Raleigh, N.C. — King Kong is one of those monsters Hollywood will never give up on trying to make relevant. This week sees the release of Kong: Skull Island, an interesting entry into the Kong cannon, because this is the first time a studio other than Universal has taken a crack at taming the giant ape.
Kong: Skull Island isn’t the classic story remade for the umpteenth time. There’s no beautiful Anne Darrow for the ape to fall in love with. There’s no Carl Denham out to capture the beast and turn him into a Broadway attraction. This is a story set entirely in Kong’s world.
We open in Washington, D.C. in 1973. The city is full of protesters, which leads Bill Randa (John Goodman) to quip “Mark my words. There will never be a more screwed up time in Washington” to his associate Houston Brooks (Straight Outta Compton’s Corey Hawkins). See, it’s funny because it’s not true.
This movie is filled with moments like that: the screenwriters getting lazy in the name of a cheap laugh. Hell, that explains the entire presence of our villain Preston Packard. He’s an army man unsure of what his life is supposed to be once he leaves Vietnam. It would be territory ripe for a character study on a man’s need to conquer and the consequences that follow. I mean, it would be that if Packard wasn’t played by Samuel L. Jackson.
And look, I like Samuel L. Jackson. In capable hands he’s delivered great performances, but when the script he’s given includes jokes about “those lug heads in D.C.” you can rest assured that Jackson’s role will be nothing more than a personified Twitter feed.
Randa enlists Packard’s squad, a sexy tracker (The Avengers’ Tom Hiddleston) and a sexy photographer (Oscar winner Brie Larson) to be sexy and find giant monkeys. Of course, they don’t know about the giant monkey part when they board a freighter ship headed to a mysterious island shaped like a skull and surrounded by a permanent hurricane. I mean, if they had surely they would have said “Ominously shaped land? Probably just a coincidence. Permanent storm? Fine. But giant monkey stranded on an island with no appropriately sized bananas to satisfy his appetite? That feels like a bad idea.”
The group leaves their ship and heads into the perma-cane in helicopters. They bust through the storm and immediately start dropping bombs because why-the-hell-not. Understandably, this upsets Kong, who deals with it in typical monkey fashion: smashing things and eating people.
Once the squads are split up, we get multiple storylines. The sexy people discover Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), a man who crash-landed on Skull Island 28 years ago and has been taken in by the natives who call the island home. They learn that Kong is actually the good guy, protecting people from much scarier monsters that live below the surface.
Packard and his men set out to meet up with a member of their team named Chapman (Fantastic Four’s Toby Kebbel, who also plays Kong), who has crashed further away. Chapman should have plenty of firepower to take out Kong.
There is actually a lot I liked about Kong: Skull Island. The first encounter the human crew has with Kong is a great action sequences, and there are plenty of epic visuals, like a giant ape walking through a wall of flames to kick a little butt. John C. Reilly is great as the delightfully mad Marlow. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts even manages to work some great visual nods to the original King Kong into this wholly original story. It even has a great ambiguous ending that would have set up a sequel perfectly…then it’s all undone by a post-credits scene which I think most will still find exciting.
But, of course, this is (slightly before) summer blockbuster fare written by the same guys that gave us Real Steel and Monster Trucks respectively. So the movie isn’t without its share of truly stupid moments. For instance, Hiddleston’s character is a tracker that “specializes in uncharted terrain.” Cue barfing sound and inappropriate hand gesture to illustrate Demetri’s disgust.
There are also moments the movie ventures into the unforgivable. I mean, this thing is set in 1973. That is the golden age of mustaches, yet Kong: Skull Island features one character with a mustache that would even be passable in the era and he gets eaten by birds. If I recall, there is a pilot that I think is supposed to have a period mustache, but it’s no good at all.
And then there’s the 3D vomit scene.
Look, it’s 2017. Movies like Kong: Skull Island are made to be screened in 3D if not in IMAX and 3D, so don’t think for a second the director and editor didn’t have a plan when this weird lizard creature looks right into the camera and vomits the remains of a soldier right at the screen. Remember in my review for The Great Wall when I said that nothing says a director has less respect for his audience than 3D arrows flying at the screen? Well, I was wrong.
Kong: Skull Island is actually a really fun movie and a great way to get into the summer movie season, which I guess starts in March now. If you think about it, given how much fun this movie is and how good the Planet of the Apes movies have been since the 2011 reboot, we really are in a golden age of monkey-related cinema.
Demetri Ravanos is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association and has reviewed movies for Raleigh and Company, Military1.com and The Alan Kabel Radio Network.