Twelve years after Peter Jackson’s three hour plus spectacle King Kong, everyone’s favorite giant primate returns in the hacky B-movie Kong: Skull Island. Directed by the Jordan Vogt-Roberts, a surprising choice considering his only feature directorial credit was the wannabe indie darling The Kings of Summer, and written by three different writers, Kong: Skull Island seems to be trying to do a complete 180 from Jackson’s interpretation. Instead of a gargantuan character driven drama, here we get a breezy B-movie that wastes no time getting to the action. While it’s refreshing to have a slim, fit King Kong film (the movie only runs an hour and fifty minutes), the movie sacrifices most character development and quality in the process.
The plot for the latest Kong saga has crackpot explorer Bill Randa (John Goodman) and his assistant Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins, best known from his performance in Straight Outta Compton) trying to get government funding a military support for an expedition to a mysterious, uncharted island in the Pacific. Randa pushes his agenda through to get his mission funded during the waning moments of the Vietnam War, and quickly rounds up a team consisting of famed British tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), warmongering army commander Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) and LIFE magazine photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson). The team also consists of various army troops and scientists, because there has to be people to get killed off too.
Like previously mentioned, this movie spends very little time fucking around. As soon as the various participants in Randa’s expedition begin flying over Skull Island in a fleet of helicopters the titular ape attacks, swiping and stomping on the war copters like they’re flies. After a ton of non-essential characters meet their untimely end, the survivors, including all of the leads, begin exploring the island for answers and a way to escape.
One thing Kong gets right are its monsters, King Kong himself (played by Toby Kebbell in motion capture, who seems to be the second most utilized motion capture actor in the game behind film legend, and former Kong performer, Andy Serkis) is fun to watch as he stomps and punches his way through various people and creatures. Like other iterations of Kong, the island Kong lives on is full of other giant terrors ranging from octopuses to arachnids, and Kong’s main antagonists are creepy reptile-like creatures that look suspiciously like Dodongo’s from the Legend of Zelda series.
However, Kong: Skull Island suffers from a downright awful script, full of cheesy dialogue, lazy characterizations and several violations of the Chekhov’s Gun principle. Tom Hiddleston, one of Hollywood’s hottest commodities, is completely wasted in a role that requires little more from him than being handsome and having common sense. Brie Larson, in her first big screen performance since her devastating Oscar winning turn in Room, tries her absolute damnedest to elevate the material and make her forced romance with Hiddleston’s Conrad seem authentic but it’s mostly a fool’s errand, as, like Hiddleston, her character only seems to be around as eye candy. Other characters in the party, like Brooks and others played by the likes of John Ortiz, Thomas Mann, Tian Jing and Jason Mitchell aren’t any better off.
Fortunately, John Goodman is solid as always and seems to know the level of camp required for his turn as Bill Randa. Better still is an unhinged Samuel L. Jackson, who has a vendetta against our beloved ape and plays his role with a wide-eyed psychosis that’s more hilarious than terrifying.
Stealing the show, and making the movie immensely more watchable than it otherwise would be, is character actor John C. Reilly, who plays island resident Hank Marlow. He’s terrific comic relief and far and away the most thoroughly realized character in the film, including the King himself. While I won’t fully endorse this film, I can at least recommend it based on Reilly’s presence alone.
What I cannot get behind is the film’s simply terrible use of on-the-nose, era appropriate music. The films uses pretty much every song you’d expect from a Vietnam era film taking place in a jungle, and every music cue induces more groans than the one before it. Though I have no evidence to prove this, the person responsible for the music selection here must have been the same person who chose the songs for Suicide Squad. Ugh.
It’s tough to say whether Kong will catch on with audiences, especially with better options like Logan and Get Out still cleaning up at cinemas. The movie is choppy and poorly executed on many levels, but still a decent piece of mindless escapism that features giant monsters fighting each other. While I won’t be revisiting this one any time soon, I do look forward to the rumored matchup between King Kong and Godzilla that is supposedly already in the early stages of development.
So there you have it, Kong: Skull Island is a must-see for monster movie enthusiasts and John C. Reilly fans, but if you do not fall into one of those two categories you can probably wait until digital release for this one. Personally speaking, I much preferred Peter Jackson’s take.