Kong: Skull Island is the answer to the question “why don’t monster movies never have more than like, 20 minutes of real monster action?” Rather than a traditional act-structure, Kong plays out more like a series of escalating climaxes. We first see the much-bigger ape in the first two minutes during a cold-open, and after maybe twenty minutes of bare-bones exposition, the movie doesn’t really go more than two scenes without Kong or some other giant-sized creature on screen. It’s the cinematic equivalent of eating candy for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; and though Kong: Skull Island might make you a little queasy, and definitely isn’t good for you, it’s one hella fun ride.
This updated version of the King Kong story takes place at the sunset of the Vietnam War, and with heaping helpings of visual references to Apocalypse Now and other references to Joseph Conrad, never lets you forget the type of cultural cache this movie tries to ape. It’s nowhere near as nuanced or thoughtful as either influence however, much more focused on gorilla warfare than its Vietnam-era homonym. On the other hand, it never feels like it tries to be anything other than an all-out monster-mash. So many things about Kong: Skull Island are so boldly done for the sake of it being cool. Every other establishing shot is of a sun-rise or sunset, sometimes casting a silhouette of Kong or helicopters or flocks of pteranodons. At one point, one character – a soldier – mentions how they were one day out from returning home from ‘Nam when they were dragged into this mission to go to Skull Island in a way that’s so evocative of the “one day from retirement” cliché that it must have been intentional. The movie has so many needle-drops you could easily confuse it for a two-hour long music video for the best of the 70’s. In so many ways, Kong: Skull Island feels like all the posters on the wall of a caricature of a frat-boy got together to make a movie; all that’s really missing is Tony Montana.
A lot of what should makes Kong: Skull Island too dumb to enjoy comes down to it having a cast of way too many characters (played by some of today’s biggest names Brie Larson, Tom Hiddleston, John Goodman, Samuel L. Jackson, John C. Riley, etc. – clearly having tons of fun) who eventually split-up, making geography and time so hard to track it feels almost irrelevant, and who end up stepping on each-other’s toes when it comes to any of them being the actual protagonist or worth getting emotionally invested in. In spite of that, Kong picks up so much slack with its balls-to-the-wall giant-monster action that it’s hard to care about how little you care about anything that isn’t at least 50ft tall and/or currently exploding.
Despite its pretentions to Kubrick and Conrad, the characters, plot, symbolism, etc. of Kong: Skull Island do not really matter. Sure, you could dive into parallels and make connections between Samuel L. Jackson’s character – a decorated army officer who resents the US pulling out of Vietnam and later refuses to leave Skull Island without killing Kong despite how many men he’s killed and how he’s only attacking them because they started – and the historical Vietnam conflict, that stuff is there; but it’s also entirely surface level, it’s decoration. What matters – what this movie wants to do – is show you how much of a badass King Kong is.
And you know what? It works. Watching Kong bring down a squadron of helicopters and a giant squid and a number of giant lizard-things makes for some damn good action cinema. The action in Kong: Skull Island is colorful and kinetic, and miraculously easy to track considering the scale of the characters and the fact it’s all almost entirely CGI. Besides his classic swiping at man-made flying machines as they buzz around him like flies, this Kong seems to have picked up some judo and jujutsu, tossing his giant opponents around in incredibly fluid and brutal motions. He’s more of an experienced fighter than a rampaging beast, in one sequence of the (final) climactic battle, even turning some chains – which, for a moment do have him bound, as the iconic image goes – into a make-shift whip weapon. This movie could easily be interpreted as a two-hour Rocky-style training montage before Kong’s big prize-fight against Godzilla that Warner Bros. has planned for a couple years from now; and as cynical as that may be, Kong: Skull Island does manage to hype you up.
Kong: Skull Island, like all great apes, isn’t that bright and loves to puff its chest out; but it’s hard to fault an ape for being itself. Kong is aware – perhaps with some irony – that it’s a big dumb spectacle, and rather than pull against those chains, attempts to be the biggest, dumbest spectacle in the world. This Kong is less king and more jester, but for better or worse, it succeeds.