2.5 stars (out of 4)
Love that Kong. A mega-sized, awe-inspiring ape, he has the temperament of a hungry toddler and is so strong that he can effortlessly snap propelling helicopters in two. This beast is the reason CGI was created!
Alas, the very-real humans surrounding him in this semi-entertaining trifle can’t match his moxie. Kong, you see, is not just the king of the jungle — his presence looms over every character with a speaking line. Yet if anything is going to upstage an Oscar winner, three of the most beloved character actors of the past 30 years and Loki, it might as well be the hairy creature that once scaled the Empire State Building.
This chapter of the 80-year-old saga is set primarily on a mysterious island in 1973, when troops are pulling out of the Vietnam War and citizens are left disillusioned with the world. (Cue the on-the-nose Jimi Hendrix and Creedence Clearwater Revival soundtrack). The leader of a soon-to-be-defunct, X-Files-like government agency (John Goodman) convinces an official to let him investigate an uncharted territory in the South Pacific. (“It’s where myth and science meet!”) And he gets to take an expedition group with him. Team Skull Island includes a wary British ex-special ops officer (Tom Hiddleston), an anti-war photographer (Brie Larson), a no-nonsense military commander (Samuel L. Jackson) and his platoon. Once they reach land, they’ll be joined by a kooky World War II airman (John C. Reilly, the standout) who’s been marooned there for decades.
The group is immediately put under siege by the havoc-wreaking simian. The gorilla warfare scenes are effectively scary — and to the filmmakers’ credit, not scary enough to freak out 8-year-old kids. He may not even be the central villain: In a hostile environment where ginormous spiders crush mortals and amphibians lurk underneath the water, the group can’t decide if Kong is a true threat or their only hope for survival. The intriguing debate leads to a smattering of juicy moments, an impressive feat for a pic of this magnitude. By comparison, 2014’s Godzilla revolved around … ummmmm. There was something about an ugly, aggressive lizard. Can anyone detail a single scene of that dreck? See — not that easy to make a big dumb blockbuster that zings.
If anything, the flick over-exerts itself. The busy action set pieces give way to macho adventurism, which gives way to goofy comedy (good sport Reilly does the heavy lifting), which gives way to ecological meditations. Then it circles back around. Everything except said action set pieces leaves a memorable footprint. When Larson decides to pet Kong’s face and treat him like Bambi, the brisk pacing comes to a virtual dead stop.
True, nobody comes to a film called Kong: Skull Island for character development. But the team is shockingly expendable. Hiddleston, an alleged James Bond of the jungle, mainly yells variations of “We need to get out of here!” And Larson, for all her would-be street smarts, maximizes her time by running around the jungle in a tank top. (For a better example on how to successfully integrate man and monkey, see any of the recent Planet of the Apes features.) Their dialogue, meanwhile, is predictably silly — how else to characterize a throwaway line like “This is not normal!!!!!” That said, amid so much visual chaos, it’s possible the lines are intentionally easy-to-digest.
When all the humans fail/flail, Kong is there to save us all. This monster is a true force of nature, and the climactic battle between him and a familiar foe is completely sure-footed and popcorn-ready. (More of that literal scene-chewing in the inevitable sequel, please.) And after a smorgasbord of eat-your-vegetables Oscar nominated films, a little fast food isn’t going to kill anyone.
(Kong: Skull Island opens Friday, March 10.)
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