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  1. Life & Culture

Review: The big guy deserves better than 'Kong: Skull Island'

Kong in the film “Kong: Skull Island.” (Warner Bros. Pictures)
Kong in the film “Kong: Skull Island.” (Warner Bros. Pictures)
Published Mar. 9, 2017

Kong: Skull Island strips the beauty from a legendary beast, reducing a classic movie star to soulless monster mechanics. Kong smashes, but not much else. Whoever dies doesn't matter. Whoever lives has a sequel promised by the end credits.

Royalty deserves better treatment than King Kong gets here.

The big guy has always been a wrecking machine but with personality, a semblance of something human beneath the monster. Kong's link was becoming the infatuated protector of beautiful women, a leading man-ape. In classic form remade twice, Kong died after literally taking that affection to towering heights; a terrifying romantic.

Kong on this Skull Island is all rage and rampage, swatting choppers out of the sky and squashing slow movers. He's allowed a soupcon of curiosity in a distressed damsel yet never connects by heart. Kong's most humane act is a direct lift from the Fay Wray book of rescue and Monday's audience applauded it, perhaps relieved to finally see something recognizable in this Kong.

Set in the Vietnam War's wake, Kong: Skull Island adds a distinctly Apocalypse Now vibe to the legend. Kong is an ersatz Kurtz, a mysterious god on an island surrounded by storms. A Washington, D.C., insider (John Goodman) hires mercenary James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) to lead an expedition to find a beast bigger than Brando up river. Photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) will gape and shoot, prettier than Dennis Hopper. Cue the Creedence and more on-the-nose classic rock hits.

The searchers are guarded by soldiers and the Kilgore of this piece, Col. Preston Packard played by Samuel L. Jackson the way you'd expect. Snakes on a plane, giant ape, same thing. Packard scowls his way to avenging the deaths of his troops at the paws and jaws of Kong.

To his credit, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts cuts to the chases and chompings, no peekaboo Kong here. He's an impressive CGI creation, in part a motion capture performance by Toby Kebbell, who in possibly a Hollywood first gets to eat himself. Less impressive are the Pteranodon and Velociraptor knock-offs Kong kills when humans start running low. The bamboo spider isn't bad.

Hiddleston makes for a humorless hero, overdoing the macho posturing like he's airing out his armpits. This certainly isn't the challenging follow-up to winning an Oscar that Larson would prefer. The movie never accumulates enough tension to require so much comic relief from John C. Reilly as a marooned pilot.

Vogt-Roberts is another indie filmmaker promoted — if that's the right term — to mega budget studio work. Certainly Kong: Skull Island doesn't possess the clarity and gentler purpose of 2013's The Boys of Summer. Neither does the director reveal any particular gift for this genre. He makes big pictures go boom. A monkey might be able to do that.

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Contact Steve Persall at spersall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

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