I don’t mind saying I was excited when I saw the onscreen talent associated with Kong: Skull Island. Yet I felt my excitement leaking away as this proficient but impersonal further adventure of King Kong progressed.
The story picks up in earnest in 1973, when President Nixon declares an end to the Vietnam War. That’s when scientist Bill Randa (John Goodman) seizes an opportunity to conduct an expedition to an uncharted island in the South Pacific, replete with a military escort led by Col. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) and a detachment of soldiers ready for one last non-combat mission before they go back home. Unfortunately, everybody gets way more than they bargained for when they get to the place and find a 100-foot gorilla defending the place from these human invaders.
This expedition is basically in the hands of two madmen. Randa wants scientific proof that he’s not a crackpot for thinking giant beasts live underneath the ground, while Packard wants to kill Kong as payback for the deaths of his men and, by extension, for the war that his side just lost. They’re both willing to sacrifice everybody in their party for what they want, and a British jungle tracker (Tom Hiddleston) and a combat photographer (Brie Larson) are among those caught in the crossfire. If that’s not enough, Kong isn’t just fighting the humans but also the island’s native population of giant man-eating lizards.
Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (who previously directed the low-budget film The Kings of Summer) keeps all of this from dragging. Still, both Goodman and Jackson are visibly off their A-game, and the younger leads are given even less to play. Amid the waste of this high-powered cast, John C. Reilly saunters off with the movie as a dotty World War II veteran who’s been marooned on the island for the last 28 years and serves as a guide for those members who are willing to listen. He provides the movie’s badly needed dash of personality and humor; when he balefully calls the lizards “Skullcrawlers,” he then immediately and grouchily backtracks: “I’ve never said that out loud before. Sounds stupid now that I say it.”
The movie is dominated by Kong, who is played in motion-capture by Toby Kebbell. (The actor also shows up in the film as a short-lived pilot with a Southern drawl.) Kong’s battles with the humans and the not-Skullcrawlers are all done legibly, but I felt neither wonder nor terror at his presence. You’d be surprised how dull a 100-foot monkey can be, and this one is less personable than the King Kong who shows up in The Lego Batman Movie. For all the work and talent that went into it, Kong: Skull Island evaporated for me as soon as I left the theater.
Kong: Skull Island
Starring Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, John Goodman, and Samuel L. Jackson. Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts. Written by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, and Derek Connolly. Rated PG-13.