Viet Kong Inoffensive
Well, with the Oscars out the way, the decks are clear for an onslaught of releases which a few years ago would have been cheerful, unpretentious genre movies. These days, of course, everyone wants a slice of the megafranchise action that Marvel Studios has been concocting over the last few years, regardless of whether or not their material really fits the bill: out in a couple of months is a DC comics movie that for once looks like it won't be actively painful to watch, while we are also promised the actual real first episode of Universal's, er, Universal Monsters franchise (Dracula Untold has apparently been stricken from the record), while first off the blocks, representing Legendary Pictures' rather similarly-titled MonsterVerse (put those lawyers on standby!), is Kong: Skull Island, directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts.
The year is 1973, and the Vietnam War is coming to its messy conclusion. 'Things are never going to be this messed up in Washington again,' declares Bill Randa (John Goodman), which at the very least is a felicitously knowing first line for a movie these days. Randa is high-up inside a secret agency named Monarch, whose mission statement is to hunt down Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms (or giant monsters to you and I). However, Godzilla's visit to San Francisco is still forty years off, and to pass the time until then Randa gets himself and his team onto a US government mission to a newly-discovered island in the Pacific, surrounded by a perpetual storm system and – perhaps – containing a bizarre ecosystem the likes of which no-one has even suspected before.
Providing a military escort for the explorers is the possibly-unstable Colonel Packard (Samuel L Jackson) and his helicopter squadron, while also along for the ride are photojournalist Mason (Brie Larson) and ex-SAS guide James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston). Randa's list of things to do on their visit to Skull Island, when they finally get there, starts with 'drop bombs everywhere' (the wafer-thin pretext is that this is to assist with a geological survey), which annoys at least one of the island's inhabitants: one of the chopper pilots barely has time to say 'Is that a monkey?' before the squadron is involved in a pitched battle with...
Well, come on guys, the movie is called 'Kong', who do you think it is? It's a bit of a divergence from standard monster movie grammar to wheel on the big beast in the first act, but the movie pulls it off, I would say. In the aftermath of the battle, the survivors regroup and start to think about getting home alive. But, naturally, it's not going to be that easy, and many discoveries await: lurking on the island are all sorts of monsters, which seem intent on eating our heroes, and also John C Reilly as a stranded Second World War airman, who seems intent on eating all the scenery.
You could be forgiven for turning up to Kong: Skull Island with a degree of trepidation, for quite good reasons – 84 years on from the original movie, King Kong remains a movie icon like few others, but he's an icon with a singularly poor track-record when it comes to appearances in subsequent movies – if films like King Kong Lives and King Kong Escapes have any value at all, it's simply as glorious trash. You could also argue that to do a remake of King Kong which completely omits the tall building-related section of the story, and takes place entirely on the island, is also a rather bizarre choice.
However – and I can hardly believe I'm typing this – Skull Island is actually a really fun fantasy adventure film, with a lot going for it. The problem other King Kong projects have tended to encounter is one of tone – they either end up as silly, campy nonsense (the Toho and De Laurentiis projects, for example), or take themselves absurdly seriously (my main problem with Peter Jackson's take on the great ape). Skull Island gets the tone just about right: it knows when to play things straight, and when to relax and have a little bit of fun with the audience.
There seems to me to be no pressing reason as to why this movie is set in 1973 (there's some dialogue about how Kong is young and 'still growing', presumably to prepare us for a rather bigger present-day ape in a subsequent movie) – there are no overt references to the 1970s King Kong remake, anyway. It mainly seems that the film-makers thought it would be a cool wheeze to make, essentially, a Vietnam war movie that includes a load of giant monsters of different kinds. All the iconography of guys with assault rifles wading through swamps, and helicopters skimming low over the jungle canopy is here, and while it is just dressing-up with no thematic depth, it definitely gives the film its own identity (the classic rock soundtrack is also a definite bonus).
Kong himself (mo-capped by Terry Notary) is rather impressive, both terrifying and sympathetic at different times, as the story requires, and it seems to me the makers of this movie know their stuff when it comes to both this character and the whole giant monster genre – there's a scene which seems to me to be a call-back to Kong's love of calamari (first established in King Kong Vs Godzilla), and another which may be either a reference to a deleted scene from the original Kong, or an unexpected appearance by a new version of the Toho monster Kumonga (the fact that Kumonga is not one of the characters for whom Toho receives an on-screen credit – oh, yes, readers, there are big-name Toho monsters in this movie (sort of) – suggests the former). All in all, it's an engaging new take on the character.
Even the stuff in this movie which is not especially brilliant doesn't particularly detract from it as a piece of entertainment – Tom Hiddleston has an air of slightly detached bemusement throughout, as though he signed on for the movie without bothering to read the script, and I found this funny more than annoying. I have to say that most of the actors are content to do big character turns rather than anything too subtle and nuanced, but again this is exactly what the piece requires.
If I've been at all excited by the prospect of Legendary's planned monster franchise, then it's really been more in hope than expectation – but Kong: Skull Island gets so much right that I'm actually really looking forward to future films in this series, provided they handle the tone and subject matter as deftly as this one. It's certainly a much more nimble and straightforwardly entertaining movie than Gareth Evans' Godzilla, to which it is technically a prequel. In fact, in terms of technical accomplishment, dramatic success, and ability to channel the spirit of the original film, I would say this movie gets closer to the original King Kong than any other featuring the character. An unashamedly big, crazy, fun monster movie, and a very pleasant surprise.