“And lo the mighty Kong did return, and he did swateth choppers from the sky, sucketh up tentacles like spaghetti, and kicketh tremendous ass. T’was glorious.”
When it was announced that there would be yet another King Kong movie so that Warner Bros. and Legendary could create a giant monster movie universe to compete with the MCU, it was hard not to feel trepidations. After all, there had been many Kong remakes, one as recently as a decade ago, and they pretty much all stunk. It was hard to imagine that the latest Kong movie made purely for the commercial glory of brand synergy could ever be better than Peter Jackson’s passion project King Kong from 2005, if only because that one wasn’t particularly good either. Yet somehow amidst all the rushed screenplays, reshoots, re-edits, release date races, and general public apathy, Kong: Skull Island is a goddamn blast. In fact, it’s probably the finest giant monkey movie since King Kong first climbed the Empire State Building a way back in 1933. It’s just not that bright. But oh well. That’s not too important in the giant monster movie game.
Things kick off with a bang, an exploding pair of airplanes send two WW2 pilots (one American, one Japanese) plummeting down to a mysterious jungle island where they do battle until a big ol’ primate shows up and shuts that shit down. From there, we jump ahead to the early ’70s. A place where Washington is so corrupt and paranoid that they are willing to listen to a conspiracy-loving John Goodman when he claims that there are giant monsters beneath the earth’s crust and a mythical skull shaped island that needs to be a visited for monster-related research. Unsurprisingly, he gets the government cash to bankroll an expedition. To lead the team, Goodman hires general adventure-man Tom Hiddleston, adventure-woman/photographer Brie Larson, and a particularly blood thirsty Sam Jackson as an army leader who is still pissed off about the fact that he had to leave Vietnam early. Together with a collection of disposable soldiers destined to be eaten by big beasties, the gang fly through a hostile storm to the titular Skull Island.
Now, you’ll be shocked to hear that there is a giant mo-fo monster monkey named Kong on that island and he responds to the sudden arrival of helicopters by battering them about like a hyperactive child tearing through unwanted Christmas presents. That ticks off Sam Jackson, who is determined to slay the beast. As for Hiddleston and Larson? They are flustered and respond by looking tough and embracing adventure (yeah, they don’t so much play characters as action figure prototypes in human form). The whole gang is separated as well. So while Jackson plans to kill Kong real good, Hiddleston and Larson stumble upon an ancient tribe that has been harboring an adorable John C. Reilly since he was that cherub WW2 pilot from the prologue. Reilly is obviously thrilled to see folks from home again and improvises up a storm as the comedic relief and heart of the movie. Meanwhile, Kong fights other giant monsters. It’s his thing.
Kong: Skull Island is absolutely impersonal popcorn-shilling blockbuster entertainment, but the massively stupid and thrilling production manages to make a case for such projects being a good thing. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts clearly delights in having all the most expensive Hollywood toys at his disposal for the first time (but unlikely the last) and delivers one massive monster mash sequence after the next. The action is relentless and stylish as hell. It happens constantly. Sure, that’s often at the expense of character development, but who cares when Kong is getting up to so many massive and goofy shenanigans. In an attempt to elevate the material to smart-stupid, there are also sprinkings of Vietnam allegory (which is thin enough that it doesn’t deserve much thought beyond acknowledging that it’s there), themes of family ties n’ redemption, and a stream of movie nerd references (a lot of Apocalypse Now over here, a little Cannibal Holocaust over there, and shockingly plenty of King Kong in the middle). There’s not much to chew on, but there is proof that humans with actual brains worked on the big dumb Kongy adventure and that’s a nice slab of icing on top of the diabetes inducing cake.
Unfortunately, pretty well all of the humans on screen take a back seat to the spectacle. Everyone is good, but the likes of Hiddleston, Larson, and Goodman have little to do beyond shout exposition and act super hard against green screen. There are two exceptions though. Sam Jackson is a goddamn delight as the human antagonist who screams at Kong with such villainous glee that you’ll start to think that he might be able to beat the big monkey in a street fight (such is the power of an unhinged Sam Jackson). The best performance by far comes from John C. Reilly, who steals away the movie from all the CGI spectacle with a typically eccentric and hysterical portrayal of a sweetheart out of time and possibly out of his mind. Reilly was clearly allowed to improvise up a storm and lights up the scream with comedy and heart whenever he opens his mouth (he also chops up a few of the smaller monsters with a samurai sword, which is just as awesome of a sight as it sounds). The frantically edited flick feels like it left pretty much all of the character development for every other actor on a hard drive somewhere to forefront all the spectacle. It makes the movie less nourishing and human, but at least the two best actors and performances got the focus in every scene where stuff isn’t getting smashed and blown up real good.
Kong: Skull Island is little more than pure, dumb, blockbuster fun, completely devoid of all the mild art film pretensions that made Logan such a pleasant surprise last week. However, it’s also such an unapologetic blast of pure entertainment that flies straight past your brain and into your heart, that it’s hard to complain. The flick is so overloaded with popcorn thrills that it actually makes the King Kong theme park rides feel slow and sluggish by comparison. This is easily the most fun and satisfying giant monster movie that Legendary have made so far (sorry Pacific Rim, Godzilla, and Jurassic World, Kong truly is King) and that sets a nice tone for the incoming massive monster movie universe (make sure to stay for the post-credits scene for more). Sure, none of the tragic poetry and “beauty and the beast” impossible love that defined the first flick and Jackson’s reboot made it to the screen this time and Kong’s giant foes are as impersonally designed as the humans are impersonally written, but that’s not something that will likely occur to most viewers until long after they’ve stumbled out of the theatre with big stupid grins on their faces. This is a little blast of pure popcorn-munching bliss that announces summer movie season officially starts in March. There will likely be better blockbusters released over the few months, but it’s hard to imagine that any will be more fun than Skull Island. Given that the original King Kong accidentally invented the blockbuster almost a century ago, that’s entirely appropriate. Now let’s have this guy fight Godzilla already. At least that’s one remake that can’t help but improve on the original.