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Review: KONG: SKULL ISLAND

kong1fixbuttonEarning its dumb fun monster movie stripes, the director, writing team, producers, and above all the cast all seem to be having a whale of a time in “Kong: Skull Island.”  But will the rest of us?

The trailers teased a bonkers blockbuster that combined elements of “Apocalypse Now” with b-movie monster flick foundations.  And while the film does deliver on that promise, it fails to give us more to care about and bite into.  Ultimately, the focus is on the mythic big guy, who sure looks the part satisfying the necessary monster movie requirements.

“Kong: Skull Island” is a franchise starter.  Warner Bros. and Legendary Entertainment launched the new monster series in 2014 with the very good “Godzilla.”  That film was a contemporary take on the classic lizard franchise that originated in Japan in 1954. As we all know, many films followed.  Kong started his cinematic journey in 1933 in the classic film “King Kong.”  That character was later licensed in the 1960s by the Japanese studio Toho resulting in two films “King Kong vs. Godzilla” in 1962 and “King Kong Escapes” in 1967.

The set-up for the expected reuniting of Kong with Godzilla that is established here is excellent.  Taking place at the end of Vietnam War, businessman Bill Randa (John Goodman) convinces a Senator to authorize an expedition to the mysterious Skull Island.  He gains the assistance of a military escort headed by decorated Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) and his team of hardened helicopter warriors.

Randa isn’t satisfied by just having the US Military with him and employs the expert help of tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston).  We meet Conrad in a dangerous bar in Bangkok as he dispatches a couple of undesirables seeking to take him out. Conrad has baggage, but he also has the particular set of skills that Randa finds helpful.

The team is rounded out by a group of scientists led by Victor Nieves (John Ortiz) and war photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson).  Each character’s introduction is fun and interesting, but the cast begins to get even more unwieldy as the action starts picking up on the island.  For example, as we learn from the trailers, the team finds marooned WWII pilot Hank Marlow (a hilarious John C. Reilly), who provides them with some much needed Skull Island intel.

The cast all seem to be enjoying themselves as they play out an endless stream of cliches.  Jackson, a damned fine actor when given the right material, especially trades on his ordinary persona in a role that did not have to be written so manically unhinged.  Needless to say there is little nuance to any of the characters and their development.  John C. Reilly flexes his comedic chops delivering the film’s best writing, but many of his funny one liners are already spoiled in the movie’s trailer.

This busy film isn’t lacking in ideas.  There are so many character subplots that it is impressive that the script is able to balance them all.  But these stories are merely window dressing as this is a monster movie above all else.  To that extent, “Kong: Skull Island” is more fun than the last “Godzilla” film but not as engaging.

The monster and the inhabitants of Skull Island are scary and impressive. But unlike the Peter Jackson version that payed heavily on the pathos and gave the beast compassion endearing him with the viewer, this Kong is harsh king delivering swift justice and deadly retribution.  Very little time is devoted to showing tender moments involving the oversized hairy creature, but I hardly think mass audiences will care.  Let’s face it, we like our monster movies big, dumb, and all about the massive mythic creatures.