Becoming the third legitimately active cinematic universe after Marvel & DC takes balls the size of grape fruits, but I’m willing to bet that the star of Legendary’s expanding Monsterverse has a set of hairy beanbags far bigger…
Taking flight with the granddaddy of all monsters taking centre stage for the first time since Peter Jackson’s overly long remake, Kong: Skull Island may drop the King from it’s lead’s title (thanks, no doubt, to some contractual wrangling on the behalf of Godzill’s legal team…) but for an old lover of massive movie monster mashes like me, a fantastic geek out of a cinema trip was all but guaranteed. Technically a prequel to the 2014 Godzilla complete with giant scraps and subtle references to Legendary’s growing universe scattered around, Kong: Skull Island is arguably the most fun of entries in the Monsterverse to date.
It’s 1973 and America is frantically pulling it’s forces out of Vietnam in the wake of it’s disastrous war but instead of going home, the weary grunts instead have to shepard a bunch of scientist to a newly discovered island in order to to a geological survey of the area. The scientists are joined by two members of Monarch, a government funded, monster hunting organisation that’s on the verge of being shut down twenty years after they tried to bomb Godzilla and along with a female anti-war photographer and a British tracker they scour the island from their choppers. However, once thing they weren’t expecting to find was a 104 feet tall monster ape who takes exception to random people just showing up in his neighbourhood and making themselves at home; and after a vicious attack, the various groups find themselves separated. As the various batches of survivors do everything they can to avoid enriching the diet of any number of Skull Island’s inhabitants, they stumble across crashed airman Hank Marlow who’s been stranded there since 1944 who clues them in on his dire their situation really is. Kong is king on the island and keeps the rest of the place safe from the lizard-like Skull Crawlers who crawl up from their subterranean lair to cause carnivorous havoc wherever they can, but the rapidly snapping Lieutenant Colonel Packard feels it’s his duty to get revenge for his squished men.
With Packard and Skull Crawlers making life even more complicated for the survivors, can Kong simplify things the only way he knows how – beat them silly with fists the size of tanks…
The most interesting thing about Kong: Skull Island is that it’s trying so hard not to be a conventional King Kong movie. There’s no fatal trip to New York, no endless fawning over blondes and this Kong certainly doesn’t have a problem with ariel attacks and instead super-punches Hueys out of the air like a UFC fighter with ‘roid rage. Simply put, his ain’t your grandfather’s King Kong and the fuzzy brute acts more like Skull Island’s enforcer, decking any oversized jerk who dares start a rumble in his jungle. He (much like Godzilla ’14 and it’s MUTO’s) is a massive, furry balance to the area’s fragile ecosystem and he stomps about the place, keeping the underground dwelling Skullcrawlers in line with frenzied bludgeonings, rescuing the odd trapped cow-monster and eating giant octopi like an Oldboy cosplayer. That being said, the result of Kong just being there and not actually having a journey as such means the film isn’t so much about him, but as the title suggests, more about the insanely hostile island itself and the dangers it presents to all those chewy humans foolish to step foot on this death inducing peninsula – in story terms, think more an adventure along the lines of The Lost World (whether you’re thinking Arthur Conan Doyle or Steven Spielberg – you’re both sort of right).
So in shuffle the humans – all stock characters you’ve seen a billion times before but all thankfully played by likeable actors mostly curbed from the MCU, who are more than up for getting mercilessly killed. Tom Hiddleston initially seems horribly miscast, but after a scene were he dons a gas mask in order to start slicing up mutant killer birds through a poison gas cloud, he starts to ease into it (wouldn’t you?) while Brie Larson is nice and spunky as a determined war photographer.
The rest of the cast all know they are there merely to throw out the usual character quirks inbetween staring in awe, running in terror or simply getting eaten and get on with it nicely, although I’m not exactly sure why John Goodman’s here – but if anyone is going to churn out Monarch-style exposition, I’m glad it’s him. However, it’s old pros Samuel L Jackson – no stranger to large pesky animal attacks whether they be on a plane or the deep blue sea – and John C Reilly acting like he’s wandered in from another movie and is enjoying himself immensely that score the highest. As a mentally frayed military type and a marooned pilot respectively, they are the two of the human types who comfortably walk away with the movie with their winning combination of either epic, fiery death stares or comedic gibbering buffoonary.
So while it may not break any molds in the story or character department, Kong (again, like Godzilla ’14) earns any originality it has by the fierce visuals it employs while telling the story. Setting the events at the tail of the Vietnam war gives director Jordan Vogt-Roberts free reign to pump the movie full of sweaty locales, awesome 70’s tunes – the choppers get smashed but the record player miraculously survives – and quickly politics (“You’ll never see a more screwed up time in Washington” rumbles Goodman’s character who obviously hasn’t got the gift of foresight); all of which give a rather over-told story a cool and original rock and roll feel that grounds it rather nicely, which is sort of important when your film features a stick insect so big you could lasso it and ride to work.
Finally we get to the REAL stars of the film, the monsters. While never quite fully achieving the “anything goes” insanity promised by the magnificent trailers, Skull Island’s menagerie of kill-y, bitey things offer many a gruesome end during the movie’s satisfyingly high body count and it’s still the only movie I’ve ever seen where a massive ape uses a boat propeller as a knuckle duster (you don’t get shit like THAT in stuff like La La Land). The other creatures are satisfyingly icky with a bamboo legged spider and the thoroughly vile Skull Crawlers topping the league but Kong himself is a magnificent specimen although he isn’t in screen as much as you’d think. As it’s part of a connected universe and is building to that massive Godzilla showdown in 2021, you sometimes feel the film is holding back a little when it should be sprinting but ultimately it’s more fun than the fairly po-faced Godzilla ’14.
Kong ’17 overcomes it’s numberous rough edges thanks to a cool ’70’s vibe, impressively energetic visuals, far out monsters and some shameless referencing to Apocalypse Now as he funkiest of monkeys retains his crown in this above-average rumble in the jungle.