The iconic chest-thumping beast is back, and bigger than ever. Warner Bros. has been retelling the King Kong legend for decades, and in what is rumored to be the setup for the Godzilla/King Kong showdown, we have a 100-foot- tall, sometimes disproportionately represented gorilla, ready for his close-up.
Set in the Vietnam War era, the change in approach to telling the tale is both appropriate and refreshing. We’re given a brief backstory, leading to a logical venture into the last uncharted place on Earth. A team of scientists and their military escort brazenly (and foolishly) hazard into the majestic and treacherous island. An encounter with the massive mammal leaves our heroes stranded on the island, where they must make their way to the rendezvous through untold peril and danger.
Tom Hiddleston leads an outstanding cast that includes Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, John Goodman, John C. Reilly and Corey Hawkins. The real stars, however, are the variety of creatures that inhabit the mysterious Skull Island. Reminiscent of the magic of “Jurassic Park,” there are docile critters, and violent creepy crawlers traversing the hostile terrain. Our heroes are sweat-stained and vastly outmatched. It’s a race to beat the clock and the odds, which adds to the constant sense of doom.
Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (“The Kings of Summer”) presents a blend of stunning visual effects, perfectly popcorn action and quick pacing, which ultimately ends in a really enjoyable film. One thing I especially appreciated was that there was no hiding the beast. He pops up early and often, unlike so many monster movies where the filmmaker lets your imagination tell the story. Not here. Everything is out on full display from the get-go, and this will go down as a modern classic creature feature as a result.
The prodigious primate steals the show as both hero and villain, and the only gripe I truly have is Samuel L. Jackson. His character departs very little from what I imagine is his everyday persona. He’s the battle-hardened Army Colonel Packard, who loses his hold on rationality and becomes obsessed with besting the beast. It’s a bit too close to Jackson’s typical wheelhouse, and I thought a more dramatic actor could have added stronger depth to the role. Maybe a Woody Harrelson, or a Forrest Whitaker? It’s a minor complaint, but one that could have improved the outcome.
John C. Reilly stands out among the cast as the wild card, Marlow. He serves as comic relief, as well as a tour guide of sorts during their fantastic journey, and continues to show why he is one of the most underappreciated and talented actors around. Hiddleston is a bit too cool for the group, maybe loosely auditioning for the next James Bond. Larson is too cute, smiley and unafraid for her own good, and the Army grunts are a rag-tag bunch of good old boys who don’t really intimidate anyone or anything. I’m not complaining; they gel through their mutual desire for survival in spite of frighteningly overwhelming odds.
The tone of the film is decidedly more violent and mature than you might expect going in, but they maintain a pretty light mood. I imagine it pushed the limits of its PG-13 rating, but it works nicely for a monster wreaking havoc on some hapless humans encroaching on its territory. I really enjoyed “Kong: Skull Island,” the first fully entertaining blockbuster of the year. Maybe don’t bring the kids though.