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Rousing Adventure Awaits in ‘Kong: Skull Island’

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CHICAGO – King Kong is a wholly generated creature of the movies. Ever since the gorilla legend came to life on screen way back in 1933, he has appeared in countless official remakes, cheap exploitation flicks and now as a symbol of American overreach. He still rules in “Kong: Skull Island.”

The story is by John Gatins – interpreted by three screenwriters – and directed with confidence by Jordan Vogt-Roberts (“Kings of Summer”). The premise is right on point, as Skull Island becomes a destination in 1973 for a shadowy government agency, clueless scientists and a military desecrated by Vietnam. The obvious Kong/Cong allegory (as in Viet Cong) is never overtly exposed, it just becomes apparent as the mission creeps into potential tragedy on the island (sound familiar?). Besides this cool symbolism, the scale of the CGI monsters and humans interact well in the story, with enough humanity to play against the mystery of Kong and the island itself – it’s great popcorn stuff and a testament to how modern filmmaking should work. Somewhere Merian C. Cooper, the impresario of the first Kong movie, is smiling.

The year is 1973, and the Vietnam War is whimpering to an end. Bill Randa (John Goodman) knows government funding is ending as well, so he manages to get one more project through his shadow government agency approved. It is a expedition to Skull Island, an uncharted land mass in the Pacific Ocean. Randa hires James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), and ex-British military attaché and expert tracker. The military gives the crew a helicopter escort through Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packer (Samuel L. Jackson).

The Menacing Title Character of ‘Kong: Skull Island’
Photo credit: Warner Bros.

There are always suspicions, and they are represented through photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) who tags along hoping to expose more government folly. The government, military and scientific crew barely makes land before they are attacked by giant gorilla Kong, the protectorate of Skull Island. When casualties mount, Lt. Col. Packer wants the kill, which is contrary to the warnings from an American WWII veteran Hank (John C. Reilly), stuck on the island since 1944. To escape harm, they all have to learn who or what Kong is.

The Vietnam parallel is sharp writing, and works on many levels, especially in comparison to the gee-whiz optimism of WWII vet Hank. There is a healthy level of cynicism regarding American intervention, whether a country or an island, and director Vogt-Roberts’ balancing act between the adventure and the commentary is keenly realized. John C. Reilly is perfect as the old veteran, missing cold beer and his Chicago Cubs (good timing!), and plays him part old-timey prospector and part wizard of Skull Island.

Samuel L. Jackson is at his best as the obsessed military man – when he is introduced it in on the final day of Vietnam occupation, and he sits in an office with lighting that is flickering – and his anger at Kong/Cong creates a justification that adds to the drama. Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson are also a step above the usual man-and-woman-added-to-the-adventure, adding necessary credibility to their symbolic positions. Bonus…Larson joins Fay Wray (1933), Jessica Lange (1976) and Naomi Watts (2005) as the latest “girl in the hairy palm.”

John Goodman, Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson on ‘Kong: Skull Island’
Photo credit: Warner Bros.

There is some unintentional laughs in the film as well. There are so many expendable soldiers in the various battles on the island that they should have been wearing “red shirts,” like “Star Trek” cannon fodder. The main creatures (lizard-like) that Kong protects the island from were similar to the creatures that attacked the Great Wall of China in Matt Damon’s recent “Great Wall,” and the fights were somewhat elongated, since eventually Kong must rule. Yet there is a lot of joy and energy in this film, and as Jordan Vogt-Roberts makes his transition to the big leagues, expect more cinematic fun from him.

Richard M. Nixon makes a sly and funny cameo in the film, and his ghost permeates the atmosphere of 1973, a year before he resigned the presidency. Like Kong, you can’t keep Tricky Dick down. As Senator Bob Dole opined at Nixon’s funeral…”I believe the second half of the 20th century will be known as the age of Nixon.” Between films like “X-Men: Days of Future Past” and “Kong: Skull Island,” the age of Nixon is also at the movies!

“Kong: Skull Island” opens every where on March 10th, in 3D and regular screenings. See local listings for 3D theaters and show times. Featuring Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly and John Goodman. Screenplay by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly. Director by Jordan Vogt-Roberts. Rated “PG-13”

HollywoodChicago.com senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Writer, Editorial Coordinator

© 2017 Patrick McDonald, HollywoodChicago.com

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