewish heritage, though no question audiences of all backgrounds will feel invested in his survival.
The only resonant point is that Yossi comes from a family of Holocaust survivors. One can imagine how that would influence his attitude and outlook as he fights for his life, but the film really misses its opportunity to go there. When you consider that in all the scenes when Yossi's alone in the jungle that he's not talking to himself in Hebrew, you understand the priorities of the filmmakers. It was important enough not to write Yossi's identity completely out of the movie, but not important enough to integrate it more into the movie.
As survival films go, Jungle works effectively to capture our interest and Radcliffe's performance invites us firmly into Yossi's shoes, a few weird hallucination sequences aside. All the things a genre film like this is supposed to do, Jungle does, and that makes it a solid watch. But by and large, Jungle is only really Jewish by association, so make sure Daniel Radcliffe and his attempt at an Israeli accent aren't sole the reason you're watching.
"Jungle" will be available On Demand/Digital HD beginning Friday, Oct. 20 and is playing for a limited time at the Pickwick Theatre in Park Ridge.