Thursday, March 9, 2017

Review: "Kong: Skull Island"

King Kong, along with Godzilla, are the great white whales of moviedom. Their first iterations were unforgettable classics, and since then there have been multitudinous attempts over the decades to recapture lightning in a bottle.

Most have fizzled, and even the best failed to spark half as bright.

Every 12-15 years or so, studios and filmmakers -- and, they think, audiences -- will have forgotten the last (probably disastrous) movie and decide there’s still gold in them thar cinematic hills. So off we go again on another big-critter hunt.

Peter Jackson, fresh off the “Lord of the Rings” movies, gave us his dreary “King Kong” in 2005, and his career hit a slump that lasted until he ran back to Tolkien. “Godzilla” from 2014 managed to hide the monster until the halfway point, which is like manufacturing a sports car that has a top speed of 180 m.p.h. but takes three minutes to get from zero to 60.

So here comes “Kong: Skull Island,” and gosh darn if I didn’t enjoy the thing. It’s goofy as all get out, it has lots of stars but no single compelling character, and it has the sort of final fight scene where the big baddie we think is dead is going to need a couple more tries to get it right.

It’s a fun and surprisingly funny bit of popcorn movie-making. Tonally, it’s all over the map. You’ve got scenes of extreme gross-out deaths and dismemberments -- this may be hardest PG-13 ever given -- set off by silly quips, often within seconds of each other.

On several occasions after a primordial beastie leaps out of nowhere and kills off a couple more members of our intrepid party, they’ll get ready to soldier on and one of them will say something like, “Are we NOT going to talk about what just happened?!?” And the rest will in some way glumly respond that no, we’re not going to talk about what just happened. (Which, of course, is a way of talking about what happened.)

Smartly, big K appears within a couple of minutes of the beginning. He’s got a classic look, grand and majestic and threatening. Kong’s stature has grown with his legend. Climb the Empire State Building? Dude IS the Empire State Building.

Here he’s a lonely god-king, lumbering around his hidden island in the South Pacific circa 1973. He’s angry but also seems sad, and we’ll find out why later. When a bunch of scientists and Army types show up on an exploration mission, dropping seismic bombs and causing a ruckus on his turf, Kong quickly lays down some smack. But he’s got other things on his plate, and humans are just the pesky crumbs.

You want a plot summary? I’m not sure we really need one. Kong rules his secret island, the humans have come in helicopters to find out what’s there, and they quarrel. All 14 choppers are crashed, so it becomes a quest for survival by those who are left.

This is not the sort of movie to quibble over details. You want to know why there are prehistoric monsters on this one island? Let the eggheads bicker about subterranean vents and whatnot. How can there be a permanent hurricane surrounding the island, cutting it off from previous exploration? What are you, a damn meteorologist? Go find some low-pressure systems to warn Aunt Bessie about.

The ensemble cast is a collection of types rather than characters: Tom Hiddleston is the burnt-out British survivalist with suspiciously tight T-shirts and frosted highlights; Brie Larson is the “anti-war photojournalist” (her words) who represents the group’s soulful side; John Goodman is the kooky scientist running a fringe government agency called Monarch that searches for bigfoots, and Corey Hawkins is his dweeby protégé; John Ortiz is the uptight bureaucrat whose role is to be the lawyer in “Jurassic Park;” Samuel L. Jackson is the guts-and-glory wing commander who makes it a personal grudge with Kong; Toby Kebbell is Jackson’s resolute No. 2, who writes “Dear Billy” letters home to his son, which becomes a running theme among the rest; and Tian Jing is the inconsequential Asian supporting character included only to shore up the Chinese market.

The guy who probably had the best time making the movie is John C. Reilly, who plays an addled American pilot who crash-landed on the island during World War II, and can’t understand why nobody listens to the guy who actually knows what’s what. He gets a lot of great one-liners and milks them for every drop.

I also enjoyed Shea Whigham as the taciturn older soldier who’s been around and isn’t fazed by much; after Kong has torn up all their Hueys he offers, “That was an unconventional encounter.” He’s exactly the sort of character who’s kept around to make a noble sacrifice near the end, which goes exactly as we think, but also not.

Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly wrote the screenplay, along (I hear) with a host of uncredited others. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts was an interesting choice; his only other feature film credit is “The Kings of Summer,” a tiny coming-of-age indie that made its way around the festival circuit awhile back.

Peter Jackson was originally set to direct “Kong: Skull Island,” but I guess somebody finally got around to watching his first Kong movie. The project banged around and ended up in its current weird but rather wonderful form. Hell, a King Kong movie that throws in an “Oldboy” reference can’t be all bad.

I was going to end this review by harkening back to the first paragraph, which some professor once taught is the mark of a good essay. But I decided it was giving away too much, and if you stick around till the very end you’ll see why.

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