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FILM REVIEW: Kong: Skull Island

Kong: Skull Island (12A)
Running time 1hr 58 min
Rating ***

I CAN’T quite recall when King Kong became a franchise (the ‘series’ to date has consisted mostly of remakes and some really crummy Japanese films); audiences weren’t exactly crying out for a return to the jungle, and it was hard to see what territory the 1933 classic (and, to a lesser extent, Peter Jackson’s 2005 rendition) had left for us to chart, anyway – cinema’s great ape has died FOUR times on-screen. Kong: Skull Island, following hot on the trail of Gareth Edwards’ blockbuster Godzilla reboot, has a monster budget and a stellar cast to its name; the previews were generally reassuring, its original story and splendid art direction promising a reimagined Kong universe. But it’s a little too bland for its own good, a palatable, occasionally thrilling, jaunt that falls just short of popcorn greatness.

Crucially, the film finds itself lacking in the human department – while the core troupe, an identity parade of talent, are all trying their best, there’s an unshakeable sense of déjà vu hanging over their efforts. Samuel L Jackson is Preston Packard, a US Army hard-man, escorting a scientific expedition to Kong’s titular stomping grounds. In tow is a motley crew which should be familiar to anybody who’s watched a few movies, comprising a plucky young photojournalist (Brie Larson), a government official (John Goodman) with a hidden agenda, a scientist (Corey Hawkins) or two (Jing Tian), and a troubled SAS veteran (Tom Hiddleston, who’s niche skillset seems misplaced here). John C Reilly’s Second World War-era Air Force straggler, a man gone native among Kong’s tribal cultists, brings demented colour to the party, but the overall problem remains; the screenplay doesn’t do anything special with the role. Lord help the various grunts surrounding Packard – you’ll struggle to tell them apart, and our CG antihero picks them off like gnats. Nevertheless, all this should function as little more than an aside – nobody was expecting Oscar-bait.

As an old-school monster-mash, with none of Peter Jackson’s epic pretensions, Skull Island excels; having stranded the cast in Kong’s backyard, the movie shirks such awfully modern constraints as sense and logic, dropping us straight into the front-carriage of a particularly hairy rollercoaster that takes the audience by the scruff of their collective neck and refuses to let up.
Its early-70s setting (Viet Kong?) lends the film a lurid drive-in vibe; the featured creatures (namely the ‘Skullcrawlers’, nasty bipedal reptile-things brought to Skull Island’s surface by Packard’s bombing) make for competent nemeses where Kong himself was starting to wear thin. The climactic battle, an interspecies rumble of biblical proportions, will go down in genre history – it’s hard to see any other action sequence topping it this year. So it’s ridiculous, and it’s shallow, and its very existence is owed to the studio’s plans for a Kong-Godzilla rematch in the not-too-distant future (Warner Bros already have a crossover lined up for 2020), but Kong: Skull Island isn’t selling itself as anything else.

Ignore the harsher critics – this is filmic junk food at its fattiest and finest. Your inner pre-teen will not leave the theatre disappointed.

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