AT&T’s Kingdom on The Audience Network wouldn’t be possible without wild unpredictable characters like Jonathan Tucker’s Jay Kulina. The epitome of sexy energy, Tucker injects the series with a blend of “you never know”. A show about the inner turmoil that MMA fighters clash with outside the ring needs coiled up DNA wiring specimens like Jay and actors like Tucker to bring them to life.
Think of it as a kitchen and creator Byron Balasco is the chef. He can’t just have seasoned meat like Frank Grillo or a binding element like Matt Lauria. You need a spice like Jay Kulina to give the environment a kick. Energetic spark plugs like Tucker to propel the action into uncomfortable but devilishly entertaining areas. He’s the Joker of Navy Street.
Tucker has held my attention since he played a young Billy Crudup in Barry Levinson’s Sleepers back in 1996. An innocent young man in Hell’s Kitchen who goes through a massive traumatic experience that changes him for life. Tucker would go on to steal scenes in The Virgin Suicides, Hostage, and the short lived NBC series The Black Donnellys.
Remember the Paul Haggis/Tommy Lee Jones war film In The Valley of Elah? Tucker played Jones’ son who sent his dad on the path for justice. He had stints on Hannibal and Parenthood as well as a pivotal role in the horror film The Ruins. Last year, Tucker gave Timothy Olyphant’s Raylan Givens one final Western stand-off on the finale of FXX’s Justified. Wherever Tucker goes, he makes a dent in the audience’s mind like he is laying a post-it note on your brain to remember him.
Tucker’s work on Kingdom is easily the best of his career and that doesn’t fault his previous endeavors one bit. It’s just that Balasco doesn’t hamstring an ounce of the man’s talent. Playing Jay allows Tucker to use all his tricks, quirks, and wildly inventive skills. There’s no holding back when you are playing a drug addicted prone to violence self destructive fighter like this elder Kulina brother.
Jay has the talent and will power to carve a career in the cage but he keeps lighting bonfires on the way to the ring. A fight with his best friend Ryan Wheeler(Lauria) doesn’t just represent a professional hurdle for the guy but a potential demolition of a good and trusted friend in his life. It’s no secret from the first few episodes of Kingdom‘s back nine stretch of Season 2 that Jay is going to shoot down the rabbit hole of despair again.
That’s the way men act on this show. They can’t fight anything and everything inside the octagon. When they exit the cage, all of life’s delicious temptations swarm them. You can’t punch a relationship that doesn’t work. You can’t put a rear choke on your electric bill or make father time tap out. Kingdom doesn’t shy away from the ugly part of these characters lives and Tucker is one of its greatest tools. Imagine a can of red bull shaken up relentlessly and thrown on a hot fire pit. That’s Jay Kulina.
Tucker’s Jay reminds me of Marlon Brando’s fighter from On the Waterfront. Shouting to the closest soul, “I could have been a contender. I could have been somebody.” You would then mix Brando’s Terry Malloy with Robert DeNiro’s Jake LaMotta(a real life boxer) from Raging Bull and you would have the full essence of Jay. A joker in life as well as in the ring. It isn’t fair to say Jay is merely making a joke of his career or his close connection to his to brother Nate(Nick Jonas) or Grillo’s Alvey Kulina. He’s a Joker in that you never know where he is going next. For the characters and their futures, that is a hard knock life. For the audience, it’s a boom box of entertaining fireworks.
There is a certain scene where I knew Jonathan Tucker’s Jay was something else. It came last winter during the first ten episodes of Season 2. For the first part of the episode, Jay was a happy man. He was getting ready to fight for the title and was going to pick up lunch from his mother’s work. He finds out she isn’t there(viewers know that she has quit her job and went back to the dangers of prostitution and drugs) and goes back to the home. He tears apart her room and finds the heroin. When Tucker walks out onto the backyard porch next to the pool, his face is no longer one of a happy carefree motivated man. It’s one of a broken son. Tucker doesn’t overplay the scene one bit. His face does all the talking required. It’s amazing. There’s several of these moments sprinkled throughout the pulverizing AT&T series.
Tucker acted in 40+ films and television shows before landing on Kingdom to find his ultimate gem of a role. For the 34 year old from Boston, it’s a role that will keep on giving as long as Tucker imbues him with a honesty that is hard to find. Tucker is willing to go to the darkest of places to discover this man’s soul. Every single lover of entertainment and MMA should go along with him.
Kingdom airs every Wednesday night at 9 p.m. EST on AT&T’s Audience Network.