Starring Tom Hiddleston, John Goodman, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, Corey Hawkins, Jing Tian, Jason Mitchell, Tony Kebbell, John Ortiz, Thomas Mann, John C. Reilly
Dumb. Unambitious. Entertaining.
This is the eighth King Kong flick, and the one directly following what, to my mind, is the best King Kong version, Peter Jackson’s 2005 spectacle. Unable to match the grandeur, epic scope, or intensity of its forerunner, this film, to its credit, doesn’t even try to compete in that territory, instead eschewing Jackson’s lofty ambition for a more classic feeling sci-fi/monster mash-up. It’s funny, stupid, fast, ridiculous, gory, frenetic, impressively shot, well-acted, and offers plenty of gross-looking monsters for you to enjoy.
The film kicks off during World War II, with an American and a Japanese soldier crash-landing on a mysterious island only to renew their efforts to kill one another. Kong interjects. Fast-forward thirty years or so, a rather clever way demonstrating Kong’s timelessness, and it’s early 1970’s, right around the conclusion of the Vietnam War. The movie’s rather large cast is introduced efficiently: John Goodman and Corey Hawkins are two government agents for a secret organization that tracks down monsters (this will be the link in the studio’s intended Monstaverse franchise that includes Godzilla). They’ve convinced the government to fund an expedition to Skull Island, uncharted terrain. They hire Tom Hiddleston, a British special op, to help navigate them through their mysterious and possibly volatile island. Samuel L. Jackson plays Lt. Colonel Packard, who leads his troop, fresh off Vietnam, to aid in the expedition. Oscar-winner Brie Larson plays an anti-war photographer who decides to join up with these people for artistic reasons. We meet various scientists and soldiers along the way; their purpose, of course, being to die. We get to skull island, and, spoiler alert, things do not go as planned. Kong takes out half of Lieutenant Colonel Packard’s men right from the jump. From this point forward, in the film’s most compelling storyline, Kong becomes Packard’s enemy, and Packard vows revenge, stating something along the lines of, “I will not lose another war.” The crew gets separated and the film follows each character as some attempt to escape the island, and some seek to destroy Kong. Eventually, John C. Reilly is introduced and he steals the show. Without wanting to spoil his character background, Reilly is good-natured but slightly insane, and it’s fun to watch.
My main issue with the film, and it’s one common to adventure pics, is that the colorful supporting cast far outshines the stoic leads: Larson and Hiddleston. It’s not a matter of performance as both actors are solid, but their characters and a few others are undercooked. Jackson, Reilly, and Goodman carry the film in terms of holding our interest beyond the explosions. Kong, unfortunately, also falls, for me anyway, in with the leads as far as underserved characters. Monster movie 101 says don’t show your monster too soon. Build some dramatic tension. I’m torn because revealing Kong right from the start is what signified that this film wasn’t going to be a retread, but without the build-up, Kong, though technically impressive, just becomes a character in the large ensemble.
This is the first big-budget film for the director, Vogt-Roberts, and he does a number of cool things visually to dazzle the viewer. Unlike Peter Jackson who emphasized the scope of his island and monsters, Vogt-Roberts impresses with camera movement and some wizard-like shots aided seamlessly by top-notch CGI.
Overall, I was entertained by this film. I engaged with the characters while being slightly unsatisfied by the leads. Though set in the Vietnam War era, and knowing monster movies tradition of using these gigantic beasts as allegory (Godzilla=nuclear weapons), I didn’t pick up on any serious political undercurrents. It’s setting seemed more like an excuse-one that is justified-to pay homage to Apocalypse Now.
-Walter Tyrone Howard-