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Of the three mainstream King Kong films that tell the famous tale–the 1933 original, the 1976 re-make, and the 2005 reimagining–it’s hard to claim one as my favorite as each possess something, dare I say, magical, about them. Certainly, the stop-motion masterpiece of the first that made the iconic figure so memorable remains perhaps the most emotionally impactful, but I’ve always been drawn to Rick Baker‘s fantastic work in the 70s remake and Jeff Bridges anti-hero approach in that story, and there’s no taking away the awe Peter Jackson evokes in his reinterpretation, even if it is a bit overstuffed. So walking away from this latest retooling, it’s hard to know how to feel about a new Kong, especially one so dramatically reworked for placement in an expanded universe. This is not the classic story told again, one that admittedly probably has no place in contemporary film, though it homages to it, keeping Kong a sentimental old fool up for some serious widespread pummeling action.
It’s set at the end of the Vietnam War as American troops are being recalled, leaving a few hard fought warriors wondering about the meaning of their efforts. This includes Army commander Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), a hardened soldier with a box full of medals and an empty chest, longing for action. Meanwhile, in Washington, a pair of eager scientists from a group called Monarch, Bill Randa (John Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins), are once again pleading their case to investigate a mysterious uncharted island that has only been seen by satellite imagery. Once approved, they enlist the help of a tracker named James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and are joined by photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) along with Packard and a squadron of his men, taking one last mission, much to his delight.
What they discover on the island is by now, no secret. The titular Kong is none too pleased with what is said to be a geological survey but is in fact a rouse to lure the big ape out, something Packard himself is not so happy about once he loses a handful of men and a few helicopters to the massive king of the island. With everyone on the ground, they are separated in groups and must try to find their way to safety, but they soon learn that an angry skyscraper-tall gorilla is not the only very big thing in their way. It’s going to take more than the paltry guns they have with them if they are going to survive.
Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, Kong: Skull Island is a remarkably entertaining film, even with its flaws, a big, bold, movie theater show that knows its roots and more so, where it wants to go. By that I mean the studio plans to create a universe where multiple large-scale monster movies intersect, much like the highly-successful Marvel series and the soon-to-be kicked off monster-verse that starts with the Mummy reboot. Here it will be Godzilla and Kong, Godzilla already launching to acclaim in 2014. However, the two films couldn’t be any more different in terms of style as Kong shows up pretty early and stays with the action just about through it all. While that coin is always going to be two-sided, whether it’s better to reveal the beast early or not, here, it’s the right choice. Kong is a magnificent creation, and looks great up on the big screen, powering his way to heroics in a number of well-staged and executed battles along with some surprisingly effective low-key moments that bring the ape some sense of, well … humanity.
That said, the first two thirds of the film are almost unbeatable in the genre. Vogt-Roberts handles action supremely well, and the sense of scale is incredibly impressive, especially when the camera pulls back but even more so when it draws close. The action is easy to follow and purposeful, and the island just feels like a world unlike one we seen before. Sure, Kong knows its influences, tipping its hat to the greats, including Jurassic Park (at one point, Packard warns everyone to ‘hold on to their butts,’ a sentiment Jackson expressed also Jurassic Park) and a number of classic war films. Some glorious cinematography and blistering visual effects truly sell the setting and the creatures within.
Of the subplots, Packard is the most obvious, a war hero turned Captain Ahab as he becomes obsessed with taking down Kong, a tired cliché, though one of many throughout. Jackson is a terrific actor but being the bad guy is just a little boring now and I never really connected with his motivations. Much better is the story of Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), a World War II pilot shot down on the island nearly thirty years earlier who has befriended a mysterious tribe of aboriginals and survived all these years. I’ll admit that based on the trailers, I suspected this would detract from the film, but I couldn’t have been more wrong as Reilly steals the show entirely, giving a powerfully effective performance that is nuanced and authentic. He’s great fun.
Others are mostly forgettable, though Hiddleston is well-cast and makes for a really good-looking leading man. Larsen does her best in the thankless role, though it’s good to see the film abandon the love-triangle angle this time with Kong recognizing her goodness rather than her beauty. Everyone else is pretty much fodder, and the larger weakness to much of these parts is the script, which falls flat on several occasions.
Still, Kong: Skull Island is a fun film. Violent and graphic, it balances well along the fine line between adventure and horror, right where it should be. A terrific theater experience, it has some genuinely thrilling moments and the the filmmakers do well in keeping fantasy aligned with reality. Big, bold, loud, and just plain fun, this is a new Kong with its heart in the right place.
Movie description: Kong: Skull Island is a 2017 action thriller about a team of scientists who discover an isolated island populated by gigantic creatures, including a mighty great ape who defends its home with awesome power.
Director(s): Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Actor(s): Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson
Genre: Thriller, Action,