The dialogue is clunky, the A-list actors are slumming and, yeah, you’ve seen it all before. But Kong: Skull Island is a creature feature that’s damn near irresistible. Set in 1973, just when the U.S. pulled out of Vietnam, this loony epic boasts a killer soundtrack and a thing for the surreal kick of Apocalypse Now. This return of the King is the second entry in what eventually be a new cinematic Giant Monster-verse (following 2014’s bland Godzilla reboot), and it’s a rip-roaring rumble in the jungle.
Jordan Vogt-Roberts directs like a kid in a candy store. His 2013 indie The Kings of Summer was an intimate look at teen boys – basically, the polar opposite of the propulsive spectacle on view here. The story starts with a flashback to 1944, “somewhere over the South Pacific,” in which two pilots (one Japanese, the other an American) drop by parachute onto Skull Island. They try to slaughter each other … until Kong raises a hairy fist. That sight tides us over while screeenwriters Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly and story creator John Gatins speed through the exposition.
John Goodman brings real juice to the role of Bill Randa, an American explorer who hustles the Nixon administration (“Mark my word, there’ll never be a more screwed up time in Washington”) to finance a trip to a forbidden island isolated by storms, and “a place where myth and science meet.” Along for the ride is Samuel L. Jackson as Lt. Colonel Packard, a military nutjob straight out of the Kurtz playbook. Packard leads a chopper-attack-brigade called the Sky Devils and brings all of the frustrated bitterness to the job of a man who still wants to finish the war in ‘Nam. Then there’s Tom Hiddleston as Capt. Conrad, a SAS tracker who can find anything. And Brie Larson, following up her Oscar-winning role in Room, is Mason Weaver, an anti-war photographer who susses out that Randa is after something bigger than just an island. We’re guessing no one will be up for an Oscar for being human bait for the beasties, though John C. Reilly steals every scene he’s in as Hank Marlow, the pilot we met in the prologue who’s been living among the scary natives of Skull Island ever since. Whatever romance there is comes when the beast holds beauty in his paw for a few fleeting seconds, just like the 1933 original.
What lifts Kong: Skull Island from the swamp of clichés is the action. Every kind of creature – from giant lizards and spiders to gargantuan water buffalo – steps up for a go at the ape. Visual effects supervisors Stephen Rosenbaum and Jeff White do themselves proud, and the big guy himself is a wonder, seemingly always ready for his close-up. He’s also the real hero of the piece, the one who’s protecting the island from these prehistoric weapons of mass destruction. The effects are way cool and thunderously exciting. And really, what else do you need to know? Grab your popcorn and strap in for the ride.