Thursday, March 9, 2017

I saw Kong Reborn...

Ever since I was a little boy, I’ve admired the towering fury and primal sensitivity of the mighty, mammoth King Kong.

The Merian C. Cooper/Ernest B. Schoedsack original is the be-all/end-all when it comes to this mythic beast, and I’m the first to acknowledge it. “Kong ‘33” has it all: action, adventure, ballsy characters, implied sensuality and above all, wondrous, stop-motion monsters galore. Hands down, it's the greatest, giant-monster movie ever made, let alone the most exotic and action-packed film ever produced. Nothing, on any cinematic level, will ever match it.

With that said, one might assume I wouldn’t fancy any other incarnation of the great ape, but “Son of Kong” and the original “Mighty Joe Young” (Kong’s unofficial cousin, in my opinion), and later down the line, "Konga", taught me that other versions could also be a ton of fun. Therefore, I came to enjoy Toho's submissions, "King Kong vs Godzilla" and "King Kong Escapes"; the Rankin Bass cartoon show (that inspired the latter); the "Mighty Kong" animated musical; and yes, even the oft-maligned Dino Kong and its equally discredited sequel, plus Peter Jackson’s ambitious remake and all the offshoots that fell between and/or came thereafter, including Kong's appearance in the recent "Lego Batman Movie": alas, a sour misconception, but that's just the way the ball sometimes bounces. 

With all these incarnations brimming my brain and furthering my support of the majestic Goliath, I’ve grown most anxious to view director Jordan Vogt-Robert's “Kong: Skull Island”, anticipating another hardy spurt of escapism, and as should come as no surprise, I was pretty well satisfied. 

For the record, the new Kong isn’t entirely based on the Joe Devito/Brad Strickland book of the roundabout same name, as some had hoped, or for that matter, Russell Blackford's underrated novel, "Kong Reborn", which surfaced around the same time, to coincide with the Jackson retelling. As rendered by scriptwriter Derek "Jurassic World" Connolly; Max "Godzilla '14" Borenstein; and Dan "Freejack" Gilroy, this Kong adventure is an unmistakable reboot in its inflated, B-movie construction: a Nixon-era lead-in for a possible, new Kong/Godzilla crossover. (I suppose the team-up's prospects will ride on “Skull Island’”s box-office draw and that of Legendary Films' planned “Godzilla 2".) The film's intent is solely to reintroduce Kong’s mythology, with the promise that it'll avoid an Empire State/Twin Towers' fall. To do this, it flows rather like "King Kong Lives" (though sans the artificial-heart transplant), introduces new monsters and as in Jackson's re-imagining, includes a Joseph Conrad "Heart of Darkness" allegorical undertone: pretentious, yes, but it clicks.

The film's primary protagonist (beyond Kong, that is) is Tom Hiddleston's British Special Forces Captain James Conrad (get it?), who's accompanied by a pretty photojournalist named Mason Weaver, played by Brie Larson. (She's the would-be Ann Darrow, but in this instance, "love" doesn't figure in, though there's a moment of fleeting tenderness.) Overseeing the duo is John Goodman as the Carl Denham-ish/Monarch Company creature-chasing head, Bill Randa. There's also Samuel L. Jackson's Ahab-angled Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard and John C. Reilly's stranded, WWII pilot Hank Marlow (the surname being another Conrad nod), who's a Dennis Hopper-ish "Apocalypse Now" host to those who might happen upon the island. 

By the way, Toby Kebbel, who won praise for his portrayal of Koba in the new "Planet of the Apes" franchise (and who's played Dr. Doom in "Fantastic Four '15" and Durotan in "Warcraft") is the motion-captured man-to-ape in this version. He's basically done what Andy Serkis did in the '05 film (or for that matter, what Serkis did as Caesar in "Apes"), but giving it his own spin: a combo of the original, stop-motion, animated Kong and Rick Baker's suited version in the '76 Guillermin remake. On the whole, Kebbel does a smashing job in giving Kong the essential depth and ferocity to guarantee his predominate presence, even when he's not on screen. (Incidentally, one might find Kebbel in another role, as well: that of a sensitive soldier named Chapman. Yep, Conrad referenced again.)

Early in the tale, we realize that Randa's monster obsession will lead to a dangerous confrontation with the pugnacious king, and Packard eagerly seizes this task, though the simian's defensive assault on his soldiers (and their napalm-dropping helicopters) makes the military man insanely vindictive. This leaves Conrad, Weaver and Marlow to side with Kong, as they pave their way (with anyone else sensible enough to follow) off Skull Island. 

The film's human characters, though knock-offs of others who've visited such lost worlds, are interesting enough to pad the adventure: not that it needs much once the monster brawls get going. And boy, do those damn Skullcrawlers ever liven things up, as does a giant spider and squid: the latter a homage to the meddling octopus in "Kong vs Godzilla"!

The film's only drawback is its negative military slant. Gareth Edwards' "Godzilla" at least avoided this cliche, but the new Kong leans on the tedious tactic, sometimes depicting our Armed Forces as bumbling imperialists. (Okay, in this instance, they're more a mercenary tangent, one could argue, but still...). It may have been a more interesting approach to have had the military abet the great ape; instead, we get the anti-Vietnam, no-man-should-be-left-behind concept shoved upon us, which in its own right isn't necessarily bad on all fronts, but again, a tad predictable and therefore, it blunts a portion of the picture's glory.

“Skull Island” isn’t, after all, a complicated tale and a few innovations here and there couldn't have hurt. Then again, Kong’s original tale was never envisioned as a blatant, message movie. What prompted discussions on Kong's circumstance were based purely on viewers' personal perceptions. A Kong adventure, therefore, only needs to be large and uninhibited to inspire meaningful reference. 

“Skull Island” does its job well enough to reunite us with a film favorite who, though a trifle redesigned in his skyscraping stretch, is still the wondrous creature he was from the start and still quite capable of igniting our thoughts. The film made me want to see more of him, and I think we will, along with another gigantic favorite or two or three or four, but you'll have to wait until after the end credits to catch their identities. (Anyone have a hankerin' for a famous, Japanese quartet? Hint, hint.)

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