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'Kong: Skull Island': Serious Monkey Business
By Michael S. Goldberger, iBerkshires Film Critic
05:55PM / Thursday, March 16, 2017
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While director Jordan Vogt-Roberts' "Kong: Skull Island" asserts independence from the original, 1933 legend, as well as the 1976 and 2005 remakes, it is all the same, a throwback, a good old adventure yarn. To quote an eloquent teen in the theater lobby who ruminated it afterward with his pals, "That was a most satisfying movie experience."

The 14-year-old in me agrees; the curmudgeon has reservations. But despite some modernizations and nods to contemporary sensibilities integrated into the ethos of the tale, there is one heartening fact. Indeed, on this unchartered, South Pacific island where Charles Darwin would have enjoyed a veritable feast of evolutionary phenomena, there lives a very big monkey the natives call Kong.

And that almost rhymes with con. You see, to most of the expedition, comprised of U.S. soldiers who a handful of scientists inveigled to ride shotgun for them, it's a "research trip." Maybe they'll find a cure for cancer, or so went the spiel. But we all know that something else is going on here, and suspect that the final arbiter will be, as the Irish like to say, Himself.

But gone is the purely felt, carnival barker excitement Robert Armstrong's film director Carl Denham exuded in the 1933 "King Kong" when he convinced Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) to join in by exhorting, "It's money and adventure and fame. It's the thrill of a lifetime and a long sea voyage that starts at six o'clock tomorrow morning."

Nope. In this go-round, set during the Vietnam War, which offers plenty opportunity for punditry and social comment, a confluence of power players interact and conflict. Good establishment of mood and philosophical inferences almost makes up for an uninventive plot and disappointingly little creativity in the spoken word department.

The impetus behind the gambit is Bill Randa, point man for the secret government organization, Monarch, obviously a powerful enough entity to gain the accompaniment of the illustrious Army Lt. Col. Preston Packard, whose men fly the group to its destination. Filmmaker Vogt-Roberts cleverly utilizes this Vietnam War-era backdrop for his rousing adventure-fantasy to satirize our current political climate the way "M*A*S*H" (1970) used Korea to disseminate its antiwar messages about Vietnam.

No magnifying glass is necessary to read between the lines. There's lots of deceit, a few nutty ideologues, some patriots you hope will prevail, and the requisite moral conscience in the form of Brie Larson as Mason Weaver, photojournalist/peace activist. And, if you guessed that she continues the tradition of the beauty who brings out the old softie in the beast, succeeding her movie sisters Fay Wray (1933), Jessica Lange (1976) and Naomi Watts (2005), you're right

There is wit here and there, especially in an expository scene I suggest was spliced into the film postproduction. It comes in the form of the hauntingly humorous words uttered by Goodman's guv'mint guy. In D.C. to sell his mission, he exits the cab amidst protests against the Vietnam War and, turning to a cohort, says, "Mark my words: There'll never be a more screwed-up time in Washington!" We sigh.

But while the nostalgic subtext, complemented by the rock sounds of the era (think Creedence), is there for those who may enjoy the comparative poli sci, the blood and guts crowd won't feel left out of the equation. The angry, inhospitable host will have no truck with interlopers. Count on a sizeable body count and, as is usually the case with such films, the rapid-fire attrition soon has us betting who will be left standing after Kong is done establishing who among the intruders is naughty, who is nice and who just winds up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

One of the two subplots is a surprise ... shh; the other concerns infighting among the alpha males. Goodman as Randa is the single-minded zealot, while Samuel L. Jackson, describing his character in an interview, says he featured Packard as a Captain Ahab of sorts, with Kong his white whale. Playing contrast to the obsessed warrior is Tom Hiddleston as James Conrad, a British Special Forces captain who, while he certainly knows his way around combat, would avoid it given his druthers. Naturally, he's the one our pretty photographer likes.

Of course, none of these dudes can hold a candle to the real leading man, sensationally created by special effects that nearly convince us such a creature actually exists outside of our imaginations. Bigger and even more dominant than his predecessors, his magnificence set against the travelogue-like panoramas of the unspoiled but forbidding paradise makes him a fine monster. Thus, as long as it doesn't trouble you that his grunts also represent the best of the film's dialogue, "Kong: Skull Island" proves a valid destination for pure escapist entertainment.

"Kong: Skull Island," rated PG-13, is a Warner Bros. release directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts and stars Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson and Samuel L. Jackson. Running time: 120 minutes

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