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‘Kong: Skull Island’ does and does not monkey around

“Kong: Skull Island” – “This place is hell.”

An apprehensive visitor to a previously uncharted isle in the Pacific Ocean, Skull Island, appropriately describes the location as Hades. Why? Well, for starters, Skull Island is eerily – and I suppose, predictably - shaped like a skull, which cannot bode well for local tourism. Even worse, planes and boats traveling near the island have reportedly disappeared, perhaps “eaten” by a violent low pressure system - best resembling a Category 5 hurricane - encircling the place 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and 52 weeks a year.

And you thought your February trip to Seattle was challenging?

Allegedly, this island has not been explored by humans, but its shape and problematic weather patterns do not deter scientists Bill Randa (John Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) in the least. They recruit a military escort and an experienced tracker, James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), to march into the unknown and chart the previously uncharted.

Before leaving Saigon for Skull Island in 1973, James lists all of the ways that the Randa/Brooks contingent could die on this journey and recites, “Rain, heat, disease-carrying flies, and we haven’t started on all the things that want to eat you alive.”

Oh, Mr. Conrad could not be more correct about his final point. In “Kong: Skull Island”, the latest King Kong film, the famous ape may not necessarily wish to eat you alive, but hordes of odd, dangerous species on his island home certainly do.

Think “Jurassic Park” (1993) without the cool rides and amusement park infrastructure, but include malaria-infested waters and a primitive, wide-open tropical rain forest with almost nowhere to hide.

Jordan Vogt-Roberts – who directed the indie comedy, “The Kings of Summer” (2013), about three teens living in a tree house for a few months, just out of reach of suburbia – creates another film in the wilderness, but this one is a high-octane action picture, featuring one of Hollywood’s greatest movie monsters, and he connects. Vogt-Roberts connects with his audience, looking for massive, well-choreographed battles between King Kong and hideous creatures and human visitors alike.

The showcase clash versus people is a wild and lengthy helicopter fight with Randa and Brooks’ military escorts in an exposed valley, where Kong can be seen in plain view. As the copters zip and zag around the gigantic gorilla, one immediately recognizes the ode to Kong films of the past, sans a New York City skyscraper. This is simply one of Vogt-Roberts’ many looks into Kong’s history as well as ours, which also include the repercussions of nuclear testing in the South Pacific and the end to the Vietnam War.

Samuel L. Jackson spins an effectively steely character (who he can play blindfolded) named Lt. Col. Preston Packard. Lt. Col. Packard hates that his fighting days are over and still feels the itch to trade blows, and Kong is a perfect target. This bitter soldier does bravely lead troops and civilians on an excursion into a nightmarish ecosystem, but this collective group becomes physically separated and then emotionally split about their feelings for Kong.

Not only are the monsters - in addition to Kong - massive, but the film’s cast is too. Too big. With seemingly 16 soldiers and civilians, Roberts attempts to highlight each one. While one can admire the willingness to grant a signature moment or two for everyone, there is not enough movie runtime to properly connect with each character. Tian Jing and Corey Hawkins’ screen time is completely wasted with random fills of unimportant blather. Thomas Mann, Toby Kebbell and Eugene Cordero engage in familiar soldier speak heard in every war movie that you have ever seen, but with the gravitas and urgency of buying a pack of gum at a convenience store. Brie Larson is not given much to do either, however, she plays an important role in the film’s third act.

Goodman, Hiddleston and Jackson work their hero-magic when asked, but John C. Reilly brings much needed humor and oddball silliness to the screen. Except for Hank’s (Reilly) continuous and welcome assertions of charm and absurdity, “Kong: Skull Island” plays it straight and serious. In fact, Reilly becomes a leading costar of sorts, alongside Kong. While audiences enjoy the ferocious pageantry of 10-story monsters beating and chewing each other into bits, Reilly’s Hank is about the only memorable human character.

The soundtrack attempts to memorialize the period with a constant – and after a while, very tiresome and distracting – array of Black Sabbath and Creedence Clearwater Revival tunes during various montages and temporary stops in the action. Unfortunately, this movie tries way, way too hard in a classic case of more equals less.

As far as actual King Kong sightings on the big screen, Vogt-Roberts thankfully subscribes to a winning formula of more equals more, including a surprising first look at the humongous star within the film’s opening minutes. Yes, King Kong unquestionably knows how to raise – and bask in - hell, and all of our inner-teenagers will reap the benefits.

(2.5/4 stars)

Image credits: Warner Bros. Pictures

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