I told this story when I reviewed Gareth Edwards’ fantastic Godzilla, but I’ll tell it again. One of the first encounters with the movies that I can remember having came when I was about 5 or 6. In the middle of the night, my dad woke me up and took me out in front of our television set. On it was the 1962 King Kong vs. Godzilla, and it was the final fight scene between the two. For the next 5-10 minutes I was mesmerized watching these two giant monsters grapple with each other, eventually tumbling into the ocean killing one another. I’d never seen anything like that before, and it blew my tiny mind. From then on Godzilla defined my childhood, I religiously watched every Godzilla film I could get my hands on. King Kong never had the amount of films and cultural influence that Godzilla did, but I always held him in high regard. Kong: Skull Island is pretty messy and uneven, but at it’s best, it returned me to my childhood, to the glory of watching monsters on film.
Jordan Vogt-Roberts was always an interesting choice to helm a monster movie, especially a King Kong film. Back in 2013, my friend and I walked into his The Kings of Summer, and came out having seen one of our favorite surprises that year. It was hilarious and emotional and just a really fun film. So you take a guy that’s only done one independent film and toss him into a big budget franchise monster film, at a certain point the guy just gets overwhelmed. But to his credit, he does create some terrific sequences. The opening scene is fantastically giddy with such a B-movie energy, imagine a monster movie by way of Sam Raimi or Edgar Wright. To be honest, this film only needs to really do one thing great, which is the King Kong fights, and it does. If you’ve ever wanted to watch King Kong bust out wrestling moves to fight large reptiles, we’ve got the film for you. It’s like Vogt-Roberts just binged all the Wrestlemania he could, showed it to the crew and said “Let’s do that shit” and it’s amazing. Kong is jumping from the top of the ropes, doing piledrives, suplexes, I saw something resembling a stunner, and using props to beat the shit out of monsters – there are several “steel chair” moments where he just grabs whatever is around and uses it as a weapon to turn the tide of the fight. I was laughing with utter thrill during these fight scenes.
There are 4 tiers of actors in this film. You got your arthouse A-listers (Brie Larson, Tom Hiddleston), your career vets (Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman), character actor MVPs (Shea Whigham,John Ortiz, Marc Evan Jackson, Toby Kebbell, Richard Jenkins) and a crop of young talent on the rise (Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Thomas Mann, Jing Tian, Eugene Cordero). That’s a lot of characters to juggle, and Vogt-Roberts does drop a few in his attempt to keep it all together. Hiddleston and Larson end up being the least interesting characters – I suppose somebody had to take the fall with this many on screen, it’s just a shame it happened to the characters we’re supposed to take as our leads.
It’s here I’d like to start campaigning for John C. Reilly’s Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for next year. Reilly is an actor that has never once phoned in a performance, and it’s no different here. He’s always been a terrific 6th man, coming off the bench and electrifying the court no matter the situation. It’s not often you watch an actor come into a movie halfway through in a supporting role, look around, see the film is starting to slump, say “I got this guys, hold my beer” and just toss the whole film on his back and run through hellfire to rescue it. As much humor as Reilly injects into the film, he also puts a lot of heart into his character of Hank Marlow, a soldier that’s been stranded on the island since WWII. You kind of wish he’d been the focus of the film all along, because he carries so much momentum when he’s on screen. The film just becomes alive when he’s there, there’s a dramatic stake and emotional attachment you feel for this guy. If you see this film, hopefully you’ll understand what I mean.
The biggest problem with Kong is that it kind of tries to be all films to all people. You got your monster film, your Vietnam war film, your study of man vs. nature, you got your setup for the upcoming King Kong vs. Godzilla in 2020, and a character driven piece about trying to go home. You can tell 4 different people had a pass at the script, and as talented as I believe Vogt-Roberts is, he just can’t bring it all together. If anything though, Kong: Skull Island can at least claim the spot of the 2nd best Kong film. That sounds more backhanded of a compliment than I want it to. It’s like being the 2nd best player on the Thunder – good for you, but you’re still nowhere close to Russell Westbrook. Because this film needs to also set things up for future films, there’s an end credit sequence that has the child in me giddy as can be. I won’t discuss it here, but if you see me on the street, please talk to me about it. The adult in me was left wanting a bit more of Kong: Skull Island, but the child in me was having a blast, which is far more important to me.