Return of the king
The King Kong cinematic machine gets cranking again with Kong: Skull Island, an entertaining enough new take on the big ape that delivers the gorilla action but lags a bit when he isn’t on screen smashing things.
Among Kong incarnations, this one has the most in common with the 1976 take on the classic story, basically because it’s set just a few years earlier in ’73. While there is a beautiful girl the big guy does get a small crush on (Brie Larson as a photographer), the story eschews the usual “beauty and the beast” Kong angle for more straight-up monster vs. monster action. Unlike the past American Kong films, this one never makes it overseas to Manhattan, opting to stay on Kong’s island—thus, the title of the film.
Kong himself is portrayed by motion-capture CGI, and he’s a badass. He’s also tall enough to be a formidable foe for Godzilla, a mash-up already announced for 2020. In the few scenes where he interacts with humans, Kong plays like an organic creature rather than a bunch of gigabytes. He blends well with his human counterparts.
That’s right, there hasn’t been much mention of those human counterparts yet. That’s because, with the exception of John C. Reilly as a fighter pilot stranded on the island during World War II, most of the humans are bland. Tom Hiddleston might make a decent James Bond someday, and he’s a lot of fun as Loki, but he just doesn’t play here as a rugged tracker/action hero. His presence constantly suggests his character might turn bad mid-mission and feed his friends to the monsters or, alternatively, stop for tea and biscuits every five minutes. He’s too much the pretty boy for the role.
Reilly, on the other hand, gives the film the bursts of humor it needs. His castaway is a wild card, like Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now. Actually, the whole movie, with its post-Vietnam setup and Nixon-era themes, plays like Apocalypse Now meets King Kong. When Reilly is on screen, it plays like Apocalypse Now meets King Kong meets Talladega Nights.
Samuel L. Jackson gets to play the psycho military commander who still holds a beef about the war, while John Goodman is on hand as the explorer who thinks “something” is on this strange, uncharted island. He’s essentially this film’s Carl Denham—one of the main characters from the 1933 original and Peter Jackson’s remake—without being named Carl Denham. The likes of Shea Whigham, Jason Mitchell and Richard Jenkins round out the cast.
As for Hiddleston and Larson, one gets the sense their parts were supposed to be bigger, but director Jordan Vogt-Roberts looked at a first cut and realized they sucked, so he replaced a lot of their screen time with Kong action. And Kong gets plenty of time to destroy things. He battles helicopters, strange dino creatures and, in one of the film’s greater moments, a giant octopus that results in an eating scene that’s a direct homage to Oldboy.
How does this Kong stack up against past Kongs? I’d say it’s the weakest of the American Kongs. (I’m a sucker for the ’76 Twin Towers/Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange one.) Oh wait, it’s better than King Kong Lives, the ’86 sequel to the ’76 Kong where he got the heart transplant. That’s actually one of the worst movies ever made. It’s so bad, I forgot it existed until this paragraph of this very review. Kong: Skull Island is also better than the loopy, strangely enjoyable Japanese Kongs, although it owes much to those films in spirit.
As you must do with Marvel films now—with the exception of Logan—stay through Kong: Skull Island credits. There’s an initial sequence during the credits that I won’t give away, and a scene after the credits that I also won’t give away. I’m being stingy with the credit sequence secrets today.
Kong: Skull Island is a shallow enterprise, but a fun shallow enterprise at that. It’ll be interesting to see how they bridge the time gap between this excursion and the present day Godzilla. Kong ages well, so they’ll probably just leap over a few decades and get to the good stuff.