Thursday, 9 March 2017

Kong: Skull Island

(M) ★★★

Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts.

Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Terry Notary, John C. Reilly, Shea Whigham, Toby Kebbell, John Ortiz, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Thomas Mann, Jing Tian.

David Attenborough's Planet Earth II is packed with surprises.

Like Dracula, Frankenstein's monster, and Batman, King Kong never dies - he just gets rebooted every once in a while, ready to be wheeled out once again for a new generation.

We're going to be seeing a lot more of the 100-foot-tall ape in the future as Skull Island is the second film in Legendary Entertainment's "Monsterverse", the first being Gareth Edwards' excellent Godzilla from 2014 (Godzilla: King Of The Monsters comes out in 2019, followed by Godzilla Vs Kong in 2020).

These are CG-heavy multi-million dollar Hollywood versions of the stodgy old Toho Studios monster movies of the '50s, '60s and '70s, which cost under a quarter of a million dollars and featured men in rubber suits smashing miniature sets. These will be big-budget bonanza that will probably make Pacific Rim even more look like the pile of crap it was.

Vogt-Roberts' Kong reboot has more in common with the Toho films than the 1933 King Kong original, and the 1976 and 2005 remakes for that matter. There is no New York showdown, no climbing the Empire State Building, and only a minimal amount of the "beauty and the beast" motif that played out in those versions. This one goes to the jungle and stays in the jungle - capturing Kong is out of the question. Skull Island is all about survival.

Set in the final days of the Vietnam War (cue obligatory Creedence Clearwater Revival-heavy soundtrack), Bill Randa (Goodman) leads a team to explore the freshly discovered titular land mass under the guise of mapping and exploring it before the Russians do. Among his team are a tracker (Hiddleston), a photographer (Larson), a geologist (Hawkins), various other faceless scientists, and a helicopter squadron-worth of soldiers led by the battle-hungry Lieutenant Colonel Packard (Jackson).

There are plenty of surprises in store for them on Skull Island, including Kong, but he will be the least of their worries.

Taking little but the great ape from Cooper and Wallace's brilliant 1933 original, Skull Island styles itself as more of a war film, like some kind of wacky Apocalypse Now with a skyscraper-height simian thrown in for good measure instead of an overweight Marlon Brando. It's packed with explosions, gunplay, beast-on-beast battles, and one particularly eerie shoot-out sequence set in a gas-shrouded animal graveyard.

But is it any good? The short answer is kinda. The longer answer is Skull Island is a slightly infuriating mix of different shades of dumb - there's plenty of dumb fun, which is great, but there are also some groan-inducing, forehead-slapping moments of dumb too, most of which are in the script department.

It works best when it embraces the insanity of it all, such as seeing Jackson stare down Kong amid a burning lagoon of napalm, or any of the moments featuring Reilly's slightly bonkers castaway Marlow, or any of a number of inventive deaths the island's inhabitants throw at the hapless humans.

Stuck in the middle of this enjoyable idiocy is Hiddleston's steel-jawed hunter and Larson's anti-war photographer, both of whom are too serious by far. They get the majority of the terrible lines - at one point Hiddleston says, completely straight-faced, "Does any man really ever come back from war?", which would be fine in a gritty war drama but not mere minutes after running away from a giant monkey or some kind of skull-headed snake thing. It's when the film shifts between Hiddleston's gravitas and Reilly and Jackson's absurd insanity that the magic is lost and it goes from dumb fun to just plain dumb.

Reilly is the pick of the quality cast, his usual oddball inclinations more than welcome. Jackson is also good because he gets what Skull Island should be - in fact, he could have gone even further over the top as the army man who goes all Captain Ahab on Kong (you get the feeling he's only a few moments of fury away from yelling at someone to "get this motherfucking ape of this motherfucking plain!"). Goodman also understands how nuts it all is, adding a nice level of wild-eyed twitchiness to his mission instigator Randa.

Aside from Hiddleston and Larson being the serious pair in the middle of a silly storm, the biggest problem with the cast is there's too many of them. While you need cannon fodder (or Kong fodder), too many characters hang around (and even survive) for no good reason. Hawkins is only there for exposition and could have been cut, while Jing Tian adds absolutely nothing except for probably appeasing the Chinese co-financiers.

What it overcompensates for with the cast, it makes up for in looks. The cinematography and effects are worthy of its mammoth US$185 million budget. A few obvious CG sets aside, there are some eye-catching sequences (the gas-shrouded graveyard sequence and the fiery showdown between Packard and Kong in particular) and the creatures of Skull Island are wonderfully realised.

Kong in particular looks the goods. Less realistic than Andy Serkis and Peter Jackson's 2005 big gorilla, this version is an upright-walking missing link brought to life by Terry Notary's motion-capture work and billions of pixels. And unlike Edwards' Godzilla, Skull Island doesn't keep its star attraction under wraps for too long, which takes some of the mystery out of proceedings but gets the audience barracking for Kong from early on.

Ultimately, this is not a patch on 2014's Godzilla (stick around post-credits for the obligatory hint at the next mega kaiju showdown), nor is it as good as Peter Jackson's King Kong. But it's kinda fun and kinda dumb, and works more often than not.

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