The New Empire’ is a worthy ‘When Hairy Met Scaly II’ – Hartford Courant

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Guy behind the concession counter the other night asks me which movie I’m seeing. “Godzilla X Kong: The New Empire,” I tell him. He puts down the popcorn and heaves a nearly convulsive sigh of relief. Gratitude? Hope? All of it. A mashup of emotions, to go with the movie’s mashup of species.

“Oh, man,” the concession worker says. “We really need that one.”

“Dune II” notwithstanding, it has been a difficult year at the average movie theater. Now comes the new Godzilla/Kong smackdown — the marketing materials, for the record, tell us that the “X” in “Godzilla X Kong” is silent, which is a confusing waste of a perfectly good letter. But I’m happy to report that the follow-up to the 2021 “Godzilla vs. Kong” does the job — unevenly, yes, but with a pleasantly reckless spirit of engagement.

It’s directed, as was the 2021 movie, by Adam Wingard and features the return of Rebecca Hall, Brian Tyree Henry, Kaylee Hottle and assorted digital MonsterVerse golden oldies, from ‘Zilla to Kong to Mothra and more, shined up and fulla’ beans.

Maybe the preview crowd on Tuesday was an outlier, but I doubt it. The bursts of applause, particularly in the blithely destructive Rio de Janeiro climax — a team-building exercise for the headliners — had the ring of genuine approval, not just something you do because the movie’s begging for it. At one point Godzilla and Kong sprint toward their enemy, Scar King, the orange authoritarian nightmare whose territorial ambitions as a Kong-scaled antagonist know no bounds. You know the shot: the action-movie slow-mo dash toward the camera, executed here in such a way as to suggest Godzilla and Kong have spent many hours rewatching “Bad Boys.”

Dumb, right? Well, sure. Also amusing, and exciting and sincere. For the audience, it’s a shameless bid for applause that satisfies our deepest urges to see two endlessly competitive beings find the joy in starring, however briefly, in a Michael Bay action movie.

At the end of “Godzilla vs. Kong,” the atomically charged sea lizard and the woolly plus-sized simian reconciled, uneasily (without lawyers), after vanquishing the human-made Mechagodzilla. Despite widespread human fear and skepticism, Godzilla agreed (again, without lawyers) to keep a beady eye in his touchingly too-small head on monstrous threats to humankind on Earth’s surface. Kong returned to Hollow Earth, the gravity-scrambled inner wonderland of verdant beauty and violent predators. The film worked like a remake of “The Odd Couple,” proving that two lonely Titans can share a planet without driving each other crazy.

The threats double, triple and quadruple in the new movie. Scar King, whose miserably enslaved followers include a Titan “ancient” in the Godzilla vein, ranks as Headache No. 1.  But there are others, and Godzilla gives up his post to chase down an unexplained distress signal emitting from Hollow Earth. The signal perplexes the humans in “Godzilla X Kong,” nervous about what might happen if Godzilla and Kong mix it up again.

Rebecca Hall, left, and Brian Tyree Henry in a scene from "Godzilla X Kong: The New Empire." (Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)
Rebecca Hall, left, and Brian Tyree Henry in a scene from “Godzilla X Kong: The New Empire.” (Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)

These humans of whom we speak include the brilliant, eternally preoccupied scientist Dr. Andrews (the Hall character). Her adopted daughter Jia (Hottle), the sole surviving member of the Iwi tribe of Skull Island, has been plagued by visions of Hollow Earth and imminent catastrophe, and with her telepathic communication with her pal Kong heightened, something’s definitely up. Reunited with the Titan-obsessed podcaster Bernie (Henry) and Andrews’ one-time squeeze Trapper (Dan Stevens), the humans zwoop to Hollow Earth to make their own set of astonished green-screen discoveries on cue.

Whole sections of “Godzilla X Kong” shove the humans off-screen for many minutes at a time. Few will complain. I love Hall in just about everything and she and Hottle capture enough authentic feeling in their mother/daughter relationship to earn a tear or two themselves. To be fair, some of that comes from the screenplay by writers Terry Rossio, Simon Barrett and Jeremy Slater, though the laziest exposition and boilerplate dialogue puts the “bored” in “cardboard.” (I stopped counting how often Hall’s character says “Oh, my god!” in response to whatever she’s oh-my-godding about.)

Whatever; nobody’s paying for the words here. “Godzilla X Kong” makes up for its own deficiencies with oddball flourishes. Wingard and the writers work like rogue chefs at an Olive Garden, tossing everything they can at any number of walls to see what sticks. The sight of Godzilla curling up like a kitten, napping inside the Colosseum in Rome after he’s half-trashed it in order to save it from an attacker: very nice. Later on, chowing down on a lifetime’s worth of free food (atomic energy stored under the Arctic ice), Godzilla’s bad breath and body odor color changes from blue to bright pink, as if he’s getting dolled up for a Summer of ’23 weekend with Barbenheimer.

Godzilla, thinking pink and apparently just coming out of a Hollow Earth screening of "Barbie," in the new "Godzilla X Kong: The New Empire." (Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)
Godzilla, thinking pink and apparently just coming out of a Hollow Earth screening of “Barbie,” in the new “Godzilla X Kong: The New Empire.” (Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)

The movie proceeds with brutal bouts of MMA combat with 300-foot combatants. The comparatively measured and selective action storytelling of the 2014 Gareth Edwards “Godzilla,” like last year’s terrific Japanese revitalizer “Godzilla Minus One,” feels a long way from Wingard’s janky funhouse movies. But they have their own relentless, overstuffed appeal; I wouldn’t recommend them if they didn’t.

If I focus more on Godzilla in this new picture than Kong (the movie’s slightly more Kong-centric), maybe it’s because the best dog I ever had also had a too-small head. Not sure that’s enough to build an entire Godzilla ethos around, but I’ll take it up with my therapist.

And I’ll take these Godzilla/Kong MonsterVerse movies over most other corporate studio franchises these days, especially the recent “Jurassic Park” outings, which were, what’s the word … lousy. Yes, Godzilla and Kong cause untold and blithely unexamined human and property damage in Wingard’s latest, enough so that I wouldn’t mind seeing an entire movie at some point in this franchise’s lifespan devoted to lawsuits and legal battles, if only to see how Godzilla and Kong behave in a courtroom. The Rio carnage is quite extensive; earlier, there’s a dash of sweet pathos in the sight of Godzilla klutzing around Rome, damaging priceless landmarks because he can’t help it. Typical foreign tourist.

But let’s be realistic: What good is realism to “Godzilla X Kong”? Final question: Which low-level employee took the time to add the extra exclamation point to the dire control panel warning “GODZILLA VITALS SURGING!!”? There are only four possible words for whoever it was: employee of the month.

“Godzilla X Kong: The New Empire” — 3 stars (out of 4)

MPA rating: PG-13 (for creature violence and action)

Running time: 2:02

How to watch: Premieres in theaters March 28

Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.

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