I’m sure we’ve all had movies we have really wanted to be good but secretly feared would disappoint. I can name several and most of them probably fell in line with my fears more so than my hopes. “Kong: Skull Island” is a movie I’ve wanted to love since seeing the first trailer. But there were several reasons why it could have failed and I was never quite able to shake my skepticism.
Sometimes I love being wrong. “Kong” is an absolute delight and a rousing throwback to the creature features that permeated the 1950s. King Kong has had several big screen features, not as many as fellow movie monster icon Godzilla, but enough to earn him a pretty legendary status.
This film version steers clear of the traditional King Kong story. There is no damsel in distress, ventures to New York City, or the Empire State Building. This time we stay put on Skull Island, a beautiful uncharted South Pacific island by air but underneath its lush canopy is the home of the wildest assortment of creatures. The island is shielded by an ever-present storm wall but by 1973 satellite innovations led to its discovery. The most interested party is a shadowy government outfit called Monarch.
John Goodman plays Bill Randa, Monarch’s senior official who convinces his government contact to fund an expedition to map out Skull Island. He requests a escort from the battered and bruised US military who in 1973 was in the process of leaving Vietnam. Their escort is led by Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). Randa also hires a British SAS tracker named Conrad who knows the mission stinks but needs the money. They are joined by Brie Larson’s tough and feisty anti-war photojournalist Mason Weaver.
Let’s go ahead and state the obvious – the mission doesn’t go very well. The film wastes no time introducing the characters to their Kong – more of a towering monster than a big gorilla. The team’s surprise introduction and initial clash with Kong may be the film’s best sequence. It’s an intense, violent collision filled with chaos and carnage that leaves the team’s survivors grounded and separated. There they must navigate a treacherous landscape filled with a host of dangerous digital creations. Oh, and there is John C. Reilly, a true scene-stealer playing a World War 2 pilot who has been stranded on the island for 30 years. He’s a hoot.
Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts has only one other feature film credit to his name and it’s a far cry from “Kong: Skull Island”. What he manages here is pretty incredible – a swift on its feet thrill ride with plenty of action and just enough wit. Most importantly it doesn’t get bogged down in its pretty looks. It’s one thing to look really good. We’ve come to expect it in this age of digital effects. Vogt-Roberts and company goes beyond that by finding clever ways for the visuals to make the action more cinematic and to emphasize the smallness of man compared to their giant beastly threats (There almost seems to be a crafty Vietnam War metaphor is hidden in there somewhere).
Vogt-Roberts has stated he pulled inspiration from a wild assortment of areas including “Apocalypse Now”, “Platoon”, the films of Hayao Miyazaki, and of course the original “King Kong” film from 1933. Several hands went into the script including Max Borenstein who penned the first draft. Dan Gilroy (“Nightcrawler”) did some important touch-up work and Derek Connelly who came in for some final rewrites. Their story smartly passes on getting too deep in backstory and relationship building. There’s some of it but for a story about a group of strangers thrust into a horrible situation it is held to just enough.
Another smart move is putting together a fabulous cast. Hiddleston, Larson, Jackson, Reilly and Goodman are all great fits with their characters. But just as fun are other characters played by quality supporting actors. Tobey Kebbell, Corey Hawkins, Shea Whigham, John Ortiz and Thomas Mann all contribute plenty and each have their moments.
It may be tempting to dismiss “Kong: Skull Island” as typical CGI-heavy blockbuster mush. In fact it may be easy to do so because “Kong” doesn’t shy away from what it is. But this is no Transformers-like brain cell killer. It’s a well made, fast-paced monster movie with far more craft behind its presentation and storytelling than you would expect. I love the Vietnam War era setting, the jamming classic rock soundtrack and the old school creature feature nostalgia. It all clicks in a way I wish all big budget movies did. Oh, and be sure to stay until after the credits.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS