Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire


Yesterday, Vulture reported that the publicity team behind director Adam Wigand's new franchise installment finally ended a confusion that had been plaguing entertainment journalists, reviewers, and fans for weeks, the press release stating, “Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire is how it is written; Godzilla Kong The New Empire is how it is said.” Phew. The question wasn't exactly keeping me up nights. But I did have to participate in radio and TV segments on Thursday in which I was forced to admit that I didn't know how the title was meant to be spoken – as “Godzilla Against Kong” or “Godzilla by Kong” or, my favorite option, “Godzilla Times Kong.” (After December's Godzilla Minus One, I'd kind of hoped a mathematical theme was in play.) So Godzilla Kong it is. Sounds like a creature who'd definitely give Donkey Kong a run for his money.

In truth, had the video-game character and the Mario brothers made surprise cameos in Wigand's film, I wouldn't have been surprised. Landing just one week after the debut of Ghostbusters: The Frozen Empire (is another titular, sequel-specific theme developing here?), The New Empire is profoundly silly stuff, and the movie's most ingenious special effect may be lead Rebecca Hall's ability to get through it with a straight face. Yet as someone who hasn't enjoyed any of the Warner Bros./Legendary releases in their initiated MonsterVerse dating back to 2014's Godzilla, I found this latest entry a tad less enervating than its four predecessors. By that, I mean I actually managed to stay awake, and even have a bit of fun, not by viewing it as something I might want to see, but rather something a seven-year-old would love to see. (And at the packed afternoon screening I attended on Good Friday, I counted nearly a dozen kids in attendance who were much younger than seven.) I'd hardly consider Godzilla x Kong on par with the Oscar-winning genius of Godzilla Minus One, or even a number if its lesser forebears. But I would place it next to, say, the screen adaptation of Five Nights at Freddy's. Take that as whatever recommendation/warning you wish.

When The New Empire opens, per the events of 2021's Godzilla vs. Kong, our destructive protagonists are acquiescing to their imposed restraining order: Kong is in Hollow Earth searching for other kaiju of his likeness, and Godzilla is above ground warding off malevolent Titans when not curled up for a nap in Rome's Colosseum – the most purely charming image in the whole of Wigand's film. Yet something about Kong's subterranean quest is activating 'zilla's Spidey-sense (Lizard-sense?), and we come to discover that it's the world-domineering plan of an ape-like being known as Skar King, a red-haired Hollow Earth kaiju who has a really cool metallic whip made from a Titan's spinal column. Skar King rides around on an enslaved member of Godzilla's race, a creature with the power to freeze Earth solid (just like the nemesis of the latest Ghostbusters!), and only Kong, Godzilla, and a handful of humans can save the day. I may have missed a few nuances in screenwriters' Terry Rossio's, Simon Barrett's, and Jeremy Slater's plotting there. For a full recap, consult your nearest seven-year-old.

Brian Tyree Henry in Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire

I'm honestly not being facetious. Little kids will no doubt be lost – as I certainly was – whenever Hall's monster expert Dr. Ilene Andrews starting monologuing about the scientific reasons behind Godzilla's and Kong's bad behavior, or when Brian Tyree Henry's podcasting whistle-blower Bernie Hayes explained that he needed to attend the Hollow Earth mission to silence his naysayers. (Wouldn't there have been, like, nightly-news footage on the havoc created by these Titans?) But Godzilla x Kong is smart enough, or maybe merely simpleminded enough, to keep a major portion of its activity non-verbal. Neither Godzilla nor Kong talk, of course. Yet any semi-cognizant grade-schooler can glean precisely what they're “saying” in every beat of their screen time, whether it's the lizard's response to absorbing a terrifying amount of nuclear energy, or Kong ripping a slithery Titan apart with his bare hands, accidentally covering himself in the gooey viscera, and making a facial expression that can only be read as “Shit … now I have to shower.” (And he does.) Helping matters further is our human team's discovery of the Hollow Earth human race of which returning deaf character Jia (Kaylee Hottle) thought she was the last survivor. These happy-go-lucky, indigenous folks only speak telepathically, which is great news for the visiting, Earth-acclimated Jia, and even better news for audiences, who don't have to listen to any vocal banalities when they communicate. We only endure them when they're subtitled, and when Dr. Ilene is relaying the conversation to Bernie and the kaiju veterinarian played by Dan Stevens.

Before you ask “A kaiju veterinarian?!?”, yes – the Hawaiian-shirt-sporting Trapper is apparently the world's only vet for monsters the size of the Eiffel Tower, and Ilene's former college beau, to boot. This would be a lazy, insufferable, Michael-Douglas-in-Romancing-the-Stone caricature if almost anyone other than Dan Stevens played him. Thankfully, though, Stevens got the gig, and he helps underline why Godzilla x Kong is slightly more enjoyable than other MonsterVerse titles: The humans are pretty great. It helps that there aren't as many around this time, give or take a pilot that becomes literal plant food and a few thousand shrieking casualties whenever the Titans, including our “heroes,” accidentally or purposefully destroy one metropolis after another in Rome, France, Brazil, and beyond. Yet the Australian-accented Stevens is clearly having a hammy blast, and although it seems unfair that Hall is saddled with two slapstick-ready sidekicks, Henry gives the impression that he's making up all of his wonderfully witty, nervous-Nelly pronouncements on the spot – it's rare to see a formulaic Hollywood blockbuster boast Henry's level of in-the-moment invention. (Kids should adore this trio's routines: At one point, all three are determinedly running in a single-file line when Ilene abruptly stops, causing Trapper to bump into her, causing Bernie to bump into him. That's straight out of the Three Stooges.)

Hall acquits herself admirably, providing genuine rooting interest and empathy even when reciting howlers such as “Okay, we're under the Egyptian pyramids … now what do we do?” And Hottle is a lovely teen presence, as well as half-responsible for another of Wigand's unexpectedly moving images, when we fully grasp their size difference when Kong and Jia touch hands in E.T. style. Unexpectedly for the MonsterVerse, it's the monster mashups I could've done without. Godzilla's are fine, I guess, considering there's nothing on the big reptile's mind but demolishing as many Titans and globally treasured locales as possible. The Kong sequences, however, are another matter entirely. Because while I relished their lack of dialogue (Kong's scenes are like more lugubrious escapades with the Despicable Me Minions) these bits are evidently designed only for seven-year-olds – or, more insidiously, the seven-year-old in all of us.

Rebecca Hall and Dan Stevens in Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire

Every sane adult I know who has seen the Godzilla x Kong trailer has railed against the appearance of that “Baby Kong” figure who looks like Peter Jackson's Gollum as re-figured for Ronald Reagan's Bedtime for Bonzo. I'm happy to report that the first appearance of this ape-like creature named Suko finds his purported winsomeness and adorability immediately undone by biting Kong's finger and embarking on an unholy temper tantrum. I'm unhappy to report that this cheeky surprise was completely undone by the 90 minutes that followed, which turned Suko into the exact mewling-orphan sad bastard that the trailer prepped us for, this mini-Kong having had a total change of heart after his larger likeness deigned to throw him a slab of butchered Titan meat. From that moment on, Suko is the film's designated Short Round – or, worse, its Cousin Oliver from The Brady Bunch. He seems to be there solely to give young patrons some rooting interest. But Wigand and company shouldn't have bothered. Who needs this sickly Dobby wannabe around when kids are probably more than happy to side with both a chest-thumping ape and a frequently glowing Japanese menace?

Suko may have remained, as a friend and I agreed, eminently punchable, yet nothing else about Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire inspired that level of hate, which is certainly more than I can say for the previous MonsterVerse movies. Skar King may be a sadly underwhelming villain, but at least he gets an amazing P.O.V. shot of staring down millipede-sized vacationers at a Rio de Janeiro beach resort. The anti-gravity climax may be visually confounding, but at least we don't have to spend untoward time wondering about all the human casualties Wigand's film otherwise blithely ignores. (When the Titans fight on land, though, I still spent some time thinking about them.) Although the relations between the non-related humans remain abstract, I still giggled when Bernie, thanking Trapper for a life-saving move, shouted a hilariously forceful “I'm gonna kiss you on the mouth!” This latest MonsterVerse saga doesn't engender much hope for the franchise's continuation. But in this case, not-bad is momentarily proving to be not-bad enough.

Liam Neeson in In the Land of Saints & Sinners


Have you seen the poster for the new Liam Nesson movie? It's a profile of the star … with a gun! I know! I'm as gobsmacked as you must be! Sarcasm aside, there's nothing about the setup to Neeson's latest blast of I'll-have-my-bloody-payback treacle that would inspire a non-zealot – that would be me – to get on-board with director Robert Lorenz's In the Land of Saints & Sinners. This is, after all, a work by the man responsible for one of Neeson's all-time-worst he-man revenge epics in 2021's The Marksman, as well as the producer for a dozen Clint Eastwood releases ranging from 2002's Blood Work to 2014's American Sniper. Subtlety, I presumed, would not be in the cards. And it isn't much. What is on display, surprisingly and blessedly, are strong and simple plotting (by screenwriters Mark Michael McNally and Terry Loane), a number of legitimately unnerving set pieces, an extraordinarily vibrant supporting cast, and Neeson giving perhaps his most believably lived-in performance since 2012's The Grey. I didn't necessarily love the star's latest. But I sure did like it a lot, and feel that the film could be that rare Liam Neeson showcase in which die-hard fans and the unconverted among us might finally be able to meet in the middle.

Graced with that most Irish of character names Finbar Murphy, Neeson is playing a professional assassin (not-surprise #1) in the green-filled plains of early-'70s Ireland who opts to head into retirement (not-surprise #2) after his latest whack job in which his victim, in their Irish surroundings, all but sings “O Danny Boy” before his demise. This is evidently enough to make Finbar reconsider his entire life's mission. But just as Fin is readying into a life of quiet solitude gardening and sharing tender moments with the widow across the way (Sarah Greene), wouldn't you know it, a team of IRA revolutionaries led by Kerry Condon infiltrate the tiny hamlet, one of whom has apparently, repeatedly forced himself upon a local girl. Finbar's retired shotgun, it goes without saying, won't be retired much longer.

Saints & Sinners' premise, director, and star would've been enough for me to give up on the movie were it not for a rather astonishingly revealing moment early on – one in which Finbar explained to his boss (the always-great Colm Meany) that he was opting to retire because his late wife would likely have been appalled by the “poor choices” Finbar made in the wake of her death. In terms of the movie's plotting, this admission makes sense; Finbar's beloved spouse would in no way have condoned his subsequent life goal to kill as many scumbags as possible. But followers of Neeson's screen résumé since the 2009 passing of his wife Natasha Richardson may hear a different story in Finbar's explanation. Because it almost seems less like an explanation than a confession: Neeson apologizing for all the clichéd, resoundingly stupid action flicks he's starred in over the past 15 years – many of them centered on a murdered spouse – that his Tony-winning actress/wife would likely not have approved of. In this one scene in In the Land of Saints &Sinners, Neeson figuratively offers both a mea culpa and a promise to do better henceforth, and I'm delighted to say that Lorenz's movie is something Natasha Richardson would no doubt be proud of. Neeson is better than he's been in at least a decade, and the film itself matches him.

Kerry Condon and Jack Gleeson in In the Land of Saints & Sinners

Starting with his tense preamble in which an IRA bombing leads to the unintentional murder of three children, Lorenz immediately suggests that his latest Neeson outing won't be blithely consequence-free. And even though the local color introduced by the director and his screenwriters – the saucy barmaid, the refugee fiddler, the drunken shopkeeper – are all clichés, they're likable clichés whom we don't want harmed. Lorenz and company do something essential here that most revenge thrillers, particularly those in the Liam Neeson canon, don't – they make the potential victims truly worth saving. This is most surprisingly evident in Jack Gleeson's hired assassin Kevin, who's introduced as a raging sociopath yet turns out, as Finbar realizes, to be just a prototypically screwed-up kid without the necessary life experience to yet determine capitalized Right from Wrong. Gleeson is phenomenal in this movie. All of Lorenz's actors are.

With the cast including Ciarán Hinds in top-tier form as local law enforcement, best of the lot is Kerry Condon, whom I've been in the tank for since Better Call Saul, and who should've walked away with a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for The Banshees of Inisherin. (It's the highest measure of praise I can give to the Saints & Sinners screenwriters that their achievement frequently reminded me of stage works by Banshees' Martin McDonagh and his Irish ally Conor McPherson.) Offering a 180-degree spin on her kindhearted sister from 2022, Condon is blazingly threatening and terrifying, and also sublimely funny, as the woman insistent on making Finbar Murphy's life a living hell, and she never lets up – even her climactic scene finds Condon's Dioreann McCann's arguing that, as a violently stanch defender of Ireland, she has more moral certitude in her actions than Neeson's killer ever had in his. You can't disagree with her. In the Land of Saints & Sinners is formulaic, to be sure, but also a powerhouse example of formula done right, and watching Liam Neeson pull off his thunderous portrayal here is enough to make you believe in miracles. Maybe not on the level of Jesus' resurrection, but miracles nonetheless. Happy Easter, everyone!

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