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Friday, March 10, 2017

Kong: Skull Island



Kong: Skull Island will make you love the smell of giant gorillas in the morning. A rollicking King Kong meets Apocalypse Now mashup, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts' Kong: Skull Island throws out the hoary old rulebook about how to do a King Kong movie. No, Kong is not ape-napped and brought back to New York City to go on a rampage. Seeing that monkey fall off the Empire State Building is like watching Bruce Wayne's parents get shot in that alley or Uncle Ben get murdered. Kong: Skull Island has other, much better ideas, and by the time the dust settles, the horrific other monsters on the Island are dead, and Kong beats his chest in triumph, we realize with delight that the planned MonsterVerse is just getting started. 

Set in 1973 at the conclusion of the Vietnam War, John Goodman, representing a shadowy organization called Monarch (they're like S.H.I.E.L.D. except they're all about giant monsters), bamboozles the US Military to back his expedition to the mysterious Skull Island - the only unexplored region on the map which is surrounded by perpetual storm clouds. Goodman has a motley crew with him: a platoon of soldiers led by Samuel L. Jackson, Monarch scientists Corey Hawkins and Jing Tian (from The Great Wall), photographer Brie Larson, and a former British SAS officer who's a expert in tracking through jungle terrain, Tom Hiddleston. They storm the island in a fleet of thirteen attack helicopters, dropping seismic bombs throughout the jungle, and they immediately raise the ire of Kong - the island's 104 foot tall gorilla protector. Kong is god around here, and the soldiers didn't know what hit them (trees thrown like javelins, Kong's big hands swatting the whirly birds down like flies) until most of them were already exploded.

Jackson - who says "Hold onto your butts!" for the first time since 1993; the mark of monster movie quality - immediately undergoes a psychotic form of jungle fever and declares war on Kong. Hiddleston, Larson, and some of the other survivors, separated from Jackson and his men, realize something even worse is happening on this crazy island. They meet John C. Reilly, a slightly loopy American World War II vet who crashed on Skull Island and survived for 28 years. Through Reilly, we get the wild info dump about Skull Island: it's a gateway for what's known as the "Hollow Earth" theory, that giant monsters lived on this planet long before Man and still reside in massive caverns underneath the surface. Through Skull Island, some can escape. Kong exists to fight them and kill them if they do. Skull Island is in fact crawling with all kinds of murderous beasts - giant spiders, flocks of killer birds, trees that are really enormous wooden insects - and not so dangerous, like gigantic water buffaloes. The worst are the Skull Crawlers, giant two armed lizards that killed Kong's family, leaving their skeletons in a massive Boneyard on the island. Kong is the last of his kind; if Kong goes, the whole island falls to the monsters.

Kong: Skull Island pushes all the right nerd buttons, especially for Marvel nerds. Through its sly casting, basically Loki, Captain Marvel, Nick Fury, Doctor Doom (Toby Kebbell), and Corpsman Dey from the Nova Corps all landed on the Savage Land. It's a pleasing multi-national cast where everyone is completely game; the characters are smart and make reasonable choices when faced with surviving an unbelievably dangerous environment. Jackson becomes deliciously unhinged, staring down the enormous Kong with rage in his eyes. Hiddleston is a solid and heroic center of gravity. Maybe the biggest bad ass of all the humans is Larson; while everyone else faces the giant monsters armed with guns, grenades and samurai swords, Larson only has a camera. She's the blonde woman in the group but she's no damsel in distress. Larson bravely risks her neck out there just the same. When Larson and Hiddleston meet Kong, it's happily a more Spielbergian Jurassic Park than screaming Fay Wray moment. As for Kong, we see loads of him in broad daylight, and he's magnificent. Kong's final battle with the Skull Crawler is appropriately awesome, with Kong using a ship's propeller and a chain as a weapon, overcoming the Skull Crawler with a little help from his new human friends. All of this is set to a blazing soundtrack of some of the finest 1970's rock.

In every measurable way, Kong: Skull Island is superior to every other King Kong movie since the 1933 original classic, and it's worlds better than the 2014 Godzilla. Setting Skull Island in the 1970's was a savvy move; we've seen Godzilla tear apart our modern day cities and fight our modern day military. The retro-feel of more "innocent" Vietnam-era grunts facing giant monsters delivers a lot more analog fun. By the time the end credits finish rolling, Hiddleston and Larson are recruited not exactly kicking and screaming into Monarch - a nod to Nick Fury informing Tony Stark about the Avengers Initiative at the end of the first Iron Man. Hiddleston and Larson are shown cave drawings of some other familiar monster sights to Japanese kaiju nerds: Godzilla, Rodan, King Ghidorah, and Mothra. "Kong may be King, but there are other kings," Skull Island announces - a promise that Kong's monkey troubles are just beginning.