REVIEW: Kong: Skull Island (2017)

Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts

Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, John C. Reilly

Running time: 118 minutes

3-stars

Like everyone’s favourite oversized ape, the latest Kong outing is loud, large and, this time round, completely outrageous. The unintelligent, B-movie mayhem will have you beating your chest both in frustration, and in total senseless enjoyment.

As the Vietnam war comes to an end, a secretive organisation known as Monarch – led by Bill Randa (Goodman) – is granted government funding to embark on an expedition to an uncharted island in the South Pacific in the hope of finding new species. With the aid of ex-SAS captain James Conrad (Hiddleston), photojournalist Mason Weaver (Larson), and a squad of American troops led by Lt. Packard (Jackson), the team discover that the island is home to creatures they couldn’t have imagined in their wildest dreams…or nightmares.

Have you ever wondered who would win in a fight between King Kong, a giant mutant lizard beasty, and Samuel L. Jackson?

Well, Vogt-Roberts’ Kong: Skull Island will certainly answer that for you, and, while it’s at it, also put to rest those other age-old questions that have been plaguing us all this time: Just how big can they make Kong? Just how unimaginative, underdeveloped and generic can they make the human characters? And just how hip can they make the soundtrack by filling our ears with cool 70’s rock songs?

Very is the answer to all those questions, by the way.

A few things have certainly changed since the last time Kong was seen roaring and swing-balling aeroplanes on our cinema screens. The beauty and the beast re-telling we got so poetically and epically last time around in Peter Jackson’s 2005 re-boot has been completely thrown out the window in the second of Legendary’s “MonsterVerse” outings (after Gareth Edwards’ 2014 revival of Godzilla). There’s no romantic subtext between woman and ape here, and the Empire State Building is something the American soldiers in the film appear only to dream of. Kong himself is substantially larger than in any previous cinematic appearance. Being able to swat helicopters as if they were flies, one might assume that Kong is bulking himself out in training for his inevitable bout with an equally large and famous Japanese reptile. Despite his notable physical enhancements, however, Kong continues to be the most developed and interesting character of them all. What he lacks in romantic capacity this time around, he more than makes up in his role as keeper of Skull Island’s status quo. As much National Trust volunteer as berserker primate royalty, Kong is the natives’ protector, seemingly more concerned with maintaining the island’s ecosystem than chasing skirt. Vogt-Roberts’ film is a beauty and the beast story of a very different kind.

The narrative is all beast – there is very little time taken to establish anything that resembles character complexity or dilemma. The only dilemma here is a very simple one: humans want to drop bombs but there’s a 100ft monkey standing in their way. Compared to Jackson’s middle-earth-length voyage across Skull Island, Vogt-Roberts opts for a much shorter, simpler film far more concerned with giving us bullets, grenades and as many loud, brain-numbing noises as possible than it is with giving us a dagger to the heart. For the most part, the film’s 2-hour run time is spent, well, running – away from the island’s array of large and dangerous inhabitants.

Kong skull.jpg

And, as we’ve seen many times before, the most dangerous of these might just be man. And perhaps none more so than Jackson’s Lt. Packard. Bad-ass, ruthless and quasi-Ahab in his unfaltering determination, he is a combination of Jules Winnfield and Neville Flynn; so much so that at times you half expect John Travolta to emerge from the bushes musing over what they call cheeseburgers on Skull Island, all the while Jackson complaining that he’s had it with this mother f***ing monkey on this mother f***ing rock.

As for the other military folk, most – with the exception of Toby Kebbell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, and Jason Mitchell, who bring the films more obvious, but ultimately weak humorous and emotional beats –  are used simply as cannon fodder for Kong and are all but wiped out in the first 45 minutes.

Elsewhere, macho heartthrob Hiddleston is little more than just that, in a role where his talents seem wasted as a man whose sincerity in delivery and failure to fully grasp the film’s humorous tendencies make his performance feel somewhat out of touch with the rest. Larson’s acting abilities are equally wasted here; gasping her way through the film’s action sequences with very little else to offer. Other than Jackson, the only other serious contender to steal the show from the giant CGI ape is John C. Reilly’s slightly bananas Hank Marlow (one of many Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now references to be found). Being stranded for the best part of 30 years on the island, he’s certainly had time to practice his comic timing as a bumbling, rough-around-the-edges hero archetype. Quite unexpectedly, his narrative arc is also the only one in the film to really hit home (quite literally) with its emotional notes.

Aside from juggling far too many characters and plot holes as big as the casting bill, the beauty of Kong: Skull Island is most certainly in Larry Fong’s cinematography and colour pallet. Gorgeous and rich throughout, the reds, greens and ambers are really the only thing that make the extended, relentless action sequences and lazy dialogue continuously bearable. That, combined with some particularly imaginative creatures popping up in increasingly inventive ways (we’re not too far off a Sharknado, we might add) are the shining features in a film that has mediocrity in abundance. Despite the anticipation, Kong’s bark is certainly more impressive than his bite.

While the film may feel terribly unfulfilling and uneven, Vogt-Roberts’ film is really great fun if you’re not in the mood to be challenged. Yes, it may have all too neat allegorical nods to America’s war with the Viet Cong (or Viet KONG rather); but above all else, Kong: Skull Island is guerrilla warfare in its most rip-roaringly literal form.

 

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