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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » King of the Jungle
King of the Jungle
HBO // R // May 21, 2002
List Price: $24.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted June 18, 2002 | E-mail the Author
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King of the Jungle began its life as a stage play conceived by Seth Zvi Rosenfeld, and it was later adapted into a feature film written and directed by the playwright in much the same way that his A Brother's Kiss had been a few years earlier. The stage version took place entirely on a basketball court and featured just a pair of characters. One of them was Seymour, a mentally challenged man with lofty dreams of NBA stardom. Rosenfeld's feature film greatly expands upon the story, with the innocent Seymour as the only real connection between the two. The writer/director also reteams with a number of the cast and crew from A Brother's Kiss, including wife Rosie Perez, Michael Rapaport, John Leguizamo, Justin Pierce, and Marisa Tomei.

John Leguizamo tackles the role of Seymour Weinstein in the feature film adaptation. Seymour is a mentally ill 29 year old coddled by his Puerto Rican mother Mona (Julie Carmen), dreaming of little else but basketball and his neglecting, embarrassed Jewish father, Jack (Cliff Gorman). Mona has yet to leave the '60s behind, and with her stoner lesbian lover (Rosie Perez), she spearheads a high-profile protest against police brutality. The spotlight of this event catches the eye of Lil' Mafsa (Justin Pierce), a street punk who harbors some dark feelings for the former social worker. Mona is shot dead before Seymour's eyes, and one by one, he finds himself separated from the people in his life. With a gun given to him by peddler friend Francis (Michael Rapaport) and his minimal knowledge of the streets, Seymour sets out to prove, as he is prone to shout, that he is the king of the jungle.

I apparently wasn't feeling in much of a disassociative mood when I first sat down to watch King of the Jungle. I couldn't quite separate Leguizamo from his crazed performances in various TV shows and movies, which made it tough to buy him as the mentally stunted Seymour. This wasn't helped much by his character's tendency to repeatedly state "why you buggin'?", bringing long-repressed memories of Leguizamo's 1995 sketch comedy series House of Buggin' bubbling slowly to the surface. It didn't take more than a few minutes for me to be sucked into the film and appreciate Leguizamo's portrayal of Seymour. Given the subject matter, it's appropriate that King of the Jungle features two alumni from the gritty and thoroughly controversial 1995 film Kids. Rosario Dawson is a long way from Josie and the Pussycats, and though her role is little more than a cameo, it's one of the most disturbing and memorable performances in the film. She does, incidentally, have the opportunity to repeatedly mention a five-letter word culled from the title of that Archie Comics adaptation, and I'm not referring to the pop trio's lead singer. Justin Pierce sadly took his own life shortly after production wrapped. Many of the characters in the film are fairly one-dimensional, but at least they're not inner city clich├ęs along the lines of 'The Wise Bum' or 'The Hooker With A Heart Of Gold'.

King of the Jungle doesn't travel down the path I was expecting after Mona's murder. It's not the tale of revenge that I was expecting after Seymour retrieves Francis' pistol, nor are the sorts of goofy romance or graphic bloodshed so frequently associated with New York movies present. King of the Jungle is a dark character piece and, if Rosenfeld's notes on the commentary are to be believed, an all too accurate one.

Video: King of the Jungle isn't preceded with the dreaded 'this film has been modified to fit your screen' disclaimer, but the full-frame DVD does not present the film in its original aspect ratio. The trailer on the disc is preceded with an MPAA ratings card, and regardless of how few screens King of the Jungle may have played on, it was undoubtedly not exhibited at an aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The disc's featurette includes a number of clips from the film, all of which are letterboxed to 1.85:1.

That said, King of the Jungle doesn't appear to suffer greatly from the lack of letterboxing, and the presentation appears to be open-matte rather than cropped. The image is standard fare for a full-frame DVD release of a recent, modestly budgeted film. There are a few specks and some light, intermittent film grain. Color saturation and fleshtones are both solid, and I didn't stumble upon any issues related to the image's crispness and clarity.

Audio: The primary audio for King of the Jungle is an English stereo surround track. For the first half of the movie, surrounds remained relatively quiet, providing limited ambiance. Even the dollop of hip-hop in the soundtrack (contributed by the Gorillaz' Dan "The Automator" Nakamura) was unable to elicit much of a rumble from the subwoofer. This takes a 180 degree turn after Mona is murdered and Francis is busted by the cops, leaving Seymour to fend for himself. As this marks a turning point in the film, I doubt the shift to more active surrounds and heavier bass is coincidental. The rears get some nice use during a nightmare of Seymour's and the haunting memories of the gunshots that killed his mother. I also noticed some decent panning at times with the passing of cars.

Monaural Spanish audio is also available, as are subtitles in English, Spanish, and French.

Supplements: This DVD release of King of the Jungle features an audio commentary with writer/director Seth Zvi Rosenfeld and stars Rosie Perez and John Leguizamo. It's a lively discussion among friends that focuses much more on characters, themes, and performances than anything particularly technical in nature. The three of them talk about their preparation for a film with a mentally handicapped protagonist and what they learned during their visits to an institution. A couple memorable stories related include the tense presence of Latin Kings in the protest scene, the three-on-three pickup games between setting up shots at Madison Square Garden, how Mona's murder paralleled that of Rosenfeld's father, and a fight scene that resulted in microsurgery for Leguizamo.

As mentioned earlier, there is a full-frame theatrical trailer, as well as a promotional featurette with the usual lengthy film clips and "working with [insert name of director or cast member]-style interviews. Rounding out the supplements is a series of a cast/crew biographies.

Other Notes: There is a very unusual video pause and corresponding audio stutter at the 1:22:28 mark. King of the Jungle is on a single-sided, single-layered disc, so obviously this cannot be attributed to a layer change. The data side of the disc looks flawless, and I was able to duplicate this error on both a set-top Toshiba SD-3109 and a portable Audiovox DVD-1500. The stutter also occurred at the same point when listening to the disc's commentary track. The screener copy I was sent appears to be the finished product. As I've yet to find comments on the DVD from any other review sites or my usual bulletin boards, I'm unsure if I just got a bum disc or if all copies are similarly afflicted.

Conclusion: King of the Jungle is the sort of film I kind of enjoyed watching, but it's not something I think I'd be willing to plunk down any cash to see. I'd watch it passively on HBO, but I wouldn't spring for a purchase or even a rental. That is more related to my lack of interest in the themes presented in King of the Jungle than anything specific about its direction or performances, though. If the movie sounds interesting to you, don't let my disinterest bring you down. I'm sure a rental would be appealing to quite a number of people, particularly the not-insubstantial fanbase of the talent involved. I'd definitely recommend giving it a look before laying out twenty bucks to add this disc to a DVD collection. Rent It.
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