John C. Reilly boasts a fairly specific cult following thanks to his character Dr. Steve Brule, the pseudo-life coach who occasionally appeared on Adult Swim’s Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! to yell things like, “Go to bed early, you doofus. ‘Cause when you’re sleeping, there’s no lonely times, it’s just dreams.”
John C. Reilly also, confusingly, seems to be playing Dr. Steve Brule in Kong: Skull Island. Sure, here he goes by the name Hank Marlow, but he’s the same awkward, inappropriately loud fake-sage who slurs like he’s taken a little too much of an advantage of the hotel’s 2-4-1 piña colada deal. In Skull Island, for example, his preferred angle is wielding a katana and attempting to compliment women by declaring them, “more beautiful than a hotdog”.
His leather pilot's jacket even bears the slogan "Good For You Health" across the back. Brule's own catchphrase was always "For You Health"; whether any of the allusions are intentional is pretty unknown at this moment.
This might sound conversely quite spectacular, but Hank Marlow is the bizarre, idiosyncratic highlight of a film filled to the brim with clashing styles and motivations. Reilly’s performance is hilarious, but all of his lines seem cut out of a different film entirely, meaning each small burst of laughter is tinged with a feeling of utter disorientation.
His comedy sits uncomfortably, certainly, with what appears to be the main stream of consciousness here: a both literal and metaphorical Vietnam movie, which is quite honestly too much Vietnam for a film about an island of really big animals. Indeed, Skull Island has made the decision to set its action in the very closing days of the war, and in the aftermath of Richard Nixon’s 1973 televised speech ending US involvement in the country.
Bill Randa (John Goodman), a member of the shadowy Monarch organisation, attempts to exploit the soldiers still stationed overseas - specifically a unit led by Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) - to act as escort to his expeditionary team, including Tom Hiddleston’s ex-SAS man and Brie Larson’s photojournalist Mason Weaver. An undiscovered island has emerged in the advent of satellite imagery, shrouded in a perpetual storm and wrapped in several centuries of myth. Obviously, something momentous is awaiting discovery there.
Everyone who crosses paths here immediately greets each other with the synopsis take on their personal feelings towards American actions in Vietnam; as Packard tells an anti-war Mason, “the camera’s way more dangerous than the gun… we didn’t lose the war, we abandoned it”.
Inevitably, Packard must stubbornly walk the path of the “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” military madman, intent on killing King Kong for no other reason than so someone can later point out how great a metaphor this all is. “Sometimes an enemy doesn’t appear until you create one,” is uttered at one point. You get it? Kind of like in Vietnam?
Still not satisfied, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts attempts to make every ‘Nam movie trick shot in the book: the hazy light of the setting sun breaking through the jungle canopy, highlighting helicopters and mud-smeared faces as Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Bad Moon Rising’ plays. It’s as unsubtle a thematic tribute as you can get, at least, until the film – not once, but multiple times – features intercutting shots of Packard and Kong making death stares at each other while surrounded by napalm explosions, playing out like a Tarantino parody.
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However, the real issue with Vogt-Roberts’ tonal clash is that it loses complete sight of what the central appeal of a King Kong movie was in the first place. Crank it through whatever stylistic blender you like, but at the end of the day it should still feel like a monster movie. Mainly, because it is a monster movie.
Skull Island is the second entry into the universe established by Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla; direct references superficially connect the two, but tonally they’re worlds apart. What Godzilla may have lacked in character development – which is arguably only marginally improved upon here – Edwards made up for in bounds through atmospheric direction.
He already knew the power of suggestion well from his debut Monsters, but Godzilla let him play even further with the idea of slowly building up an audience’s excitement to create maximum impact in the monster’s final revelation.
All chucked casually out of the window for Skull Island, with Kong instead making his appearance in full within moments of the crew landing on the island, walking casually into frame as if he’d just popped out his cave to walk the dog. It’s surprising, really, to see a film so willingly destroy its own sense of dramatic climax; with such a deep lack of build-up eventually turning the whole affair into a lengthy slog of endless creature punch-ups.
It’s a film that, somehow, takes the fun out of watching a giant monkey slam-dunk a helicopter into the ground. Now, could we get the Steve Brule ‘Nam movie, Apocalypse Now, Dummy? instead?
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