Thursday, March 9, 2017

For Kong, it's tough being king

Kong: Skull Island introduces many monstrous sights. It's fun, even if the movie ultimately exhausts itself.

Some movies live in a world beyond ordinary standards, so much so that they liberate us from the need to parse or pick at what we were watching. Kong: Skull Island ought to have such a free-wheeling feel -- and much of the time, it does.

Deriving from the 1933 classic, Kong: Skull Island offers a new take on Hollywood's greatest ape, the thrust of which I'll leave you to discover in a theater, but know that Skull Island bursts with giddily presented carnage, much of it presented against a jukebox full of throwback rock by groups ranging from the Jefferson Airplane to Creedence Clearwater Survival.

For at least half of its 118-minute running time, Kong has some real hop to it, and director Jordan Vogt-Roberts isn't shy about putting his cards on the table. A Japanese and American solider square off in a mano-a-mano World War II prologue that dispenses with any suspense about when we'll see the towering ape. We meet Kong before the opening credits are done.

The movie turns the rest of those credits into a flickering newsreel, leaping through successive decades before landing in 1973.

Quickly, and without much time for reflection (a mercy, I think), the story swings into action. John Goodman plays a man who obtains government funding so that he can map an uncharted island.

From Washington, we're off the Vietnam to round up a crew. A disaffected Lt. Col. Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) takes charge; he's looking for a mission that offers compensation for a war that he believes should have been won. Packard and his subordinate (Toby Kebbell) gather other disaffected troopers, and join the trip to Skull Island.

Tom Hiddleston plays a tracker who's also recruited for the mission, along with a war-hardened photographer (Brie Larson).

With echoes of Apocalypse Now ringing in our ears, we're headed for Skull Island, which happens to be surrounded by a ferocious and possibly impenetrable storm system. If the movie's adventurers were even mildly sane, they would have abandoned any effort to penetrate the storm with helicopters. But sanity isn't the point here. Instead, unbridled mania prevails, which perhaps explains the presence of a jiggling Nixon bobblehead on one of the helicopters.

After the screening, someone pointed out to me that the number of helicopters inexplicably increased once the choppers took off from the ship that's carrying them to Skull Island.

Continuity aside, the helicopters make it through the storm only to be confronted by Kong, who has little interest in allowing them into his kingdom. He begins swatting choppers out of the sky as if they were pesky mosquitos.

If you're looking for proof that we live in an age of overload, you'll find ample evidence in the rest of the movie. As it turns out, Kong isn't the only dangerous creature on the island. The worst foes are reptilian monsters with forked tongues, hearty appetites and the ability to reawaken any tremors still lingering in audiences from Jurassic Park.

In IMAX 3D, Kong oozes the tropical density of an island where just about every living thing is over-sized and predatory, and the human characters, if these stick figures can be called that, are simply prey.

Did I mention that our adventurers have three days to accomplish their mission and reach the rendezvous point at which they'll be rescued? Yes, the proverbial clock ticks as loudly as the gunfire on the soundtrack.

To further spice the proceedings, the story introduces us to a World War II vet (John C. Reilly) from the movie's prologue. Reilly's character has been stranded on the island for almost 30 years. He's gone a bit whacky after living among a group of locals with a preference for heavily applied mud make-up.

In addition to battling the beasts -- a task that produces enough gore to slime the entire state of Maine -- the adventurers must decide whether to follow the vengeance-hungry approach of Jackson's character or just get the hell off the island.

For his part, Jackson glowers with so much furious conviction you half expect he might be reading one of Skull Island's more negative reviews.

Burdened by bloat, Kong: Skull Island can't help but generate some battle fatigue -- not only for its human and creature combatants, but for an audience. That's another way of saying that if you over-inflate a B-movie, it just might blow up in your face.

And in a digitally enhanced world, you'll notice that the actors are asked to spend a lot of time gaping at sights that had to be filled in long after they'd left the scene, not many dinosaurs being available via calls to central casting.

Minimal acting opportunities not withstanding, it might have been nice to care a little about whether any of these characters were destined to become something more than monster food.

Oh well, perhaps there's justice after all. At one point, a beast throws up the head of a man it has devoured. These creatures may be difficult to kill, but take heart: It's evidently easy to give them indigestion.

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