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While Kong: Skull Island contains all the expected, tired tropes that come with building a cinematic universe – mysterious government agency that ties everything together, obligatory post-credits scene whetting our thirst for the next instalment etc. – the new film is an otherwise extraordinary surprise. (Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture)
While Kong: Skull Island contains all the expected, tired tropes that come with building a cinematic universe – mysterious government agency that ties everything together, obligatory post-credits scene whetting our thirst for the next instalment etc. – the new film is an otherwise extraordinary surprise. (Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture)

Kong: Skull Island is a surprisingly thrilling monster blockbuster Add to ...

  • Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts
  • Written by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly
  • Starring Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson and John C. Reilly
  • Classification PG
  • Country USA
  • Language English

We all know why there is a new King Kong lumbering into theatres this weekend. When announcing the project two years ago, Warner Bros. studio and its producing partner Legendary Entertainment made clear they were in the market for an easy-to-exploit monster-mash series, one in which their recently rebooted Godzilla would eventually square off against the greatest of apes (coming soon, if all goes according to plan, in 2020!). Kong, meet franchise. Franchise, meet Kong.

But what we don’t know is how, exactly, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts managed to get this particular version of King Kong through the various checks and balances of a studio system. Because while Kong: Skull Island contains all the expected, tired tropes that come with building a cinematic universe – mysterious government agency that ties everything together, obligatory post-credits scene whetting our thirst for the next instalment etc. – the new film is an otherwise extraordinary surprise. Against all odds, Vogt-Roberts has delivered one of the most bizarrely entertaining, legitimately thrilling and flat-out hilarious blockbusters to ever come out of Hollywood’s brand-extension machine.

This Kong is not a lazy rehash of the 1933 classic, a pointless revamp of the 1976 venture or a mere facsimile of Peter Jackson’s bloated 2005 effort. Skull Island is, instead, a new kind of cinematic beast, its creative bones rich with everything from the classic Toho kaiju movies of the sixties to Apocalypse Now. It is the platonic ideal of big, smart-dumb B-movie filmmaking – and, like Kong himself, it must be seen to be believed.

Among many of Vogt-Roberts’s clever ideas – well, him and his three screenwriters – is to set this new Kong in the early seventies, just as the United States is pulling out of Vietnam. (“Mark my words, Washington will never see a crazier time,” one character says early on.) As chaos envelopes Washington, a group of scientists led by John Goodman’s crackpot persuade the government to fund a military-aided mission to the title island, a last mad dash for space-age innovation before the Watergate scandal casts its decades-long shadow over the country.

The film’s unusual time-shift is partly used to serve the narrative – for instance, bestowing motivation to military hard-ass Lieutenant-Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), who’s looking for a new jungle war to fight post-Saigon, and finds it in on Skull Island. But the move also allows Vogt-Roberts to deploy delightfully retro-stylistic touches, with nearly every frame a Technicolor-coded homage to the period.

“Homage” is actually the mantra of Skull Island, so devoted is it to riffing on the cinema of Vogt-Roberts’s adolescence. Most obviously, there’s Francis Ford Coppola’s war epic, referenced in the story (a group of soldiers are sent off into the wild to find a living legend), soundtrack (no Doors here, but plenty of period-appropriate John Fogerty) and visuals (the chopper-flying troops first encounter Kong when he’s lit against a bright orange sun, an image that immediately calls to mind countless dorm-room Apocalypse Now posters). Tom Hiddleston’s lead mercenary is even named Conrad, for crying out loud.

But while the weight of Vogt-Roberts’s influences should be crushing, they instead elevate the exercise into something approaching cinematic glee. From the film’s opening frames, there’s little doubt Skull Island is intended to be fun, dammit – not another oh-so-serious meditation on chaos and destruction, although there’s plenty of that, too. As the director checks off his cinematic icons – Ray Harryhausen, Steven Spielberg, Park Chan-wook – his film becomes a bouncy, thrilling carnival ride of excess, encapsulating a sense of joy that seems foreign to the world of $100-million-plus projects.

All this, and Skull Island delivers the gift of an unhinged John C. Reilly performance, too. Playing a Second World War vet who became stranded on Kong’s turf when his plane was shot down, Reilly pops up in the middle of the film to deliver a further jolt of insanity to the proceedings, just as Dennis Hopper did when he crashed Captain Willard’s mission in Apocalypse Now.

With his bushy beard, wild eyes and sly delivery (rarely does the line, “I’m going to stab you by the end of the night” spark as much laughter as when Reilly utters it), the actor handily walks away from the film, stealing the show from the title creature himself.

Which is where Vogt-Roberts encounters his only misstep. His Kong is digitally rendered with a decent amount of attention and detail, but the beast’s action scenes – from fighting giant squids to fending off creatures Reilly nonchalantly describes as “Skullcrawlers … cause it sounds neat” – are mostly rote, uninspired bouts that consistently last two minutes too long.

Skull Island is a monster movie that needs to spend less time on the monsters and more time on the humans, which is both a critique and a compliment. Stacked against a game cast of not only Reilly, Jackson, Goodman and Hiddleston, but also a Fay Wray-ish Brie Larson, the always dependable Shea Whigham and Straight Outta Compton standouts Jason Mitchell and Corey Hawkins, the big furry guy hardly stands a chance.

(Also kicking around is Beijing star Jing Tian, but she gets almost no lines, leading the cynical to assume she’s only present to please China’s Dalian Wanda conglomerate, which owns Legendary Entertainment.)

Missteps aside – including the aforementioned post-credits scene, a needless coda of corporate synergy – Vogt-Roberts proves himself an exception to Hollywood’s recent obsession with plucking fresh talent from the film-fest circuit and grinding the creativity out of them. Skull Island is only the director’s second film (his first, the Sundance dramedy The Kings of Summer, cost roughly the amount of money needed to stylize Reilly’s facial hair), although it is ambitious enough to raise the question of just how he got away with it, when so many of his contemporaries (Colin Trevorrow, Marc Webb) have stuck to the same old staid studio formula.

For now, though, Vogt-Roberts should take pride in his remarkable feat. It must feel good to be king.

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