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‘Kong: Skull Island’: King Kong swats away the story line

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Special To The Japan Times

From the bizarrely “localized” titles to the media events featuring random TV personalities who aren’t even in the film, Japanese distributors use some peculiar strategies to promote Hollywood movies to an increasingly indifferent public.

Still, it’s fair to say that Warner Bros. Japan outdid themselves when they tapped veteran monster illustrator Yuji Kaida to make a domestic poster for “Kong: Skull Island.” While the artwork for the movie’s international release consciously mimics the aesthetic of “Apocalypse Now,” in Japan it’s been given a full B-movie makeover. Kaida’s poster is a real wonder: a garish, flame-wreathed collage of monsters and painted savages, crowned with an image of King Kong himself crushing a helicopter in one hand.

For once, at least, Japanese cinemagoers are getting the more honest sell. “Kong: Skull Island” is a barmy mash-up that attempts to graft a gritty war movie onto a matinee monster flick, and while it never convinces in the former respect, for untrammeled mayhem it more than delivers.

This is all the more surprising given that the movie descends from the same lineage as Gareth Edwards’ “Godzilla,” the opening installment in Legendary Entertainment’s “MonsterVerse” franchise. That film was an interminable bore, in which the (admittedly fantastic) city-trashing climax was preceded by 90 minutes of human drama so generic it might as well have been written by a computer algorithm.

When the titular ape makes an appearance during the opening sequence of “Kong: Skull Island,” it’s clear that Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ film won’t be nearly as stingy with the spectacle. After this brief prelude set in World War II, the action skips forward to 1973, when a squad of American soldiers waiting to be shipped home from Vietnam is re-routed to provide armed escort for a scientific mission to an uncharted island. You’d think the fact that the place was called Skull Island and surrounded by a perpetual storm system would be enough to make them reconsider their plans, but apparently the thought of the Soviets getting there first is too much to bear.

On the military side, there’s a bunch of thinly characterized grunts and their badass commander, Col. Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), plus the ex-SAS operative who’s been hired to guide them through the jungle (Tom Hiddleston). The civilian contingent includes a shady government wonk (John Goodman), an “anti-war” photographer (Brie Larson) and an implausibly well-groomed biologist played by Jing Tian, whose awkward casting smacks of contractual obligations to the film’s Chinese co-financiers.

Few of these characters leave much impression, and Vogt-Roberts struggles to maintain a consistent tone as the script — credited to three writers who presumably hate each other — ricochets between genres. Given the director’s background in comedy shorts, it’s surprising how few of the jokes land, and any chemistry between Hiddleston and Larson was presumably lost on the cutting-room floor.

The film only really comes into its element when the beasts start brawling, but still — what brawls. When Kong disposes of Packard’s helicopter fleet early on, the sequence is such an orgy of playful destruction — complete with shameless 3-D shots of characters dangling over the ape’s gaping jaws — that I worried the film wouldn’t have anywhere to go once it was over. Like “Jurassic World,” the set pieces in “Kong: Skull Island” give a sense of heft and gravity to their flying chunks of CGI. At a time when so much effects-driven spectacle is downright wearying to watch, this is a dumb, giddy pleasure.

What happens if you swat a man with a flamethrower into a pile of gas grenades? Can you use a helicopter as a baseball bat? How about a tree? When a giant ape wrestles with a giant squid, does he develop a taste for sashimi? Finally, here’s a movie that’s prepared to ask the questions that really matter.