“Kong: Skull Island” is a King Kong movie more or less inspired by “Apocalypse Now.” If that doesn’t catch your fancy, this probably isn’t the movie for you. This is a gleefully absurd monster flick drenched in Vietnam War-era pastiche, and it understands and embraces that identity to an insane degree. It’s certainly not perfect — in fact, there’s an argument to be had about whether or not it’s even good — but for what it is, it’s a rollicking good time.
Film fans will know that “Kong” takes place in the same universe as the most recent American iteration of “Godzilla” in preparation for the 2020 cinematic throw down between the two titanic monsters. To the film’s credit, it avoids the common pitfall of trying to build the entire universe in a single movie without telling a good, self-contained story (see: “Iron Man 2” and “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”). To its discredit, it then goes about repeating “Godzilla” ’s gravest mistake: the complete misuse of its cast and characters.
“Kong” has an almost ludicrously accomplished cast, including Tom Hiddleston (“I Saw the Light”), Brie Larson (“Room”), John Goodman (“10 Cloverfield Lane”), Samuel L. Jackson (“Kingsman: The Secret Service”) and John C. Reilly (“The Lobster”), and with all this A-list, top-tier talent, only the latter two are ever given any weight. While the human characters won’t be the reason the vast majority of people see this movie, the sheer amount of screen time spent with them necessitates some sort of depth.
Jackson and Reilly are actually given solid characterization, and correspondingly, they are the highlights of the piece. Jackson portrays the thinly veiled Colonel Kurtz stand-in as primarily unhinged, but earlier scenes showing his inability to move past the ending of the Vietnam War make him more of an interesting and complex antagonist. Reilly, on the other hand, is the human heart and soul of the piece, and his ability to switch between touching drama and his trademark screwball comedy provides a memorable, eminently likable character.
Then we come to the Eighth Wonder of the World himself, King Kong, and here is where “Kong” truly delivers. Apparently acting on the complaints that the 2014 rendition of Godzilla wasn’t given enough to do in his own movie, Kong is given a series of exhilarating action scenes, each one more rousing and exciting than the last. The sequence teased in the trailers where Kong fights off a small fleet of helicopters is an early highlight of the film and acts as a fabulous introduction to this new interpretation of the beloved character.
As good as these action beats are, the Kong-less ones that feature the human cast facing off against the Skull Island’s other monstrous inhabitants are even better. They would have undoubtedly been stronger had those characters been fleshed out, but as they stand now, they’re still great. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, previously best known for his excellent indie comedy “The Kings of Summer,” shows himself to be more than capable creating inventive, fast-paced sequences that effortlessly hold his audience’s rapt attention, and together with cinematographer Larry Fong (“Super 8”), he creates some truly superb, brightly colored imagery that compliments the send-ups to ‘70s era film.
Even with all that in mind, it’s hard to overlook “Kong” ’s many problems, though. It has a remarkably skilled cast, yet does nothing with them. The jokes are welcome, but they often either don’t work or clash with the tone of what is supposed to be an intense scene. While Vogt-Roberts is adept at creating distinct action scenes, he seems to still struggle with balancing his ensemble and tone. It’s a wild ride from start to finish — there’s no mistake there — but these problems keep it from being the “Apocalypse Now” homage it clearly aspires to be.