Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson and Brie Larson star in latest ‘King Kong’ story, but Kong is clearly the draw
It doesn’t take long for the big guy himself to make an appearance in “Kong: Skull Island,” a fun if muddled monster movie that gets its best jolts from the sheer size of its beasts.
Whether it’s Godzilla or King Kong or even the Rock, you want your big-screen behemoths to be mighty and larger than life, and “Kong” delivers in that field. This is a movie whose scope is best enjoyed on as big a screen as possible; it just won’t have the same impact on your iPhone, no matter how close you hold the screen to your eyes.
“Kong” gets its creatures right, the rest is a bit choppy. It unfolds in the waning days of the Vietnam War and is fashioned after classic Vietnam movies — think of it as “Apocalypse Kong” — but its mixture of politics, messaging and monster matinee thrills never quite meshes.
A group of soldiers, scientists and mercenaries heads deep into the South Pacific to a remote island to investigate the origins of a new species. On board are a tracker (Tom Hiddleston), a government official (John Goodman), an army captain (Samuel L. Jackson) and a war photographer (Academy Award winner Brie Larson), among other grunts and additional parties.
Their characters all have tells that paint them as either “good” or “bad,” and you can draw a straight line early on and pick which ones are going to live and who is going to die. On Skull Island — these places are never named “Peaceful Island,” or “Tranquil Paradise Island” — it doesn’t take long for them to encounter Kong, who doesn’t take too kindly to helicopters flying into his airspace. Says one soldier when their chopper meets Kong’s enormous fist: “We got taken down by a monkey the size of a building!”
Yes, Kong is quite impressive in stature, and his roar is appropriately intimidating. He’s not the kind of dude whose bananas you want to get caught stealing. But he’s far from the only threat on this island, which he shares with gargantuan wooly mammoths, six-story spiders and a nasty breed of frightening two-legged, long-tailed lizard monsters that an abandoned soldier (John C. Reilly in a fun turn) who has come to know them refers to as “skull crawlers.”
Nowhere on the island is safe from the threat of this pack of colossal demons, who, when they’re not threatening the humans, are going after one another. Yet Kong emerges as a sympathetic figure, and the human element is torn between rescuing him and tearing him down.
The big battles are the film’s draw, and on a purely visceral level, they deliver. Director (and Metro Detroit native) Jordan Vogt-Roberts (“The Kings of Summer”) has a creative flair that is well-suited to the action set pieces, especially a carefully drawn-out showdown with one of those vile skull crawlers. He infuses the whole enterprise with a 7-year-old’s sense of wonder, and packs it with classic rock cues (Black Sabbath, Creedence Clearwater Revival) that make it a virtual tribute to his youth.
Vogt-Roberts also maintains a light tone throughout, and the visuals are consistently impressive. The human element is where the film is lacking, and the group is stuck moralizing between bouts of running, hiding and ducking for cover. Ideally, the characters would be sharp and well-drawn enough that they stand out even without the monsters, but Kong could pop them all like Skittles and it wouldn’t make an ounce of difference.
But hey, the big guy is still a draw. “Kong: Skull Island” proves yet again that size matters, but it’s not the only thing that matters.
‘Kong: Skull Island’
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for brief strong language
Running time: 120 minutes