Friday, March 10, 2017

Kong: Skull Island — Plenty of thrills!

Kong: Skull Island (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, and a bit generously, for intense fantasy violence and action, and fleeting strong profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.10.17

Every generation has its Tarzan, its Three Musketeers, its Sherlock Holmes.

And its King Kong.

Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and Weaver (Brie Larson) discover — quite unexpectedly —
that Kong isn't the only massive creature to worry about, on Skull Island.
Kong: Skull Island is a rip-snortin’ monster movie in the old-fashioned mold: a thrill-a-minute B adventure that boasts A-level action and special effects. Sure, the script — by John Gatins, Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly — is formulaic and familiar, but it delivers on all counts; you really couldn’t expect more from this sort of roller coaster ride.

And, as befits 21st century sensibilities, we also get a gentle reminder of the importance of bio-diversity and species management, and the crucial role played by a top predator. Rather heady stuff for an exhilarating monster flick, and certainly welcome.

Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and editor Richard Pearson waste little time; they hit the ground running with a clever prologue, and then — after introducing the primary characters just long enough so we can bond — drop everybody into utter chaos.

Mention also must be made of the slick title credits sequence: always a good sign. (I’ve long believed that a director who insists on clever credits, will pay equal attention to all other aspects of his film.)

The action is set in 1973 in Southeast Asia, as the Vietnam war is winding down, leaving dedicated soldiers such as Lt. Col. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) somewhat adrift. Irritated by having been pulled out of a war that he views as “abandoned,” Packard — who commands a helicopter military unit — is delighted to receive one last mission: to escort a team of scientists who wish to chart a hitherto-undiscovered South Pacific landmass glimpsed by NASA’s orbiting Landsat 1.

Packard’s loyal, battle-hardened and tough-as-they-come “sky devils” include Chapman (Toby Kebbell), Mills (Jason Mitchell), Cole (Shea Whigham), Slivko (Thomas Mann) and Reles (Eugene Cordero).

They’re the most visible of several dozen soldiers, but we don’t get to know any of the others. Which, yes, is suggestive...

The Landsat team is headed by scientist Bill Randa (John Goodman), who has lost most of his credibility after 20 years’ worth of thus far fruitless concerns over what might have been spawned by the atomic tests at Bikini Atoll. An expedition to what has been dubbed “Skull Island” is his last chance for redemption.

Randa’s scientific team includes Yale University geologist Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins), author of a controversial paper on the so-called “hollow Earth” theory; biologist San (Tian Jing); and nervous survey team leader Victor Nieves (John Ortiz).

But Randa is no fool; he suspects they’ll also need somebody with ground-level tracking experience that Packard and his men don’t possess. Enter Capt. James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), a former SAS black ops officer trained in the art of locating and extracting soldiers lost in jungles and war-torn terrain.

Word of this clandestine expedition reaches award-winning war photo-journalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), who smells a story; she therefore attaches herself to the mission. After enduring one crack about her gender — this is, after all, 1973 — things go awry rapidly enough, and she conducts herself bravely enough, that nobody has cause to mock her again.

The brief first act is basically an extended “suiting up” sequence, as these various factions and individuals assemble and stuff their gear onto the freighter commissioned to transport them to Skull Island. Randa and his team burble enthusiastically about what they might find; Packard’s men crack wise about this trivial babysitting assignment.

Poor fools, we think, with a knowing smile. We know what’s coming. The movie poster already revealed that much.

Only Conrad is wary, as befits his nature. And Weaver, perceiving Conrad as the group’s most prudent member, takes her cue from his caution.

And then ... well, the island recce doesn’t go quite as expected.

Although what follows is told in broad strokes, with little subtlety, the storyline pays tribute to a few key predecessors. The science/military dynamic is right out of Aliens, with Randa failing to be entirely candid with Packard going in, and the latter understandably annoyed when the truth surfaces. More notably, Jackson’s approach to his role is straight out of Herman Melville: Inwardly seething over D.C.’s handling of the Vietnam fracas, Packard transforms into an obsessed Ahab pursuing a massive beast, determined to win this time.

Jackson delivers more emotional gravitas than we’d expect in such a film, as the spit-and-polish Packard slides into monomania.

Younger Kong acolytes may not realize that the original 1933 classic featured much more than a massive simian. Skull Island was introduced as a uniquely isolated and enclosed eco-system, boasting a wealth of oversized beasties. This new film honors that legacy, upping the ante by way of Stephen King’s The Mist, which concealed its own nightmarish monstrosities.

The results are unexpected, occasionally amusing, and often terrifying. (On a few occasions, the PG-13 rating feels generous.) You’ll not get spoilers here, but let’s just say there’s a reason this new Kong is considerably larger than those featured in his earlier big-screen escapades.

Hiddleston is solid as the jaded but resourceful Conrad; he doesn’t showboat the role, inspiring instead by a persuasive, quiet calm that is wholly at odds with the frantic disbelief expressed by a few of his comrades. (“Are we not gonna talk about this?” shouts poor Slivko, youngest of Packard’s men. He has a point.)

Larson, no doubt seeking a juicy follow-up after her Academy Award win for Room, definitely enjoys herself here. Weaver is a terrific character, full of spirit; she also behaves as we’d expect a photojournalist to look and act. She doesn’t merely observe people or a situation; her eyes always seems to frame them, as if composing a shot.

And, yes, as befits the key woman in a Kong epic, her “relationship” with the title character gets a bit, ah, closer than most.

Mann is equally memorable as the excitable Slivko: quite a switch from the thoughtful, sensitive performance he gave as the star of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. Whigham also stands out as the pragmatic Cole: something of a father figure to his fellow soldiers, and therefore inclined toward protective instincts.

Jing, currently on view — and granted a much better role — in The Great Wall, is completely wasted here. Perhaps it’s no surprise, given the size of the cast, that a few roles remain under-developed, but poor San is entirely superfluous.

John C. Reilly pops up unexpectedly, after which he comes close to stealing the show ... if only from his two-legged co-stars. He certainly gets all the best one-liners.

The tech credits are top-notch. Production designer Stefan Dechant clearly had fun with the island’s various regions, most particularly a rather unusual “burial ground.” Visual effects supervisors Stephen Rosenbaum and Jeff White were kept busy, with everything from Kong on down to some nasty-looking insects.

All these elements are choreographed for maximum excitement by Vogt-Roberts, whose only previous big-screen credit was 2013’s charming coming-of-age saga, The Kings of Summer. I dunno how Vogt-Roberts so quickly gained the skill to ride herd over such a huge endeavor, but he deserves high-fives for adapting so quickly.

This newest Kong is guaranteed to please genre fans, and it’s a welcome antidote from a winter that, for the past several weeks, has been particularly weak, movie-wise.

Oh, and be sure to hang around through all of the credits: You’ll be rewarded with a nice surprise.


  1. I enjoy your reviews, very thorough.

  2. Thanks for the kind words. "Thorough" always sounds better than "long-winded." :-)