Saturday 6 June 2020

On demand: "Kong: Skull Island"

The second film in self-aggrandising producers Legendary Entertainment's so-called Monsterverse - after the 2014 Godzilla - Kong: Skull Island credits three screenwriters (Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connelly), but often feels as though a half-dozen more were involved at some level. Here is another recent example of event-movie-as-conceptual-spitbucket, sloshing around ideas coughed up by multiple sources, some of them stickier and more contagious than others. The big one has been to reframe Kong within the context of 20th century American history. A neat prologue, arguably the best sustained stretch of storytelling in an otherwise restless and distractible two hours, finds Allied and Japanese fighter pilots bailing out of their stricken plans and engaging in mano-a-mano combat until a giant monkey paw slams down beside them; the feature proper fast-forwards ahead to the end of the Vietnam war. ("I won't see Washington in a sorrier state in my lifetime," mutters shady powerbroker John Goodman, aiming for snorts for viewers looking on in 2017.) Between the laying down of some very boring Monsterverse infrastructure - the event-movie equivalent of parish notices, establishing this as a world where freaky creatures run amok beneath the Earth's surface - an exploratory party is assembled and dispatched to the titular isle. These include Goodman, a platoon of grunts led by Samuel L. Jackson, a mercenary played by a newly buff Tom Hiddleston, Timotei-haired photojournalist/bystander Brie Larson (given the most thankless task: play Fay Wray as if she were an afterthought), a few semi-familiar faces (the head demon from The Good Place, Generic Teen Boy #1142, Shea Whigham) and a lot of cannon fodder because, well, why not? The Chinese were picking up the tab on this one, so for once a non-MCU studio actioner had money to throw around like monkey poop.

Does anything take root in it? For a while, the ideas the film seeds seem regrettably spread out, or just plain thin. Any residual mystery surrounding Kong as a character is comprehensively dispelled by having him swat the party's helicopters in a first act so in thrall to a certain Coppola movie (blazing sunsets, characters called Conrad) that I wondered which of my colleagues would have been first to the Ape-ocalypse Now joke. Thereafter, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts - stepping up from his breakout Sundance sensation The Kings of Summer - turns the floor over to his VFX supervisors, who shuttle on variously outsized bugs and beasties (a big yak, a bigger spider, massive squid, whopping great lizards spoken of as Skull Crushers) to keep us oohing and aahing before the star of the show returns for his closing number and a final close-up. Mostly, the director's duties are limited to assembling a playlist of 1970s rock hits while retaining a wide-eyed, Boys Own-y spirit that feels like the project's saving grace: it certainly helps him in those scenes involving the Skull Island tribespeople, a potential stumbling block for a 21st century blockbuster, and he gains an ally when the explorers encounter John C. Reilly as a US airman with a Rip van Winkle beard who's been living peaceably on the island since his plane took a nosedive in 1944.

Here is the only one of the film's three dozen characters who's been handed anything like a satisfying arc (and even that's more like a simple makeover: he gets a trim and a cap that leaves the actor looking like his Stonewall Jackson in Anchorman 2); still, it's around him that the film comes closest to developing an actual personality. (His fallen flying fortress The Grey Fox yields one good line: "That thing looks as if it's made out of tetanus.") You suspect Reilly had far less of his material cut than either Goodman or Jackson, who mostly have to sit around lovely-looking Pacific scenery waiting to be picked up, in part because the movie hasn't a militaristic bone in its body with which to raise the fierce fight their characters might relish. The final act, indeed, is but a cartoon rerun of Vietnam, marked by the now-standard 12A-rated peril (plentiful pixels laying siege to one another) and a reluctance to do anything too life-threatening with the primate star of the franchise. The next Monsterverse production, 2019's Godzilla: King of the Monsters, intended to set up some future Kong-Godzilla face-off, was by most accounts a dud; this one passes the time amiably enough, without ever coming close to matching the sheer weight of fanboy enthusiasm Peter Jackson threw at his Kong, or indeed the indelible images and pulp poetry of the 1933 original.

Kong: Skull Island is available to stream via Amazon Prime, and on DVD through Warner Home Video.

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