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MOVIE REVIEW: Kong: Skull Island (2017)

No Monkey Business

Kong: Skull Island promo poster
Kong: Skull Island is a movie I have looked forward to with a mix of eagerness and trepidation. I love the big guy, but he hasn't been done justice since the 1933 Merion Cooper original. Through two remakes, two sequels, and a Japanese re-imagining, nothing has come close to that magnificent romp to the top of the Empire State building. Kong: Skull Island won’t make you forget the original, but it might just reignite your love for the big monkey.
Skull Island has always held a fascination for me, ever since I watched the Cooper original. A hidden island, surrounded by perpetual fog, spoken of in whispers, and one word, Kong. What an imposing island with its huge skull shaped cliff face. Whose inhabitants hid behind a huge wall from the monstrous Kong. But the giant ape wasn't the only horror on the island, dinosaurs, giant snakes, spiders and who knows what other abominations.
John C Reilly steals Kong: Skull Island
So when I heard there were plans for a Skull Island movie, I was a little bit excited. Those hopes dimmed a good bit when I learned the movie was going to be used as a springboard into a monster mash between Big G and Kong. Then hearing it was basically a reboot of the Kong mythos, I really despaired about the film. But I was still eager to see it. The first photos and trailers showed a wonderful looking Kong. Yet that trailer also showed not so great looking CGI dinosaur-like creatures, and lots of explosions and fire, Visions of Michael Bay suckiness danced in my head.
Luckily for me, other King Kong fans, and moviegoers in general, this was far from a Michael Bay film. Kong: Skull Island is more than a filler movie, meant to shoehorn the ape into a shared monster universe. It's a good movie, the best King Kong film since the original, which admittedly isn't saying a whole lot.
Samuel L Jackson isn't interested in bringing Kong back from Skull Island
Kong: Skull Island is still at heart a movie about the struggle of man against nature. Humans again venture onto his island, but there’s no attempt to bring him back. Instead it's a battle to the death between Kong and Samuel L Jackson's Col Packard. With Packard, Kong is up against perhaps his most dangerous adversary ever. His motivation for battling Kong isn't greed, it isn't science, it's revenge, or, as he would see it, justice. Justice for the men killed by Kong in their first encounter. But it's more than just revenge that drives Jackson's character.
Packard is a warrior without a war. Skull Island is set in 1973, at the end of the Vietnam War. The men under Packard's command are eager to go home, yet Packard seems lost. He jumps at the chance for one more mission. This is a war he won’t abandon, like he feels Vietnam was. So as much as he tells his men, and us, and himself, that it's for revenge; it's really that he has nothing else. In killing Kong, he hopes to make up for losing the bigger war. The scene of Kong and Packard eying each other with unbridled anger is chilling, Packard is Jackson's best role in quite some time.
Skull Island gives us more than just a potential worthy adversary for Kong. It does something no other King Kong movie has done and that few action movies do well. It developed characters between the 1-3 lead characters. We get to know, at least a little about almost every member of Packard's command who survives the initial assault. We see that camaraderie, and we learn little things about them. They are more than just cannon fodder, so when they die, we feel it.
Tom Hiddleston and Brie are the moral counterpoint to Packard. Hiddleston is ex-British Intelligence John Conrad, hired to scout for the party, Larson is war photographer Mason Weaver, or as she likes to call herself an “anti war” photographer. It was easy to foresee Larson as the Ann Darrow character made famous by Fay Ray; however, Kong: Skull Island didn't go that route. The damsel in distress plot line is completely abandoned. Weaver is able to hold her own, as much as anyone, against the inhabitants of Skull Island. Hiddleston, while doing a fine job as the heroic savior who stands against Packard and the evil “skull crawlers”, is upstaged by John C Reilly.
Honestly, if there is one major positive surprise, it's in Reilly's performance. I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with Reilly. While I loved him in Step Brothers, his Dr. Steve Brule annoys me. In Kong, he plays a downed World War II pilot, trapped on the island for 30 years. He provides some great comedic moments in Kong, but he's more than a funny guy displaced in time. He stands tall as a heroic character later in the film, as well as the most touching moment in the film. He comes very close to completely upstaging both Hiddleston and Jackson. I never thought I would type that, really, I'm shocked.
Visually the film is impressive, with beautiful shots that pay homage to the original King Kong (the scene of him holding a wet Larson in his hand.) There are also scenes that hearken back to Vietnam war movies like Apocalypse Now and Platoon. You could almost forget you are watching a giant monster movie at times.
The story, with the visuals, and characters, becomes an anti war movie of sorts. We see Packard, a man who doesn't know how to live without war, we see Weaver, who hates war, and we see Conrad, who's tired of war. And we see all of the grunts who just want to make it home to their families. But it never lingers long enough on the anti war sentiment to bog it down or make it not fun. The subtext is there, but it's not always front and center.
But I think what I liked most is that Kong: Skull Island finally makes the monkey a full fledged hero. Come on, we all cheered when he swatted down that biplane, and we all cried, when he fell and we heard, “It was beauty that killed the beast.” Here Kong is a force of nature. He's a god for all intents and purposes. Here to protect the natural order against the monsters that lie below. It's very similar to the twist on Godzilla in his 2014 remake. And it was far from unintentional. This Kong has no natural hatred or fear of the tiny humans. He acts as their protector, at least till you piss him off, and seems curious about them at times. Maybe some of it was a bit hokey, but, fuck you, I like Kong as the good guy.
And Kong looks good. Maybe better than he ever has. He looks more like an ape in the face, although he's still more bipedal than any true ape. His fight scenes are epic, especially when he decides to show off his tool-using ability. More than anything else, this is a fun movie.
I'm trying to stay spoiler free, but it's no secret that this is a set up for Kong vs Godzilla. So it should be no secret that the big guy manages to make it though Skull Island. But that's all I'm saying. Now go see it yourself. No monkey business, just 4 stars out of five.

Posted by Allen Alberson

1 comment

Sounds good. Too bad Jackson is in it. Tired of his ignorant political rants so won’t be seeing anything he appears in.

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