Running time: 118 minutes approx
James Conrad - Tom Hiddleston
Preston Packard - Samuel L Jackson
Mason Weaver - Brie Larson
Hank Marlow - John C Reilly
Bill Randa - John Goodman
Mason Weaver - Brie Larson
Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Written by Dan Gilroy,Max Borenstein, Derek Connelly, John Gatins
Can the world possibly need a new version of KING KONG? There have been three already (not including cheap cash-ins and sequels), each with their own strengths and flaws. The 1933 original presented the audience with something they had never seen before, presented with spectacle and panache and a dash of stilted and wooden performances, even by the standards of the day. The 1976 version introduced an environmental theme and features a finale that has gained unexpected poignancy by using the twin towers of the World Trade Center, but was clearly just a man in a gorilla suit and featured some appalling special effects work. Peter Jackson's lavish 2005 version was overlong and overindulgent, but had brilliant effects work and Naomi Watts. So, what does this new version offer?
KONG:SKULL ISLAND is the story told as APOCALYPSE NOW. Set as US forces are pulling out Vietnam, one combat helicopter team takes part in a mission to map an uncharted island and drop seismic charges to find out if it is worth annexing. One of the island's inhabitants gets a bit upset at the noise and downs the entire flight. Now, it's a fight for survival across a landscape filled with monsters that are even more frightening than the giant ape.
Setting is everything here. The entire film takes its tone from the Vietnam war movie. The soundtrack screams of previous Vietnam War movie. Movie actually compares the smell of napalm in the morning to victory, but it's a close run thing. There are certainly more images of helicopters silhouetted against a burning sunrise than you might expect in any single movie. One of the main characters is called Conrad, for heaven's sake, just in case you didn't get the reference.
KONG:SKULL ISLAND is not big on subtlety. No previous version of the story has put Kong front and centre quite so quickly and there is certainly plenty of spectacle to be had as he tosses palm trees through helicopter windshields, turns giant squids into sushi and just generally acts badass. What he doesn't do is act like a gorilla. Despite being CGI'd within an inch of his life, this Kong doesn't even attempt to move like a gorilla. He acts more like a man in a monkey suit than the man in the monkey suit did in 1976. True, the background story lays on the idea that all of the monsters here come up from beneath the earth through vents or portals or some such and so Kong may not be just an oversized ape. The animals he faces are certainly not ones that we have seen before. No piddling little dinosaurs for this Kong. No, he is up against Skullcrawlers; some sort of lizard thing with the skull of a dead cow and the tongue of an alien from the ALIEN franchise. They provide an adversary big enough for the character, but their inclusion is jarring in a way that the creatures in the previous versions weren't. They never convince as something that could exist.
The cast for this outing is impressive. Hunk flavour of the month is the tight T-shirt wearing ex-SAS survival expert who is the macho hero when the plot calls for it, but also backs down when the plot needs for him to. Samuel L Jackson plays the Kurtz character, a war-loving soldier whose pride and sanity are snapped by his unit being taken out by the most unconventional of enemies. When he stands alone to stare down Kong, he's the only man who could make the outcome doubtful. Brie Larson gets the thankless heroine role, though she is now a photojournalist and is less damsel in distress than ever before, though she is actually given very little to do. John C Reilly provides the comic relief as the eccentric pilot stranded from World War II and John Goodman is the monster-hunting academic who finds the field work mroe than expected. The cast is then rounded out by GIs who work hard to make their characters stand out a little, but mainly fail to do so.
None of which matters. KONG: SKULL ISLAND is all about the rollercoaster ride and there it delivers. The plot may get muddled (who IS in charge of the mapping expedition anyway?), but there is plenty of mayhem and destruction to be getting on with. The CGI devastation may wobble occasionally, but you can be sure that you won't be bored and the soundtrack of songs from the era is just too good.
KONG: SKULL ISLAND isn't going to rock anyone's world, but for switch-your-brain-off-and-go-with-it fun you could certainly do a lot worse.