Mix King Kong with The Lost World, spike it with a bracing dash of Apocalypse Now and you’ve got Kong: Skull Island, in which Warner Bros. finally gets the effects-driven fantasy adventure formula right again after numerous misfires. This highly entertaining return of one of the cinema’s most enduring giant beasts moves like crazy — the film feels more like 90 minutes than two hours — and achieves an ideal balance between wild action, throwaway humor, genre refreshment and, perhaps most impressively, a nonchalant awareness of its own modest importance in the bigger scheme of things; unlike most modern franchise blockbusters, it doesn’t try to pummel you into submission.
Leagues better than Peter Jackson’s bloated, three-hour Kong of 2005, this one looks poised for strong returns and potential sequels co-starring hinted-at monsters from movie lore.
It may have seemed like a stretch to entrust this giant project to a director whose career hitherto consisted of one small, kid-centric Sundance film, the 2013 The Kings of Summer. But it was Jordan Vogt-Roberts who had the crucial inspiration to set this Kong re-do in 1973, specifically at the moment the United States pulled out of Vietnam, a decision that nourishes nearly every aspect of the film. Certainly the specter of Col. Kurtz looms over the perilous journey undertaken by this tale’s small band of mostly military explorers into unknown tropical territory, but what awaits them is a whole lot bigger and scarier than Marlon Brando.
Smartly operating under the theory that exposition in this sort of thing should quickly be dispatched in order to get to the good stuff, the director, screenwriters Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly and story creator John Gatins have made Skull Island and its environs into a storm-enshrouded location in the Pacific Ocean that has never been charted or found. As the war ends, old-time secret op Bill Randa (John Goodman) convinces the Nixon Administration to back a small expedition to try to find and map the place “where God didn’t finish the creation, a place where myth and science meet,” as Randa alluringly puts it. Goodman gets several of the writers’ best lines, including one designed to reference Vietnam but that will register with modern viewers: “Mark my word, there’ll never be a more screwed up time in Washington.”
A crew is ferried by about a dozen choppers that penetrate the dense fog and rain to find what Skull Island has to offer. Among the key members are Samuel Jackson’s bitter Lt. Colonel Packard, who’s pissed that the U.S. didn’t finish the job in Nam and brings with him his team of “Sky Devils” with quick trigger fingers; Tim Hiddleston’s Capt. Conrad, a sleek SAS black ops vet now at loose ends; Brie Larson as combat photographer Mason Weaver; and Corey Hawkins as a bookish biologist, all of whom have their own agendas to pursue in a land unknown to man.
Unknown, that is, except to one man, Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), a pilot who crashed there during World War II and has lived peaceably among a few silent natives ever since. Looking like an old hippie with his tattered uniform and untended beard, Marlow has somehow survived through the years with his humor and good will intact, and Reilly’s warmly funny performance becomes the heart of the film; he could have been just comic relief in an old coot Walter Brennan-style turn but, in stressing the character’s generous acceptance of his strange fate, the actor makes the man embraceably multi-dimensional and accessible (one of the Chicagoan’s first questions of his visitors, along with who won World War II, is whether the Cubs have won anything yet).
In the end, though, it’s not the characters the audiences will have come to see, but the monsters, and the film doesn’t stint in supplying them. This Kong, who makes his entrance a well-timed half hour in, is far bigger than any before him, about 100 feet tall. Still, he faces fierce competition on the island from, among others, some toothsome lizards who happily take advantage of the change in diet offered by the new human visitors.
As before, Kong himself is portrayed as fearsome but also observant and sensitive. The tragic element to his character is carried over from previous incarnations; he’s the last of his species, and the bones of his family are strewn about the ground. Unfortunately, he’s got a new enemy in Packard, who is determined to settle his unfinished business in Nam by taking out Kong, as if that would somehow right the balance.
Its numbers steadily decreasing as it goes, the expedition struggles against rugged terrain and a nasty environment to make it to the far side of the island, where they’re due to be picked up in three days. Mason snaps away at all the freakish wonders to provide photographic evidence, while Capt. Conrad, the nominal handsome male lead, really doesn’t engage in many heroics, perhaps the better to allow Hiddleston’s neatly styled hair to remain perfectly in place throughout. And despite his helping Mason out of a jam or two, the expected romantic sparks remain unlit, which may be a sign not only of the times, but of the director’s relentless determination to avoid cliches and eliminate the “boring parts,” as kids used to call the inevitably bland love scenes in such films.
Instead, there is considerable emotional investment to be made in Reilly’s character, who is no doubt not named Marlow for nothing. Despite his decades of deprivation, he’s the best-adjusted character on hand, his relaxed acceptance of his odd destiny becoming palpably moving at times, a reaction never sought or expected in this sort of film. At least as far as the humans are concerned, Reilly steals the film.
That said, Vogt-Roberts and his collaborators make sure to take care of business where it really counts, which is in the invention and excitement of the monster scenes. Fully realistic creatures are now nothing new, but the filmmakers, notably led by visual effects supervisors Stephen Rosenbaum and Jeff White, have engineered scenes of bestial combat that are not only hyper-credible but shot through with unexpected, and often gruesomely funny, moves. The digital zoo is colorful indeed, from a towering spider to a giant water buffalo and an all-embracing octopus, making it clear that Kong has his hands full of worthy opponents on a regular basis. It’s no wonder the old guy seems world-weary.
All the requisite elements are served up here in ideal proportion, and the time just flies by, which can rarely be said for films of this nature, which, in a trend arguably started by Peter Jackson, have for years now tended to be heavy, lumbering and overlong. A post-end credits bit suggests that Warner Bros. already has some famous opponents lined up for Kong’s heavyweight belt, beginning perhaps with Rodan. Whoever undertakes any follow-ups will have a high bar to clear.
Opens: March 10 (Warner Bros.)
Production: Legendary Pictures
With: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, Jing Tian, Toby Kebbell, John Ortiz, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Terry Notary
Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Screenwriters: Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Connolly, story by John Gatins
Producers: Jon Hashni, Alex Garcia, Thomas Tull, Mary Parent
Executive producers: Eric McLeod, Edward Cheng
Director of photography: Larry Fong
Production designer: Stefan Dechant
Costume designer: Mary E. Vogt
Editor: Richard Pearson
Music: Henry Jackman
Senior visual effects supervisor: Stephen Rosenbaum
Visual effects supervisor: Jeff White
Casting: Sarah Haley Finn
PG-13 rating, 119 minutes