Kong: Skull Island — Review

King Kong is back, and about three times as tall as we last saw him by my estimate, although he’s still got a mean temper and a thing for blondes. ‘Kong: Skull Island’ exists so as to reintroduce us to a modern Kong who will battle the Godzilla of the 2014 film in an upcoming picture which will hopefully not be directed by Zack Snyder. Depending on how all that sounds to you, you can either sincerely or ironically thank the Avengers now.

Anyway, the story: After a brief World War II prologue, we jump to the final days of the Vietnam war, as two scientists (John Goodman and Corey Hawkins) convince a senator (Richard Jenkins) to secure military funding and an army escort for a mapping operation. Goodman’s character wants to prove that “monsters exist” but he’s apparently had that pitch turned down before, so it’s framed as discovering an uncharted island before the Russians do. The senator bites and after a few more characters are introduced, we set sail (literally) on our adventure.

Coming along with us are an ambitious anti-war photographer (Brie Larson, slumming after her Oscar win last year), a hunky tracker (Tom Hiddleston, right at home with this stuff, all due respect to a talented guy…) and your typical rag-tag group of marines à la ‘Aliens.’ This group includes Toby Kebbell, Shea Whigham, Jason Mitchell (Eazy-E joining Hawkins’ Dre for a Miniature Compton reunion) and Thomas Mann, who looks far too chipper and innocent to be a veteran just recently pulled out of the shit. And finally, I must tell you that the leader of these men is the guy who I’m pretty sure has been using Hermione’s time-traveling necklace from ‘The Prisoner of Azkaban’ so as to be able to appear in every movie with a budget north of 100 million. You know the bad motherfucker I’m talking about — it’s Samuel L. Jackson, who I presume must be upset that this PG-13 movie’s one allotted F-bomb is wasted on John C. Reilly.

So the bigass ship runs into a storm that surrounds the perimeter of the island, which the ship’s captain refuses to sail through, so John Goodman dares Sam Jackson to fly their team in. And if that strikes you as a bad decision, wait until minutes later when they encounter Kong for the first time, and instead of keeping their distance, they fly around him in close circles like a bunch of goddamn idiots until he brings every last chopper crashing to the ground. I swear I am not exaggerating how dumb that scene is.

Anyway, once they’re on the ground they’re split into two groups because of monsters-n-shit. The folks we’re supposed to care about more, led by Larson and Hiddleston, run into a WWII pilot from the film’s prologue (John C. Reilly), who’s been stranded on the island nearly 30 years. Reilly introduces our heroes to the first-ever friendly natives in a King Kong movie (go PC culture!) and the lot form a plan of escape.

Meanwhile Sam Jackson leads his military boys deeper into the heart of darkness (this movie, I may as well note here, has more than a few visual nods to ‘Apocalypse Now’). Because when a bunch of those stupid dudes died in those helicopters, this guy took it personal. And that’s really more than you need to know as far as the story is concerned; suffice to say, dumb people on an island full of monsters — mayhem will occur.

For a director, Warner Brothers chose Jordan Vogt-Roberts, who directed the obnoxiously cute festival darling ‘Kings of Summer’ a few years ago. This has now become an interesting trend of taking directors of tiny indie hits like ‘(500) Days of Summer’ (Mark Webb then did two Spider-Man movies), ‘Monsters’ (Gareth Edwards — ‘Godzilla,’ ‘Rogue One’), and ‘Safety Not Guaranteed’ (Colin Trevorrow — ‘Jurassic World,’ ‘Star Wars: Episode IX’) to direct huge 200-million dollar tentpole franchise movies. ‘Skull Island’ may be better than all of the blockbusters I’ve just mentioned, but most of these results still feel like very clean, safe products, that likely had lots of of studio micromanaging, as opposed to the brave, different approach to epic filmmaking this concept seems to promote. In fact I’m guessing this might be more about being able to blame a boring movie’s failure on a newbie director than getting new takes on familiar stories.

All through the ‘Skull Island’ we’re treated to period music, and while that’s fun for the first half-hour, at a certain point I might have recommended simply letting the film breath and letting us feel this strange island, as opposed to being repeatedly reminded that it’s 1973. From a visual standpoint the film is at its most exciting, both in its amazing special effects and some creative, even beautiful design work. Kong himself is certainly majestic enough, and it’s good fun to watch him fight giant octopuses and other slimy monsters alike.

John C. Reilly gives a funny and enjoyable performance, while everyone else, like the movie, is working on some level of being good enough. There are just a few moments of genuine shock and weirdness that make you wish the studio was brave enough to make a whole movie full of them. Like what if this could be the ‘Fury Road’ of Kong movies? Alas, ‘Kong: Skull Island’ falls short of being the eight wonder of the world — more like a decent monster romp. And in a year that’s had some pretty damn good action blockbusters (‘Logan,’ ‘John Wick: Chapter 2’) so far, I can’t on good conscience quite bring myself to recommend you watch it in theaters.

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