Why do we need another King Kong movie? Including two same-title remakes (one in 1976 and Peter Jackson’s acclaimed 2005 update) the larger-than-life primate has officially bared the screen in seven films since first making his epic maiden voyage in 1933. So, why go for an eighth try? The answer coming from Warner Bros’ mouths is a new chance at a shared cinematic universe pitting the most iconic cinematic movie monsters against each other (Kong is slated to fight Godzilla in 2020, which will mark the first time two have crossed paths since 1962). As enticing as that may sound, I have a better answer for why a reboot turned out to be necessary: making Kong fun again.
Our journey begins in 1973 on the day the United States pulled out of Vietnam. Explorer Bill Randa (John Goodman) and his associate Houston Brooks (Straight Outta Compton’s Corey Hawkins) convince the government to fund their expedition to an uncharted island in the Pacific. Needing help, they enlist Col. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) and the members of his military group as military escorts, anti-war photographer Mason Weaver (Academy Award-winner Brie Larson) and, the leading man, ex-British special forces tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston). As soon as the team arrives, they discover that the land they believe they have founded is a world ruled by a gorilla the size of a building: Kong.
As for the human characters (who, let’s face it, are just the supporting roles here), the cast is a decidedly mixed bag of ultimately weak personalities. The most forgettable performance comes from the man who was given top billing, Hiddleston, phoning it in as the typical straight man. He is heroic, clever, morally motivated and always right about everything. Essentially, he is the direct opposite of Jackson’s character, a proud, honorable military leader who has grown slightly unhinged since the end of the Vietnam War has left him searching for a purpose or, more accurately, an enemy. As for Larson, while her Farrah Fawcett-haired character comes forth slightly underdeveloped, she gives her a strong, witty and courageous personality that comes in handy when she actively participates in the action sequences despite never having a gun. While I applaud the culturally diverse casting (also including John Ortiz, Jason Mitchell, Thomas Mann, Tian Jing, Eugene Cordero and Shea Wigham), most of the characters feel unworthy to root for.
The exception is John C. Reilly as Hank Marlow, a World War II pilot whose plane went down in 1944 leaving him stranded on the titular island ever since. He completely steals the show by thankfully abandoning the “dehumanized, feral stranded victim” trope, giddily guiding the explorers through the island’s native culture and steering them away from the most dangerous areas and creatures. With his optimistic and thoroughly hilarious portrayal, Reilly is more than the film’s comic relief: he is its heart and soul.
But of course, there is no dethroning Kong, the god-like protector of the island played by Toby Kebbell in a motion capture performance that makes up for last year’s abominable Warcraft. Despite moments lacking in more of his own screen time, seeing the king of Skull Island in action is worth the wait. The beautifully shot fight scenes between Kong and creatures that Marlow calls “Skull Crawlers” feel like a child’s fantasies during an action figure crushing session at afternoon playtime brought to life. Not in a long time has such a thriller had the power to bring out my inner child and keep him there for the rest of the ride and this film is the right amount of fun to do it.
Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts gracefully executes a cheesy, sub-par script with mostly forgettable performances into a surprisingly and thoroughly entertaining monster movie. With beautiful aesthetic, impressive action direction and an irresistible nostalgic tone, this island proves worth returning to. If a 1970s B-movie had the technology and production value we have today, Kong: Skull Island would be the result.
7.5 / 10
Read more reviews from Jason Wiese at the Lincoln County Journal.