Kong: Skull Island film review: Is Kong still king?

Can Kong: Skull Island deliver the Vietnam movie monster mash promised by the trailers?

There’s a lot riding on the King Of The Apes’ return, but if anyone can shoulder the weight of a shared universe, it’s Kong, right? Well, yes and no. Skull Island is a strange creature, a genre hybrid that wants to bridge the gap between adventure romp and gritty allegory about Western military practice. It’s not subtle, but when it works, it does have a certain power to it.

It’s certainly a different approach to the one Gareth Edwards took with his slow-burn Godzilla reboot. This is all-action right from the get-go, with the first massive set-piece taking place roughly twenty minutes in, and it’s certainly not shy about showing off its title character.

Indeed, it’s not shy about anything, with a wonderful assortment of beautifully designed nightmare creatures (and some adorable giant buffalo). If your main complaint about Godzilla was “Not enough Godzilla,” then Kong: Skull Island may your remedy. However, those hoping for a little more nuance and character development will be left wanting.

The war in Vietnam is over, and the clock is ticking for Bill Randa (John Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) to get to an untouched island rich with potential for scientific discovery before the Russians do. Recruiting the not-yet-ready-for-home Colonel Packard (Samuel L Jackson) and his unit, they head to Skull Island with a group of scientists, ex-SAS mercenary James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and anti-war photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) in tow. But there’s a reason why no one ever comes back from Skull Island.

The early sequence of the American choppers colliding with the island’s King is jarring and relentless, with the arrogant bomb-dropping invaders being torn from the sky by a gigantic ape (Toby Kebbell’s delivery of “Is that a monkey?” is wonderful).

However, the brutality feels somewhat out of place, and that becomes more of a problem as the film progresses. Yes, the important cautionary element is present and correct. But there’s a real nastiness to some of the deaths that feels more like it comes from a desire to be gritty and dark than anything else.

Which wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if the script backed it up. Faced with a large ensemble cast, a lot of monsters and what feels like some heavy editing, the film boils characters down to one-liners. Jackson’s increasingly unhinged Captain Ahab is very watchable, but Hiddleston’s tracker is so pointless that you forget that he’s in the film when he’s not on screen. Larson does her best with the little she’s given, but most of the rest of the cast are just monster food.

Thankfully, there’s a hell of a scene-stealing turn from John C Reilly as a pilot who crashed on the island during World War II and has been living there ever since. Not only does he bring some much needed humour to the film, but the quality of the writing seems to be elevated whenever he’s around.

If it sounds like we’re being overly down on Kong: Skull Island, there are plenty of high points. The creatures look incredible, the action is frequently thrilling, and did we mention John C Reilly? Crucially, Kong, played by Terry Notary, is best of the bunch: a ferocious, furious but mournful creature with real emotion.

Although it doesn’t reach the heights of Edwards’ Godzilla, Kong: Skull Island works hard to bring us something new, and it does deliver some pretty impressive punches. If the Monsterverse is going to continue, however, it’s going to have to work harder on its humans.