Kong: Skull Island (2017)

The King returns to cinemas in this $185 million herky-jerky, fantasy B-movie, but can Kong carry this gargantuan production into monster movie history?

There’s no question that King Kong is a titan of fantasy cinema. The original 1933 classic is widely considered one of the best fantasy films ever made and even the 1976 Dino De Laurentiis produced remake, while reviled by the older generation, has found a soft spot in the hearts of most Generation X kids and ironically appreciative Millennials. Peter Jackson’s overwrought, overindulgent and way overlong 2005 epic sort of managed to underwhelm almost everyone.

While produced with a sincere love and respect for the black-and-white classic, Jackson’s three hour plus love song to the stop-motion King of Skull Island perhaps took the whole subject just a tad too seriously for my tastes.

Enter “Kong: Skull Island.”

Not a remake, but a completely new jungle adventure set entirely on Skull Island that neither attempts to bring the big ape back to civilization nor forces him to make googly eyes at the film’s leading lady. No, this is simply a pulpy B-movie adventure story full of manly heroes, uncharted islands and big screen monster wrestling matches, and there’s nothing really wrong with that.

Set at the end of the Vietnam War, cryptid conspiracy believer, Bill Rada (John Goodman), tricks the government into financing his expedition to a recently discovered uncharted island. His military escort is led by career badass, Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), who is personally defeated by the loss of the war and is looking for a new battle he can win. Rada hires expert tracker and ex British agent, James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), to increase their chances of coming back alive and war photographer, Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), tags along looking for another Pulitzer.

Stranded WWII vet, Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), shows up when they reach the island, and Reilly’s quirky castaway steals the show from everybody except Kong himself.

Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts shares his 70’s psychedelic rock soundtrack collection as the fleet of military helicopters arrive on Skull Island and begin dropping bombs meant to map the topography of the island’s underground cave system. The visuals chug along to the sounds of CCR, Iggy Pop, Jefferson Airplane and Black Sabbath. Kong appears in silhouette of the afternoon sun and confronts these tiny intruders in a sequence clearly inspired by “Apocalypse Now.”

It’s quite an entrance.

One of the choices that Vogt-Roberts makes with his Kong that I can gleefully champion is his creative decision to return the character to his slouchy, anthropomorphic roots. For the sake of added realism, Peter Jackson’s Kong was turned into an incredibly realistic 50 foot gorilla brought to life through the magnificently nuanced motion-capture performance of Andy Serkis. With all due respect, I’ve never wanted to think of Kong as a “really big gorilla,” but more of a missing link of fantastic proportions.

Is that more believable? No, it’s just more fun.

Fun and fantasy are the name of the game here. Skull Island appears to exist in a world of heightened reality. Every sunset, every fog bank, every skyscape looks like a lurid painting from the cover of a 1930’s pulp dime novel. Careening at a breakneck pace through a stilted script and half-baked dialogue that strains the acting chops of the A-list cast, the film proudly screams, “Relax, it’s just a fantasy!”

Charismatic leading man, Tom Hiddleston, who has frequently captivated audiences with his charming and energetic performances over the last few years is arguably wasted here in the rank-and-file stoic hero role. Samuel L. Jackson’s Ahab-esque crusade to show Kong that “man is king” makes for an entertaining subplot, but the role is hardly a stretch for Jackson, who slips as comfortably into his tough-as-nails character as he would an after dinner smoking jacket.

While the cast may add some type of marquee value intended to put butts in seats and sell foreign distribution rights, there’s little doubt that the target audience is only here to see the biggest movie star in cinema history. This new King Kong is bigger and badder than any ever presented on screen before, and the computer generated effects employed to bring him and the other terrifying monsters of Skull Island to life are the best that money can buy. When Kong battles a giant Skull Crawler in an eye-popping, knock-down-drag-out monster bash at the climax. all else is forgiven. For any 10 year old or 10 year old at heart, this is fine art.

All hail the King!

Kong: Skull Island” isn’t the Eighth Wonder of the World, but it’s good enough to hold its place as the most fun King Kong movie since the 1933 original. Oh, by the way, don’t leave the theater until the very end of the credits.

The Phantom of The Ville

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