Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Kong: Skull Island

Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Jing Tian, Toby Kebbell, John Ortiz, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Terry Notary, John C. Reilly
Running Time: 118 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

A few important attributes set Kong: Skull Island apart from your typical spring blockbuster, while still entirely managing to entertain and enthrall as if it is one. For starters, it's a period piece, which is completely unfamiliar territory for an action franchise. It's not everyday critics and audiences would describe a Kong movie by referencing Vietnam or discussing a compilation of rock's greatest hits from the era on the soundtrack. That's not to say all of this works, or is even that groundbreaking, but it serves as icing on the cake, enhancing what's already a surprisingly well crafted production that feels less like a desperate cash grab than any other recent action vehicle or franchise reboot of the past few years. You may as well call it Apocalypse Kong, in not only its obvious allusions to that war classic, but the fact that there's some artistic value on display here that earns some of those comparisons. It's actually well directed, branded with a visual stamp that isn't easily forgettable, bringing to life a screenplay that gets the job done in successfully reintroducing an iconic character with a mixed on screen track record.

It's almost become a running joke how studios have been cherry-picking little known, critically acclaimed young, indie directors to helm these gigantic tentpole franchises. Why? They're relatively cheap, grateful for the opportunity to make the kind of awe-inspiring spectacle they grew up watching, and are more often than not willing to be pushed around a little (sometimes a lot) by the studio. Of course, using these filmmakers as a vessel to cram their vision down unsuspecting audiences throats doesn't come without risks since some directors will inevitably acclimate better than others. But for every Fantastic Four horror story, there's a Jurassic World or Godzilla, which is more than enough for them to justify continuing the approach. And as cynical as that all seems, sometimes a happy balance comes out of this that manages to satisfy both commercial and creative concerns.

In 2013, Jordan Vogt-Roberts wrote and directed a little movie called The Kings of Summer, and you can somehow tell the same person made this, despite it being over ten times the budget and scope. His vision successfully seeps through, proving he's one of the few indie filmmakers capable of mastering this sort of thing. We can't call him a sell-out, or at least if he is, does a good enough job hiding it, carefully threading that needle between mainstream acceptance and critical respect so many of his peers can't. And he does it in under two hours, thumbing his nose at the constant barrage of pointlessly overlong two and a half action spectacles we endure each year. Of course, we still get one of those universe-building post-credit sequence plugs. A brief, if unnecessary, reminder that no matter how well this worked, certain things will never change.

It's 1973 and with the U.S. just pulling out of Vietnam, senior government official with the Monarch organization, Bill Randa (John Goodman), seeks funding for an expedition to map out a mysterious location in the South Pacific cryptically known as "Skull Island" After meeting some initial resistance, he gets clearance to assemble a team, recruiting former British Special Air Service Captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) as their tracker, Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) and his Vietnam helicopter squadron as a military escort, backed by right-hand men Major Jack Chapman (Toby Kebbell) and Captain Earl Cole (Shea Whigham).

Joining them for the ride is Monarch's seismologist Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) and fesity, opinionated "anti-war" photojournalist Mason Weaver (Academy Award Winner Brie Larson). But immediately upon their arrival, it's clear this won't just be any expedition, as Packard's men begin dropping bombs that awaken a very angry Kong, who kills many of his men, leaving the remainder of the crew stranded and scattered on the island. But the giant ape may not be their biggest worry, with a more malevolent threat intent on making sure they never make it home.

Making its intentions clear early, the film's overall strategy stands in stark contrast to previous cinematic takes on the giant beast: Show Kong early and often. With little build-up other than brief introductions to the various characters and a few minutes designated to the assembly of the team, it's off to the island. There's no teasing here as Kong's impact is felt immediately, and once we lay eyes on him, it's obvious why they skipped the formalities and wanted to show him off.

A combination of CGI and motion capture performance, the monster (supposedly designed to invoke the 1930's version) looks as good as he ever has, instantly recognizable without really resembling the incarnation we saw in Peter Jackson's 2005 version, which also boasted fine effects work. It would be easy to call this design better, but it's probably more accurate to describe it as a little more expressive and distinctive enough for this reboot needed to step out from the shadows of its predecessors. As far as the creatively inspired call to set the story in the post-Vietnam, Nixon-era 1970's, it does give the narrative some thematic legs it wouldn't otherwise have, both in regard to certain characters' motivations and many of the aesthetic choices made. And it's those decisions, which to a point give this a look and feel similar to films from that period, is far and away the most captivating aspect of the entire production.

Ironically, an overstuffed soundtrack compilation of 60's and 70's hits do more to hurt that feeling than help since the plot and visuals were already doing a fine enough job. Calling this a great soundtrack wouldn't necessarily be wrong in terms of song choices, but it does beg the question whether it's possible to have too much of a good thing. A more conservative placement of music at carefully curated key moments probably would have been far more effective and impactful than drenching the first third of the picture in every famous classic rock song the studio was able to get their hands on. Henry Jackman's psychedelic, period-specific score goes a longer way in invoking the mood they're going for, and proves less distracting.

And since the priority is showing Kong as early as possible, the characters at first seem thinly drawn, at least until all hell breaks loose on the island and we find out who's made of what. Billed as the lead, Tom Hiddleston probably has the least developed character of the bunch, playing a one-dimensional heroic character who doesn't necessarily do anything heroic enough to stand out in any way. It's through no fault of his own that the screenplay is more interested in those who have a direct emotional connection to Kong. As Packard, Samuel L. Jackson returns to the same angry agitator that's been his stock in trade since the 90's, but this is actually one of his better performances since there's at least some motivation behind it, and as detestable as he is, the intentions behind his villainous behavior fit.

When Packard's obsession with downing Kong careens out of control,  the most dissenting voice is that of awesomely named photographer Mason Weaver, who's played by Brie Larson in her first post-Oscar role. In many ways she's the film's true focal point, with her character representing one of the biggest deviations from Kong's long outdated "damsel in distress" mythology. Unlike Fay Wray, Jessica Lange, or Naomi Watts, she isn't window dressing or set up as a love interest for the ape as we've seen in the past. It's of little surprise she's even great in something like this, with one particular scene providing what's sure to go down as the the film's most memorable visual. And to top it off, she looks like a total badass shooting a flare gun, squashing any concerns about her playing a screen hero, super or otherwise.

Skull Island works best when taking itself dead seriously, faltering only when it pauses for jokes. It's not as guilty as something like The Martian in that regard, but there's a time and place for that so it isn't unfair to wish the writers were more judicious in picking their spots. The only time it really works is whenever John C. Reilly's wisecracking Hank Marlow appears, a World War II lieutenant who crash landed on the island almost thirty years prior and makes it his mission to get this crew home.  That has more to do with the fact that it's Reilly playing him but there's no denying it's the strongest sub-plot, rightfully taking center stage at the end.

While most franchise movies die a slow, painful death near the two hour mark and limp for another thirty minutes to the finish line, this one not only avoids overstaying its welcome, but actually picks up steam. And because everything is so well directed and it looks and feels like the work of a real visual artist, it's almost impossible not to get greedy and wish for even more from the script. Or more accurately, less. As a franchise action movie with compelling action sequences, you also can't help but wonder how much of a difference it would make if this were a hard 'R' and they really went for the jugular, forgoing commercial concerns altogether. It may or may not have been as fun, but it's hard to take issue with what we get, which successfully signals that the iconic Kong is back with a vengeance. 

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