King Kong’s new incarnation is an A-budget movie with B-movie dialogue and aspirations. A production of Legendary Pictures, the company that gave us that so-so 2014 Godzilla reboot, this one is big, technically stunning and gloriously creature-filled—but that’s not to say it is always as lively, powerful or enjoyable as it ought to be. It is to say that we get pummeled way too often by things going kaboom, helicopters crash-landing against blood orange skies and, almost as an afterthought, a slew of colorless, often nameless characters battling scene-stealing monsters of the spider, lizard, giant squid and simian variety. In a movie in which everything is oversized—Kong is bigger, badder, and more convincingly realistic than ever—the ambition, the heart and the magic just don’t seem to be there.
Anyway, the year is 1973. Saigon has fallen and the last of our defeated fighting forces are being yanked out, some of them reluctantly, after serving bravely through the ordeal of the Vietnam War—at least the war we know from countless movie clichés from Apocalypse Now, Platoon, etc. A maverick scientist (John Goodman), flush with government funding for a secret monster-hunting expedition on a newly discovered South Pacific island, enlists a two-fisted ex-British Special Forces mercenary (the otherwise talented Tom Hiddleston, so generic here that he fades into the jungle scenery) and an amiable war photographer or, as she prefers to be called, an “anti-war photographer” (Room Oscar winner Brie Larson with a Farrah Fawcett ‘do, a tight tank top and very little to do but run or look scared).
The trekkers are backed up by an assortment of soldiers (including Shea Whigham, Jason Mitchell, Eugene Cordero) led by helicopter squadron leader Samuel L. Jackson, who, as Marlow (not the movie’s only reference to Heart of Darkness) is mostly on board to brood over the cruel, pointless casualties his men have suffered and bark classic Jackson dialogue like “This is one war we’re not gonna lose!” and “Bitch, please!” We’ve seen Jackson do all of this before, and we often wished he’d use the vitriol to tell one of his soldiers (Thomas Mann) to go easy on that constantly playing portable turntable. But hey, how else would the soundtrack be jammed with wall-to-wall Vietnam Era tunes from Creedence Clearwater to Jefferson Airplane, and how else could Warner Bros. generate a hit soundtrack album?
Also thrashing around the jungle, looking for a better script and firmer direction is the truly interesting Brit actor Toby Kebbell (Doctor Doom) who plays a brave soldier from the Deep South but also proves conclusively—in the tradition of Michael Caine in Hurry, Sundown—that not all English actors are great with southern accents. He and other very good actors are slumming here, but doing the best they can. Their characters, credited to screenwriters Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly, are so underdeveloped that we sometimes sit there hoping they’ll be stomped, shredded or eaten before they have too many more chances to embarrass themselves. Often, we get our wish.
There are two big exceptions: John C. Reilly, looking a bit like Alan Hale in Gilligan’s Island, is wild-eyed, goofy and touching as a WWII pilot who crashed on the island and has been waiting for rescue for 30 years. He delivers the offbeat laughs the movie sorely needs.
Then there’s mammoth, mighty, CG-created Kong himself. Thanks to gifted director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (maker of the wonderful indie The Kings of Summer) and zillions of special effects maestros, Kong gets standout moments that convincingly display his solitude and fierce protection of the island’s inhabitants. But he gets plenty more sequences showing a vicious, shockingly violent, blunt-force edge that’s a startling and welcome throwback to the original King Kong from 1933. Mankind was the aggressive interloper there and here, after all. Hell, mankind has it coming. So, on Vogt-Roberts’ lush, virginal Skull Island, soldiers armed with flame-throwers, napalm, machine guns, flares and an arsenal of bombs trash the hell out of it. But thanks to flying creatures with pincer claws, gigantic lizards with forked tongues and Kong himself, they routinely lose heads and other body parts with 10-year-old-kid-pleasing abandon. Don’t be surprised to find yourself cheering.
Unfortunately, the movie never comes close to touching the beauty, pathos, social commentary, queasy psychosexual stirrings and groundbreaking moviemaking technique that make the 1933 original a flat-out masterpiece. But, hey, maybe that’s too much to ask. Unlike Peter Jackson’s well-meant but torturously overblown 2005 King Kong, at least Skull Island hits its marks hard and fast and paves the way for much better sequels.
Which reminds us: Remember to stay through the end credits for a preview of what’s to come.