With seven full-on King Kong movies since his arrival on-screen in 1933 — not to mention countless media spinoffs — it’s reasonable to question his return in “Kong: Skull Island.” Why make another movie about the big ape?
Turns out, there are excellent reasons. Lots and lots of them.
This utterly audacious “Kong” hits the reset button in the giant monster genre, shaking it awake with a mighty roar, just as the excellent “Logan” gives us a franchise-topping superhero movie that has nothing to do with being a superhero. The staple scenes and fundamental ideas of earlier versions are largely missing here, replaced by … I have to call it magic.
This is the best badass gorilla movie since “Planet of the Apes” films were revitalized with whip-smart intelligence and rip-out-your-windpipe action. It’s chaos and elemental fury, served with clarity, craft, a lot of depth and the added bonus of rambunctious fun.
The brisk script builds on the premise of a rampaging behemoth in the South Pacific, quickly veering off on a well-crafted tangent of its own. It opens with a World War II preamble battle between fighter pilots from Japan and America over an uncharted island, rousing a very tall, very angry local from his nap. We flash forward to Washington, D.C., in 1973 as the Vietnam War limps to the finish line. The federal brain trust doesn’t seem to understand that conflict in that particular theater of the war can be very costly. Lesson poorly learned, they approve a secret military mapping run led by crackpot researcher Bill Randa (John Goodman) to look into the unexplored isle and harvest valuable information about undiscovered creatures. As if.
The team-building subplot puts together a wide ensemble. A large Vietnam-based helicopter reconnaissance team will be led by Lt. Col. Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), a commander bitterly grousing that the combat mission there was “not lost,” merely “abandoned.” Recording the mission will be “antiwar photographer” Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), and the ground guide is James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), a Brit with a knack for jungle excursions. Along with various well detailed servicemen and scientific types, they fly to the island in a combat-ready squadron of Bell UH-1 Hueys.
Trouble soon begins. Although their guns can blast thousands of rounds a minute, the newcomers face the existential shock of how poorly the choppers match up with colossal fists flying at full speed. Cinematographer Larry Fong’s (“300”) frenetic fireballs are abstract art that makes your eyes water.
The movie deliciously cites “Apocalypse Now,” another delirious war adventure delivering a political parable. Like Francis Ford Coppola’s surreal battle odyssey, “Kong” keeps getting crazier and crazier as it goes along, synergizing good and evil, darkness and light, one bloodthirsty civilization imposing itself against another. The film’s startling visuals, rhythmic editing and 1970s rock ’n’ roll soundtrack echo Coppola’s iconic musical attack sequence against a Viet Cong stronghold, from carpet bombing runs to nightmarish blowback. Is it sheer coincidence that Kong and Viet Cong sound the same?
Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, who’s worked mainly in TV until now, is confident and focused in every frame. He gives us epic action sequences that are never repetitive, and he drives home his satirical points with glimpses of throwaway images. A Nixon bobblehead doll carried on a helicopter dashboard approves the chaos with jiggling nods.
Infuriated by the monster’s impertinence, Packard sees his farewell assignment as one last chance to show how sophisticated U.S. firepower under good command can force back beastly adversaries. Jackson’s character has the same rank as Robert Duvall’s crazed air cavalry commander Kilgore in “Apocalypse” and the same darkly comic grandiosity. When it’s suggested that the crash survivors, now trapped in a labyrinth of prehistoric carnivores, should retreat to safety and call for the cavalry, he growls, “I am the cavalry!”
John C. Reilly delivers the only performance that tops Jackson’s. He plays a gonzo military vet who has gone native after decades among the island’s tribal inhabitants, a character not that different from Dennis Hopper’s extravagantly manic “Apocalypse” motor-mouth, except that Reilly makes him adorable.
The rest of the cast is neither hit nor miss. Hiddleston is an attractive screen presence but an unconvincing action star, and not the leading man here. The protagonist is about 10 times taller. Larson’s character exists largely to give Kong a brief moment as a gentle giant, saving her from drowning and carrying her to safety in his SUV-sized palm. Luckily, no beauty-and-the-beast romance blooms from it. Kong is never ridiculous. The same can’t be said for the casting of Tian Jing as a tag-along scientist for no reason better than her name recognition appeal to Asian audiences.
Those quibbles aside, literally and figuratively, “Kong” is smashing. All hail the king.
Kong: Skull Island
★★★★ out of 4 stars
Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for brief strong language.