Movie Review: “Kong” Skull Island” (PG-13)

Movie Review Kong Skull IslandDirector Jordan Vogt-Roberts follows up his itty bitty 2013 independent debut “Kings of Summer” with a movie that features an entirely different kind of a king in the adventurous Warner Brothers/Legendary Pictures epic “Kong: Skull Island.” Given his rather limited resume, Roberts might seem like an unlikely choice to helm such a huge studio film, but Universal Pictures took a similar risk a few years ago after handing Colin Trevorrow the keys to “Jurassic World” when, at the time, his only feature credit was the time travel\romance gem “Safety Not Guaranteed.” That decision turned out to work in Universal’s favor to the tune of a gazillion dollars at the box office. It worked in Trevorrow’s favor, too, as he landed “Star Wars Episode IX” shortly after “Jurassic World” became a worldwide phenomenon. The interesting thing to note here is that, despite some missteps, “Kong: Skull Island” is actually considerably more entertaining than “Jurassic World” in nearly every way, so could that mean that there’s a “Star Wars” movie in Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ future? Only time, and box-office revenue,  will tell.

Following a brief but immensely lively 1940s-set intro, “Kong: Skull Island” then skips ahead a few decades to the  early ’70s, a time when all eyes were on the Vietnam War. The story begins when explorer Bill Randa (John Goodman) convinces the government to assign him a military platoon, headed by a war crazy Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), to aid this opportunistic entrepreneur in a journey that will eventually find him and a wily squad of grunts on an uncharted island in the middle of the Pacific. Also along for the ride are a wide assortment of individuals including expert tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and good-hearted photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson). Upon arriving on this mysterious island via helicopters, Randa and his crew find themselves under attack by a massive primate that the local natives and stranded American castaway Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly) refer to as Kong. What follows is a spirited adventure that borrows elements from previous incarnations of “King Kong,” all while carving out a wonderfully colorful niche all its own.

1933’s “King Kong” is an absolute classic, and it set a standard not only for visual effects but for adventure movies in general. Talk to anyone who grew up a monster kid and they’ll most likely tell you it all started with “King Kong.” No doubt Jordan Vogt-Roberts falls into that category.

What a grand entertainment his “Skull Island” is. It’s almost as grand as Kong himself! And the choice to set “Skull Island” in the early ’70s works to the film’s advantage. For all of the sheer adventure and big old monster action, this is also a war movie in very much the same way that “Rogue One” is a war movie. Further still, it’s clear that “Skull Island” offers up an anti-war sentiment that works surprisingly well in the context of the film.

Of course, it should be noted that many viewers plunking down their cold, hard cash to see this movie are doing so so that they might have an opportunity to see gigantic monsters beat the crap out of each other. They could care less about the subtext, and they could care less about the obvious lack of character depth. Simply put, those viewers, are going to get what they paid for. For the record, I liked both the subtext and the monsters! As for the lack of character depth, yes, it’s a bit bothersome, but it isn’t enough to take away from what is a pretty damn good time at the movies.

Of the entire cast, it’s John C. Reilly who truly owns the proceedings. His Hank Marlow is the very personification of comic relief in “Kong: Skull Island,” but just when you think this terrific character actor is only about the funny, he reaches into your chest and pulls on your heartstrings. He’s absolutely great in this movie, doing a bit of a riff on Dennis Hopper’s iconic role in “Apocalypse, Now” and completely making every scene he’s in stronger than it might have been otherwise.

Tom Hiddleston, whom I generally enjoy, is bland and feels woefully miscast in this movie, and his sort-of-tough-guy persona falls short. Dependable John Goodman, who recently received a much-deserved star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, has some terrific moments in the quintessential Carl Denham role while an infectiously likable Brie Larson (an Oscar winner for her role “Room”) does all she can to rise above the constraints of an underwritten part. Thankfully, her killer smile goes a long way.

Elsewhere in the picture, a likable but underwritten Toby Kebbell pops up as a soldier hoping to make it home in one piece to his son Billy, whom he writes letters to throughout “Skull Island.” He has his work cut out for himself, though, as he finds himself isolated from his crew on an island populated by hungry critters of all different shapes and sizes. Thomas Mann, who made such a wonderful impression in the underappreciated “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” also pops up for a little bit of screen time, but his role is hardly worthy of his talent.

Corey Hawkins and Jason Mitchell make an appearance, too, making this a “Straight Outta Compton” reunion of sorts. Hawkins (currently staring in “24: Legacy”) appears against type as Randa’s bookworm assistant while Mitchell (soon to break out in Dee Rees’ powerful “Mudbound”) plays one of Packard’s war-crazy grunts.

Finally, we have Samuel L. Jackson doing his Samuel L. Jackson thing, and while his mad-dog military man Preston Packard feels like a variation of intense and furious characters we’ve seen him play many times before, there’s a little bit more complexity bubbling under the surface. It’s clear that Packard’s psyche has been ravaged by the art of war, and that mentality sticks with him once he arrives on the island and finds himself at war with the world’s largest primate.

Speaking of primate, Kong himself is quite the glorious beast. He’s a fierce loner but surprisingly gentle when approached with kindness. Make no mistakes, though: He’s definitely king of this particular island, and he’s definitely not the kind of creature you want to pick a fight with. The effects team has done a great job of bringing this version of Kong to life. He isn’t quite as impressive as the Kong from Peter Jackson’s 2005 film, nor does he clock in as much screen time (granted, Jackson’s picture was over three hours long while this movie clocks in at a brisk two hours). Regardless, he still makes quite the impression in “Skull Island.” He can even beat a yacht-sized lizardlike creature’s ass with one hand!

You could make the argument that perhaps a newbie filmmaker with only one independent feature under his belt shouldn’t go from a film of that size to a picture of this size. And while true that “Skull Island” does suffer a bit from thin characterizations and odd pacing on occasion, there’s no doubt that Jordan Vogt-Roberts brings color, energy, a great taste in ’70s music, and glorious monster carnage to the table. He’s like a kid in a great big candy store, and what this film might lack in characterization it more than makes up for in a sheer, grand sense of adventure. Plus, Roberts has an ace up his sleeve in the form of the great John C. Reilly. And be sure to stick around through the end credits. I won’t spoil the surprise, but I think it’s safe to say that we haven’t seen the last of Kong.

To paraphrase what Toby Kebbell’s lost soldier might have written to his son had he had the opportunity to see this blast of a monster movie, “Dear Billy, I saw ‘Kong: Skull Island,’ and it was a ton of fun!”

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