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"KONG: SKULL ISLAND"
(2017) (Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson) (PG-13)


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QUICK TAKE:
Action: A mixed entourage travels to a recently discovered island in the South Pacific and must contend with the various things they encounter there, including a giant ape known as Kong.
PLOT:
It's 1973 and Bill Randa (JOHN GOODMAN) is an official in a government entity known as Monarch who's been trying to prove the existence of monsters in the world for decades. With the Vietnam War winding down, he and geologist Houston Brooks (COREY HAWKINS) rush to convince a U.S. Senator to approve an expedition to a South Pacific island that's only just been discovered by satellites run by Victor Nieves' (JOHN ORITZ) firm. With biologist San (TIAN JING), anti-war photojournalist Mason Weaver (BRIE LARSON) and former British Special Forces agent turned mercenary tracker James Conrad (TOM HIDDLESTON) in tow, they're escorted there by United States Army Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (SAMUEL L. JACKSON) who's happy to have one more chopper mission now that his active duty in Vietnam will be over.

But he, the rest of his military unit that includes Chapman (TOBY KEBBELL), Mills (JASON MITCHELL), Cole (SHEA WHIGHAM), Slivko (THOMAS MANN) and others, along with the civilians are shocked when they arrive on what's actually a series of islands and begin setting off a number of seismic charges, all under Randa's false pretense of geological research. But what the explosions do is draw the ire of Kong, a Godzilla-sized ape that quickly makes waste of the chopper fleet.

With the survivors now on the ground and split up, they must contend with the islands' array of huge and monstrous creatures including some particularly dangerous lizard type ones known as "skull crawlers." That's the name given to them by Hank Marlow (JOHN C. REILLY), a fighter pilot who was shot down over the island during WWII and has lived there ever since with the local natives who revere Kong as their God. Packard doesn't feel the same way, however, as he wants to get revenge on the ape for destroying his fleet and killing many of his men. That puts him and his soldiers at odds with Conrad and the others who simply want to get off the island as quickly as possible.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
While I distinctly remember when I first saw a Godzilla movie (it was the 1972 release of "Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster" when I was 8-years-old), I don't have any exact recollection of when I first encountered King Kong. It was definitely on TV, but since the original bearing the ape's name first hit theaters more than three decades before I was born, it's hard to say when I first came across the film (although it was likely in the late '60s or early '70s).

That's not to say it didn't make an impression. Quite the contrary, while the various Godzilla films (following the original one) were good, campy fun, even a kid of my young age knew there was something special about the 1933 Kong flick. I knew most everything there was to know about the movie, especially the amazing stop-motion animation work of Willis O'Brien.

Accordingly, I was quite excited to see the 1976 remake (especially having bought the pre-release paperback that featured publicity stills from the film, including those of young Jessica Lange that only served to get me and my fellow barely pre-adolescent male friends further enticed).

Alas, the actor in the monkey suit wasn't as convincing as its miniature model predecessor and I subsequently grew up and was already forty-one when director Peter Jackson gave it a go in his retelling of the great ape legend, albeit this time using CGI effects even when returning the story to the 1930s.

Now, at the age of 53, I get to see the latest incarnation of the cinematic gorilla in "Kong: Skull Island." This time around, we travel back in time to 1973, an era when it was possible that satellites had yet to map the entire planet from space (I'm no expert on that matter, but that's plausible enough that the titular island remained hidden from the world), but also one that allows for the inclusion of all sorts of recognizable songs from that period to help fill out the film's soundtrack.

Not to mention make a statement about war, what with the Vietnam conflict winding down from a U.S. standpoint, thus leaving some armed forces there raring to go one last time into any sort of action they might possibly find.

Of course, those in the chopper squadron led by the Army Lt. Col. character played by none other than Samuel L. Jackson have no idea what sort of harm's way they're getting themselves into while escorting some nebulous government types and others to the recently discovered island.

But the government's Monarch division supervisor played by John Goodman certainly knows the full extent of the mission, what with having wanted to prove the existence of monsters for the past several decades after having been the lone survivor of such an attack long ago.

After the obligatory scene of him convincing a politician (Richard Jenkins in a cameo bit) to authorize an expedition, he and the rest of the entourage -- that includes a British mercenary/tracker (Tom Hiddleston) and an anti-war photojournalist (Brie Larson) -- have a fairly abrupt and rude encounter with our title character who makes quick waste of the chopper fleet in a big and muscular action sequence. It's cool to watch from an effects and action standpoint, but makes one wonder how Jackson's crew survived Vietnam since they obviously fly way too close to the imposing ape (who's much bigger than in previous incarnations), not to mention a hurricane type storm that obviously wouldn't be respectful of chopper aerodynamics.

From that point on, the survivors -- split into several separate groups -- must contend with all sorts of over-sized critters (beyond Kong there are some enormous and quite hungry lizard type monsters known as "skull crushers," a giant spider, an enormous water buffalo and some pterodactyl type "birds" and so on) that provide for some fun "uh-oh" and "run for your lives" moments.

In short, Hiddleston's character wants to lead his group to a predetermined pick-up point (and end up meeting a downed WWII pilot -- John C. Reilly -- whose younger incarnation is seen in the film's opening sequence), while Jackson's goes all Cap'n Ahab and wants to kill the great whale, um, ape out of revenge and an apparent "man is the apex predator" mindset.

There are plenty of supporting characters, but most are just fodder for the big monster machine which is okay (sort of) since director Jordan Vogt-Roberts -- working from a script by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, and Derek Connolly -- doesn't seem concerned about fleshing any of them out to any sort of memorable degree. While fans of monster movies will likely be fine with that, it would have been nice to have someone to root for.

Reilly comes close simply due to playing a whacky character, while Larson gets to perform the obligatory human female emotionally connects with the ape material. But that's it as most everyone else gets smashed, squashed, eaten and so on. And for anyone expecting a trip back to the states as has occurred in the previous installments, you should know that all of the action remains on the titular location.

Overall, the flick is enjoyable enough for what it is -- an action outing featuring people stuck in a land of enormous, deadly and hungry monsters where Kong is indeed king. That is, at least until the creatures hinted at in the post-credits scene show up to take on the great ape for that title in subsequent big monster films. Dumb, kinetic and noisy fun, "Kong: Skull Island" rates as a 6 out of 10.




Reviewed March 7, 2017 / Posted March 10, 2017


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