A new breed of street war.
Tommy has spent seven years in prison for killing his physically and mentally abusive father. Upon release, he is sent to a halfway house run by Mr. Renfro, where he slowly tries to get back on his feet. The local church gives Tommy a job and he excels as a cafeteria chef. He even discovers a hidden talent for gourmet cooking. Working with him is dishwasher Guillermo, a young Latino caught up in a gang of drug dealing thugs. He soon meets Sophia, a pretty teacher at the school, and they begin a relationship. Unfortunately, Tommy and Sophia both have links to criminal elements that they would rather soon forget. Sophia's brother Steven is a street hustling heroin addict who is constantly threatening her for money. Tommy used to work for Erlik as a drug runner and now the old man and his associates want him back working for them. Tommy resists all these temptations and even offers to help Sophia with her brother. But when a drug deal between Steven and the Hispanic hoods turns deadly, Tommy vows to protect Sophia and her brother, even if it means returning to Erlik for a little extra street muscle. Little does he know that the final confrontation will bring him face to face with Guillermo and his gang.
Prepare to be utterly disappointed by Urban Jungle. For 94 minutes, it is a fascinating character study, a realistic look at a troubled ex-con and the painful, slow road back to something like a normal life. Not that he ever really had one to begin with. The main theme running through the film is the pain and lasting impact that severe physical and emotional abuse has on a person. No matter where Tommy goes or what he is involved in, the images from his horrendous adolescence flash before him in horrific, painful washes of memory. The opening images of a small, semi-nude child being hung and severely beaten by his twisted, abusive father are sickening in their unsettled brutality. And as horrendous as they are, the following scenes of everyday life, of the routine of trying to reconnect with society and with law and order (both personal and legal) are equally powerful in their detail. This starts out as a very good film, one where we develop a deep caring for Tommy and his pursuit of rehabilitation and normalcy. If the film had just stayed focused on these small moments of truth, it would have been an unexpectedly powerful drama. But then the filmmakers had to come along and dirty it up with the entirely unnecessary drugs/gangs/hustler angle. This is not to say that some element of danger or enticement would be out of place in the film. But instead of being an ominous presence that colors the outer edges of these characters lives, it ends up veering the film away from reality and into a violent, cartoon clash.
And this is when the drama just simply dies. Every bit of goodwill and energy the movie had built up, all the wonderful character nuances and performances that had been placed on the screen are hijacked for a totally cruel and stupid final five minutes. Since it's poorly set up, it comes completely out of the blue. Because of the conflicting motivations surrounding it, it fails to be satisfying for anyone. Nor does it resolve very much. It's like the filmmakers decided that this story had nowhere else to go and the only way they could get out of it was to employ a sort of Reservoir Dogs style Bloodbath Ex Machina. And the real question here is why? Why did it have to end this way? Why did Tommy have to get involved the way he did? Why introduce Steven and the Latino gang at all? Why take what was a carefully constructed and sometimes brilliant look at a broken man's chance at redemption and re-acclamation and piss it all away with a shoot out? It just doesn't make sense. Either the director had no faith in his film or did not understand the minor gem he had. One can sense a great amount of flop sweat as the final moments unfurl. Perhaps an alternative resolution tested poorly, or the hip-hoped audience, expecting guns and gang glory, just could not accept a small film about real life issues, and demanded some bangs for their bucks. And it's really too bad. The actors here are very real, very noble in their roles. Even the criminals are acutely drawn (all except the gang, which is similarly dead character-wise as it is plot-wise). What could have been a real hidden treasure ends up a foolish, dumbfounding semi-failure.
And yet, this film is recommended for what it gets right. Not that Artisan helps matters that much. They obviously have a big problem when it comes to labeling and promoting product. Urban Jungle is treated like some sort of violence filled, hip-hop gangland street saga, with guns blazing and rap blaring from low riders. The cover art features a massive image of someone who is not even in the film and the plot description on the back mixes scenes and characters into an amalgamation of misdirection and borderline consumer fraud. How a quiet little character study got turned into full-blown crime epic is beyond explanation. Fortunately, Artisan does not fudge on the transfer or sound issues. Both the anamorphic widescreen picture and the Dolby Digital sound (in either 5.1 or 2.0 surround) are excellent. Even the trailer for Urban Jungle paints a more accurate picture of the film's plot than the hyperbolizing copywriters do. Add to the package a series of sneak previews (AKA additional trailers) and a slight, brief set of filmographies and, overall, this is a decent DVD package. But it's the ending that keeps coming back to haunt this review. Handled in a different fashion, a proper conclusion would have made Urban Jungle an excellent film and come highly recommended. But as it stands, with the idiotic ending it has, the film is a tough, divisive call. If you want to see a very honest, moving and occasionally harrowing slice of a parolee's life, Urban Jungle is your film. Just don't expect to admire it once it's over.
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