‘Kong: Skull Island’ isn’t the first movie the actor’s stolen.
Curly-haired and jovial with a sense of good-natured bewilderment, actor John C. Reilly elevates his every film, most recently Kong: Skull Island. Reilly is a triple threat for whom the descriptor “triple threat” seems to undersell both the performer’s abilities and his broad range within each of the three categories of acting, singing, and dancing. His musical talent led to a comedic Grammy nomination for parody biopic Walk Hard’s soundtrack and an earnest NPR Tiny Desk concert with his country band.
I don’t know exactly how many threats Reilly truly is, but on top of his wide spread of comedic abilities – spanning comedy as weird as Tim and Eric spin-off Dr. Steve Brule and wholesome as Wreck-It Ralph – and dramatic knowhow, he became a master criminal at age twelve, robbing a train stocked with cereal.
Reilly’s career showcases not only his talent, but his eye for roles and directors. Reilly made his film debut in a Brian De Palma film with a minor role he performed so well that De Palma expanded it. He befriended Paul Thomas Anderson and made Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, and Magnolia with him, and provided grounded balance to Leonardo DiCaprio’s Howard Hughes in The Aviator. In 2002, he was in three of the five Oscar Best Picture nominees: Chicago, Gangs of New York, and The Hours had Reilly holding them up. Chicago earned him his only nomination for Supporting Actor, though we need to talk about We Need to Talk About Kevin as one of his most overlooked performances, as well as his excellent few moments in The Lobster.
He is a man unbound by genre, whether leading a comedy musical or voicing a weird little sack-man in 9. He plays basically the same character in both Days of Thunder and Talladega Nights but they somehow enrich the other, leading to a microscopic study of his redneck minutiae. When does he go big, how goofy is he allowing himself to be? A core of respect lies inside his every character, letting him parody and seriously perform at the same energy without ever blurring the lines.
Now let’s talk about how he’s the best part of Kong: Skull Island. I saw the film at a packed late-night screening downtown in my home of Chicago. Reilly – a Chicago native with whom I share an alma mater (go Blue Demons!) – plays Hank Marlow, a Chicagoan World War II pilot that was downed over Skull Island. He remained stranded there among the Iwi natives and his enemy-turned-bestie Gunpei Ikari (Miyavi) until the film’s protagonists stumble upon him after their post-Vietnam War expedition to the island. The bushy, “New Yorker cartoon desert island” beard can’t conceal Reilly’s joy at seeing the outside world, let alone fellow Americans.
His moments of charming temporal incongruity and timeless hometown pride aren’t just well written, they got the biggest audience response throughout a film entirely focused on big guns and bigger monsters (including but not limited to: giant apes, giant skull lizards, giant spiky-legged spiders, giant stick insects, and giant yaks). Kong kills a monster? Yawn. John C. Reilly talks about a hot dog and beer at Wrigley Field? Standing ovation.
Reilly’s performance shakes off the asocial dust gathered on his accidental castaway to uncover a red-blooded American beyond political or social reproach, desperate to make up for lost time. He is both patriotic and honorable, asking after his country’s (and baseball team’s) success over the years while befriending his country’s Japanese enemy to the extent that he refers to themselves as “brothers.”
He loves baseball and samurai swords equally, and you know what? We believe it. He smiles like a soggy old salt drowned in Old Style, drives a makeshift boat with a baseball-mounted steering wheel, and chops a pterodactyl in half with a wakizashi. Somehow this doesn’t seem incongruous thanks to Reilly’s aw-shucks pragmatism: he seems like a Midwestern soldier trained to survive in dangerous situations but hasn’t yet had the opportunity to mature past his mid-twenties. Of course he’s going to be bifurcating dinos whenever he can. That also means that when he rumbles up in a Chicago cab to his pre-war wife’s home to meet his grown son, it’s the most moving moment in the film, foolishly saved for the credits. I don’t know many actors that could pull that off, that mixture of badass and goofball, loverboy and selfish survivalist, reverent multiculturalist and Cubs-loving patriot. Reilly, pulling from a seemingly endless bag of tricks, delivers jokes, exposition, and ‘dactyl slices with equally palatable skill.
John C. Reilly is everything a character actor wants to be with the broad talent-shoulders to heft movies as their charismatic lead. His boyish excitement can either ensnare us or direct us to the proper protagonist as he cheerleads and sidekicks with the same gusto with which he advocates for LGBTQ rights in things like Proposition 8 – The Musical. Let us all take a moment to respect the man whom all comedians crossing over to mainstream acting aspire to be. I leave you with his literally stage-stealing interruption of the Oscars during Will Ferrell and Jack Black’s comic lament:
Related Topics: Comedy