Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, John Goodman. Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts. Rated PG-13. 118 minutes. 2017.
I hesitate to call Kong: Skull Island a “good” movie, for it is also a movie of undeniable idiocy that contains an ensemble of characters who are really just cutout cardboard figures in the path of the ape of the surtitle. To embrace its simple pleasures, though, one must disconnect with one’s own expectations of seeing a movie with Kong in it, for this is not really a traditional King Kong movie. It uses the character popularized by the 1933, 1976, and 2005 pictures (and the various sequels they might or might not have spawned) as a springboard for an ensemble-driven action-comedy that, if the post-credits stinger is to be believed, wishes to insert the eighth wonder of the world into a new cinematic universe. Whether that franchise has legs remains to be seen, but it’s also immaterial to this film, which is just a lot of expository build-up to a string of action sequences.
The human characters matter approximately none, but we are still offered an eccentric cast of them, played by an eccentric troupe of actors. There is the expedition group that leads the charge of the main narrative engine: John Goodman as Bill Randa, who heads an ultra-secret government group that wants to explore the untapped terrain of a recently discovered island, Corey Hawkins as Houston Brooks, the college kid confronted by Randa because of his theory that the earth holds secrets, and Tian Jang as San, who just kind of exists to echo Brooks’s confidence in his theory. They confront a military colonel to green-light their expedition, which of course involves also green-lighting a military escort, a tracker who can guide them through the muck of the island, and a photographer to capture the journey for scientific and journalistic purposes.
The military escort is led by Samuel L. Jackson as Preston Packard, a soldier fighting in Da Nang who believes the U.S. has abandoned the war in Vietnam when President Richard Nixon calls it off. He’s grateful for one last mission, even one as seemingly trivial as an escort for a scientific study, and spends the rest of the movie apparently feeling he is still in combat with the human enemy. His men, who are mostly interchangeable, are still played by the personality-driven likes of Toby Kebbell, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, and Eugene Cordero. Tom Hiddleston is James Conrad, the tracker in question, and Brie Larson is Mason Weaver, a photojournalist who passes up the cover of a popular magazine to tag along on something historic.
That seems like a lot of introduction to characters that, this review claims, don’t matter, but that’s also all the introduction we get. They are cutout cardboard stand-ins for the audience, with the exception of John C. Reilly, who is boatloads of fun when he shows up as Hank Marlow, a WWII veteran who was marooned on the island of the subtitle before his deployment ended. The real story of the movie kicks in when they reach the island. They encounter Kong (whose movements are provided by Kebbell via motion-capture) immediately in a superbly mounted scene of controlled chaos in which Kong considers the helicopters in which they arrive to be nothing more than giant gnats. The beast isn’t so much a tragic one here, though, as a territorial one, even more so when the interfering humans awaken the creatures that reside underground: They are fearsome beasties – giant lizards with lots of teeth.
There are yet more monsters on this island, such as an inexplicable cross between a bison and a leviathan or a far less mysterious arachnid with bamboo legs. The spectacle here is enormous and infectious, with screenwriters Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, and Derek Connelly keeping the tone light while director Jordan Vogt-Roberts approaches the genuinely berserk action violence with as much aplomb as anyone has recently. The film exists for the sole purpose of witnessing various evolutionary nightmares do battle and seeing foolish humans come between them. It’s all very inconsequential, frequently dumb-as-rocks, and almost exclusively successful in a way that requires one immediately discard one’s brain at the door, but Kong: Skull Island works, and it works because it knows it is all of these things. Sometimes, good-enough is good enough.