I walked into this film assuming I would address my letter to the sound editor, or the motion capture specialist, or perhaps a member of the CGI team. They all certainly deserve praise for their work here. After all, films featuring giant mammals and the brawny men sent to take them down really depend on special effects wizards and post-production artists to deliver the goods audiences crave. This is usually why I’m cool on these types of films. Too often the emphasis is on making the monster realistic while the human element suffers. Not so in Kong: Skull Island . Kong is as authentic as we’ve ever seen him, but you, John, bring the movie to life.
Kong: Skull Island is set in 1973, an era when big name stars like Paul Newman and Gene Hackman found themselves headlining over-the-top disaster/action movies like Poseidon Adventure, Towering Inferno and Airport. These films required that their expensive cast do little more than react to their high-concept plot points with incredulity, fear, and ultimately, relief. Kong: Skull Island expects much of the same from its cast. John Goodman is Randa, a scientist convinced Skull Island holds a mysterious secret and leads its exploration. Tom Hiddleston is Conrad, an unflappable, debonair mercenary hired as a tracker. Brie Larson is Mason, a Vietnam war-hardened photojournalist looking to score a Pulitzer. Samuel L. Jackson is world-weary Lieutenant Colonel Packard, in command of the helicopter squadron flying the expedition to the island. All are stock characters elevated by the calibre of their performances.
Then you appear.
At this point, we’ve already seen Kong. And he is a magnificent beast, swatting helicopters out of the sky, squashing pilots underfoot as they race to get away, and wrestling with a giant octopus. If this sounds ridiculous, it’s because it’s supposed to. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts sets a tone that balances between visual awe, and dry humour, sometimes combining both – a scene of a pilot falling into Kong’s open maw cuts to a shot of a scientist taking a healthy chomp out of his sandwich – all while having fun with tropes and a none-too-subtle homage to Apocalypse Now. Your character, Marlow, is a bit of a combo of Dennis Hopper’s manic photojournalist, and Brando’s “gone native” Kurtz. But you make this character your own, and in doing so, save the film from being just another CGI cash-grab.
Marlow, a WWII pilot, has been living on Skull Island since his plane went down there in 1944. He is the resident expert on its inner workings. He co-exists peacefully with a tribe of natives (making a spectacular entrance) who regard Kong as a god, one who protects them from the gruesome Skullcrawlers, the true monsters in this film. Marlow’s job is more than just expository. He gives the film heart, and a true character to root for. Your sweet, loopy, and earnest portrayal even gives gravitas to the old, “I left a pregnant wife back home” cliché. If anyone deserves to get off of this island, it’s him.
Vogt-Roberts knows Kong is the real star of this film, and he quite smartly doesn’t over-expose him. Skull Island has many surprises in store for its guests beyond Kong. The interlopers must navigate around giant spiders, giant water buffalo, and wrestle with whether or not to kill Kong, who is the only thing that can keep the Skullcrawlers at bay. Sam Jackson’s Packard is looking for redemption for his pilots eliminated by Kong, and the two share an intense, flame-filled, Tarantino-esque staring-contest vibe. I could almost hear Jackson’s inner monologue, “the path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the tyranny of evil primates.” Conrad and Mason take Marlow’s side in arguing that Kong is their only hope of getting off the island. This “man interfering with natural selection” sentiment doesn’t get too heavy-handed as it thrusts the characters to an epic, inter-species bar-brawl conclusion.
Your job here, John, was to keep things light, and provide some much-needed comic-relief following scenes of intense carnage. But you did so much more. You grounded this film. When awards season comes around, Kong: Skull Island will likely see some noms for the fantastic work done by the SFX and sound departments, but I hope you don’t get overlooked. Your Marlow deserves to get some recognition the same way Melissa McCarthy (Bridesmaids), and Robert Downey Jr (Tropic Thunder) saw their comic turns rewarded with Best Supporting Acting nods. Maybe, like your friends Jack Black and Will Farrell mused with you at the 79th Academy Awards, you will finally go home with an Oscar, and maybe even Helen Mirren.