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Kong: Skull Island Movie Review

Kong: Skull Island Blu-ray 3D + Blu-ray + Digital HD cover art
Kong: Skull Island is now available on home video. Read our review of the Blu-ray 3D.

Kong: Skull Island (2017) movie poster Kong: Skull Island

Theatrical Release: March 10, 2017 / Running Time: 120 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts / Writers: Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Connolly (screenplay); John Gatins (story)

Cast: Tom Hiddleston (James Conrad), Samuel L. Jackson (Preston Packard), Brie Larson (Mason Weaver), John C. Reilly (Hank Marlow), John Goodman (Bill Randa), Corey Hawkins (Houston Brooks), John Ortiz (Victor Nieves), Jiang Tian (San), Toby Kebbell (Jack Chapman), Jason Mitchell (Mills), Shea Whigham (Cole), Thomas Mann (Slivko), Eugene Cordero (Reles), Marc Evan Jackson (Landsat Steve), Will Brittain (Young Marlow, Marlow's Son), Miyavi (Gunpei Ikari), Richard Jenkins (Senator Willis)

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Though time has turned it into landmark cinema, the original 1933 King Kong was a monster movie. Sure, you could read into it and find some still-meaningful social messages, but it was still a movie about a giant ape endangering others and himself. That's one big reason why Peter Jackson's 2005 remake, made as an excessively epic prestige film, felt off.
Now, twelve years after that expensive showcase of motion capture visual effects, the dormant franchise is resurrected not at Universal but at Warner Bros. Pictures in the form of Kong: Skull Island.

"Finally! Another King Kong movie!" is probably not the reaction of most people upon discovering this project. More than ever before, though, film culture is all about tentpoles and recognizable brands. The mid-sized movie has largely disappeared in favor of bigger and bigger budgeted fare designed to play to crowds all over the world. Skull Island is clearly born more out of this culture than anything resembling pent-up demand.

Wisely, Warner's film cannot be easily called a sequel. I'm not sure how you should classify it, actually, but the words "aspiring reboot" spring to mind. It requires knowledge of no previous Kong adventure and in fact asks moviegoers no more than to sit back and enjoy the ride. Even if this were opening at Christmas the way Jackson's version did, no one would find any serious film aspirations here. Despite the unabashedly sentimental end credits, this is purely a popcorn movie and one that opening the week between the hit Logan and blockbuster-to-be Beauty and the Beast gives it unusually heavy competition far removed from the traditionally busy summer and holiday seasons where expectations have long been higher and scrutiny more intense.

Guns and a camera are drawn when James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), and Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly) find themselves surrounded by dangerous beasts in "Kong: Skull Island."

After a prologue sees enemy pilots parachuting down on a desert jungle island during World War II, the rest of the movie takes place in 1973, shortly following the US' exit from the Vietnam War. That setting has two obvious effects. One, it gives the filmmakers a reason to populate the soundtrack with the same types of catchy period tunes you loved in movies like Remember the Titans and Guardians of the Galaxy. Two, it lets them take inspiration from probably the greatest Vietnam War movie of all time, Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now.

That dark, soul-searching journey is evoked several times. One assumes it is a favorite film of director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, whom like Jurassic World's Colin Trevorrow, arrives here having helmed one warmly-received, but little-seen indie comedy (Vogt-Roberts' is 2013's The Kings of Summer). Another seeming model for this would be any of the movies with Jurassic in their title, though as the gold standard Spielberg's original Park is the biggest influence (even if one of four credited writers was also among those billed on World).

Anyhow, in 1973, a top-secret mission is arranged for a party to visit a mysterious island whose surrounding storm systems have made it impossible to access. Hired for big bucks to guide the mission is James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), an expert British hunter-tracker. Also on hand are a US Army Lt. Colonel (Samuel L. Jackson) with some lingering bitterness for how things played out in 'Nam, a pretty but serious war photographer (Brie Larson, using her Room Oscar for...a hopefully fair payday), some young American soldiers who were ready to go back home, a couple of scientists, and the government official (John Goodman) who conceived the mission.

Kong stands tall and solemn as he watches outsiders enter Skull Island for the first time in decades.

These diverse strangers arrive at Skull Island and swiftly have their minds blown by the sight of the giant,
helicopter-swatting ape Kong. He's not the only fantastic beast calling this place home. There are also giant skeletal lizards, an enormous water buffalo, humongous spiders, some snatchy airborne things, and allegedly gigantic ants we hear once but never see. Basically, it's Jurassic Park without the prehistoric foundation and amber-preserved mosquitoes.

Kong: Skull Island is not a smart movie, but it is more often than not a fun one. The real star? Not Kong himself, any of the impressively visualized creatures, or the respected top-billed actors. No, the real MVP is John C. Reilly, who injects the proceedings with regular humor as Hank Marlow, the wildly-bearded World War II vet castaway of the prologue, who has spent the past 29 years living here, losing his mind, missing the Cubs and his wife, and remaining in harmony with the silent natives. More Dennis Hopper's photojournalist than Colonel Kurtz, Reilly has all of the biggest laughs of the movie. Not only that, but he also supplies some welcome heart, putting this journey into the context of a life that turned out much different than expected. If the Oscars were more open minded and not so far away, this performance would be a Supporting Actor contender.

You might wish Kong had more humor or maybe even more heart overall. But the target audience may just want to see big creatures doing stuff and they indeed get that here. The action seems almost a tad subdued. That may not be the word that those releasing a $190 million effects-heavy movie want to hear, but it actually makes this a more enjoyable viewing than the previous Warner tentpole it most resembles (The Legend of Tarzan) and a lot of big movies that are content to just be loud, busy, and dumb.

Kong almost certainly won't have the same drawing power as the bold send-off Logan or the much-anticipated Beauty, which may make you question the wisdom of Warner trying to go big again this March a year after doing so with Batman v Superman. But, so long as you go in with the right expectations and can get over the fact that yes, Hollywood is returning to the King Kong well, you might find this endeavor somewhere between perfectly harmless and consistently diverting.

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Related Reviews:
Kong: Skull Island (Blu-ray 3D + Blu-ray + Digital HD)
Now in Theaters: Logan Beauty and the Beast Get Out Before I Fall The Great Wall
The Legend of Tarzan Jurassic Park Apocalypse Now Guardians of the Galaxy X-Men: Days of Future Past Remember the Titans
From the Writers: Godzilla (2014) Jurassic World Nightcrawler Real Steel Flight Need for Speed
Tom Hiddleston: Thor Crimson Peak Midnight in Paris | Brie Larson: Room Scott Pilgrim vs the World
Samuel L. Jackson: The Hateful Eight The Incredibles | John Goodman: 10 Cloverfield Lane Arachnophobia Argo The Monuments Men
John C. Reilly: Check It Out with Dr. Steve Brule: Seasons 1 & 2 Step Brothers Wreck-It Ralph
Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts: The Kings of Summer

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Reviewed March 8, 2017.

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