I bet when most people hear the term “Viet Cong” for the first time, they snicker at a mental image of King Kong fighting in Vietnam. Almost everyone outgrows this joke in about a minute, but not the makers of “Kong: Skull Island.” They’ve spent $190 million and years of effort making the King Kong/Vietnam crossover that nobody was demanding, but nobody’s in a hurry to reject either.
The film opens with a sequence of two WWII pilots, one American and one Japanese, ejecting from their planes and continuing to fight on the ground on a seemingly deserted island. They are interrupted by King Kong. This isn’t one of those slow-burn monster movies where the creature takes forever to show up or all we catch for a while is shadowy glimpses. Early and often, we get to behold Kong in all his glory.
Cut to 1973. Two controversial scientists (John Goodman and Corey Hawkins) con their way into getting government approval to visit an uncharted island in hopes of finding something that might help America win the Cold War. They need a military escort, and Col. Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) all-too- happily volunteers his squad, who were a day away from coming home from Vietnam following Nixon’s announcement of a cease-fire. They also enlist a tracker (Tom Hiddleston), a photographer (Brie Larson), and a few other future bodies.
The crew travels to the island, unwisely sets off some bombs, and immediately get attacked by Kong (again, he’s not shy). The convoy gets split up. One team includes Packard, who wants to kill Kong. At first he seems to have good reasons; he thinks the ape is a danger to humanity or he wants to avenge his colleagues killed in the attack. But over time we realize that his motivation is that he just doesn’t want to accept another loss. The other team stumbles upon the American soldier from the beginning (John C. Reilly), who has spent the last 30 years on the island with Kong. He explains that Kong actually loves the island and its people and he’s needed to protect it from the vicious giant lizards that live beneath the surface (no, this does not mean a cameo from a specific giant lizard, much to my disappointment). The team realizes that it’s up to them to stop Packard and save Kong.
The film does action, special effects, and visuals very well. The opening fight scene gets things off to a frantic start and things only get more treacherous once Kong gets involved. Kong himself is everything you want in a skyscraper-sized primate, and the other animals on the island are impressively unlovely. And I like the whole Vietnam atmosphere, just because it’s an unusual approach for a King Kong movie in 2017. Sometimes the movie is a little too blatant in comparing the mission to the war (we get it, they’re going to a place they don’t belong and antagonizing an enemy they can’t handle) but at least we get some cool helicopter shots, a rockin’ soundtrack, and a parody of an iconic shot from a Vietnam movie where things go hilariously wrong.
But one thing keeps me from going ape over “Kong: Skull Island” and that’s the human characters. Jackson and Reilly are fine, but everybody else is painfully miscast or underwritten. The movie runs out of ideas for Goodman and Hawkins after the first act, Hiddleston isn’t pulling off the “rugged hero” routine, and it’s hard to buy the down-to-earth Larson as the object of Kong’s affections. The movie makes some weird decisions about who to kill and when to kill them and the result is some awkward pacing, especially toward the end. I’m giving “Kong: Skull Island” Two Stars out of Five, but it has many effects-driven moments that are worth more than that. They just get watered down by inadequacy in other areas like the script.