Monday, March 13, 2017

In Theaters: KONG: SKULL ISLAND (2017)

(US/China - 2017)

Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts. Written by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly. Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, Terry Notary, Toby Kebbell, Jing Tian, John Ortiz, Shea Whigham, Richard Jenkins, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Thomas Mann, Eugene Cordero, Mark Evan Jackson, Will Brittain, Miyavi, Robert Taylor. (PG-13, 118 mins)

Not a follow-up to Peter Jackson's 2005 version of KING KONG, but instead the second installment of Warner/Legendary's "MonsterVerse" franchise after 2014's GODZILLA, KONG: SKULL ISLAND delivers the monster mega-throwdown that audiences want, but is lacking almost everywhere else. It follows the JURASSIC WORLD template right down to hiring one of that film's writers (Derek Connolly) and handing directing chores to a relative newcomer with zero genre experience in Jordan Vogt-Roberts. Vogt-Roberts gives you what you want with huge CGI monster mayhem, but gets tripped up in the rest, which amounts to little more than a tribute to APOCALYPSE NOW. Set in 1973 at the end of the Vietnam War for no discernible reason other than kitschy production design and a classic rock soundtrack, KONG opens with Bill Randa (John Goodman), the head of a secret government outfit known as Monarch, requesting that he and seismologist Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) get a military escort to the uncharted "Skull Island" in the South Pacific for mapping purposes. Assigned to accompany Randa and Brooks is a helicopter squadron led by hardass warrior Col. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), with Randa bringing along high-priced mercenary tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and anti-war photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson). Monarch isn't there to map an island, as everyone soon finds out when a giant ape starts swatting choppers out of the sky. Survivors are scattered into three groups--one with Conrad, Weaver, biologist San (Jing Tian),and some soldiers, another with Packard, Randa and a few other soldiers, and a third consisting of soldier Chapman (Toby Kebbell), who's left on his own.

Conrad's group eventually find their way to a cordoned-off settlement where the natives live with Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), an affable, madman-bearded WWII pilot who was shot down over Skull Island in 1944 and presumed dead. Marlow informs them that "Kong is king around here," and protects Skull Island from an assortment of giant spiders and octopi but also the "Skullcrawlers," subterranean lizard creatures that live under the earth and are kept in check by his patrolling presence. Randa and Brooks--whose real mission is to prove the existence of these monsters--set off charges on the flight in and brought the Skullcrawlers to the surface. The situation is made worse by an increasingly unhinged Packard, who wants revenge on Kong for the death of his soldiers and is willing to sacrifice the lives of everyone to get it. Eventually, all parties band together to make the three-day trek to a rendezvous point as they haplessly try to evade being devoured by the Skullcrawlers and stop Packard from killing Kong.

Budgeted in the vicinity of $185 million, KONG: SKULL ISLAND has some spectacular Kong vs. creature brawls and at least corrects the mistakes of Gareth Edwards' GODZILLA by actually giving the title creature plenty of screen time (Kong is motion-captured by both Terry Notary and Kebbell, who pulls double duty along with his role as Chapman). But when the humans are taking center stage, things take a turn for the dreadful. Vogt-Roberts' endless APOCALYPSE NOW shout-outs are nice for a while, but get old quickly (there's also a shot with Shea Whigham that recalls a big Willem Dafoe moment in PLATOON), and the overcrowded cast is left with material that's pretty lacking. The script keeps forcing smart actors to play characters who do dumb things, and Reilly seems to be the only one having any fun. Jackson is cast radically against type as "Samuel L. Jackson," and about the 25th time we get a wild-eyed closeup where furious face is juxtaposed with a glaring Kong, you're tempted to shout "We get it...he's more dangerous than Kong!" Goodman has nothing to do once they get to Skull Island, Jing (recently seen in THE GREAT WALL) is given even less and may as well be wearing a T-shirt that says "Chinese co-production obligation," and Hiddleston and especially Larson look bored out of their minds, obviously cashing a fat paycheck in between serious gigs. Vogt-Roberts scores some points for pulling off some surprising kills that don't necessarily follow the order of billing, but the soundtrack is an annoying greatest hits package of predictable classic rock staples. Why is Black Sabbath's "Paranoid" being played on the flight to Skull Island? Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" during a Saigon bar scene? Check. The Chambers Brothers' "Time Has Come Today" played over Vietnam protests? Check. CCR's "Run Through the Jungle" heard as characters run through the jungle? Check, and give us a fucking break. Nit-picking? Perhaps. But it's indicative of a lack of imagination and the fact that this is a business deal with little feel for the classic that inspired it, regardless of occasional cute bits like a briefly-glimpsed file for a guy named "Cooper Schoedsack." There's no denying KONG: SKULL ISLAND delivers on the action, moves briskly, and is never boring, but the wildly uneven tone, the terrible script (with contributions by GODZILLA co-writer Max Borenstein and NIGHTCRAWLER writer/director Dan Gilroy), and the obvious going-through-the-motions demeanor of most of the cast take some of the fun out of it.

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