Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, John Goodman, John C. Reilly
Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence, action and brief strong language
That would be remote Skull Island, where, in director Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ slam-bang opening, two World War II parachutists — one American, one Japanese — bail out of their crashing planes, land a few yards apart and instantly engage in a duel to the death until suddenly interrupted by — a huge hand.
Cut to a series of vintage news clips taking us nicely through the next 30 years — from Truman and the A-bomb through Ike’s and JFK’s cold war, then LBJ’s hot one in Vietnam — to 1973, as an impeached Dick Nixon approaches the war’s (and his own) end.
That’s the entree for two rogue scientists (John Goodman and Corey Hawkins) to coax federal funding for an expedition to explore mysterious, uncharted Skull Island (recently discovered by satellite). The scientific mumbo jumbo on which all the rest rests: A thick cloud of carbon dioxide perpetually enclosing the island indicates that the ground beneath it is a bottomless reservoir of petroleum.
A diverse team of scientists and adventurers is assembled — plus a big-time military escort under gung-ho ’Nam helicopter assault-company commander Samuel L. Jackson, who is more easily inflamed than the petroleum, and ignites the ultimate big battle between man and mighty mythic monsters in a place where human personas — foreign ones, at least — are non grata for good reason.
The Dan Gilroy-Max Borenstein screenplay is devoid of much character interest. Tom Hiddleston as the Indiana Jones-type tracker takes a semi-romantic interest in token female Brie Larson, a photographer embedded in the team if not in Mr. Hiddleston’s tent. She dispenses laconic wisecracks in her tank top, with little hint of the talent that earned her a 2015 best actress Oscar for “Room.”
Overall, it’s a B+ rather than A-list of stars: Mr. Jackson and John C. Reilly replaced J.K. Simmons and Michael Keaton, who bowed out for scheduling reasons. Mr. Reilly turns out to be the film’s best, funniest character as the flyer marooned on Skull Island for 28 years — not too crazy, just crazy enough. Mr. Jackson, on the other hand, employs the same one-dimensional, bug-eyed menace he exhibits in all his roles.
Special effects — not characters — reign supreme here, as we’d expect from the $190 million budget. For that money, we get Kong’s tallest-ever American incarnation (104 feet), compared with Peter Jackson’s mere 25-foot Kong, plus elements of the silly-but-celebrated Japanese adaptations (“King Kong vs. Godzilla” of 1962 and “King Kong Escapes” of 1967) — and exaggerated aspects of Kong’s height and supernatural strength that anticipate his forthcoming U.S. rematch, “King Kong vs. Godzilla,” in 2020.
There’s a lot to love here, notably Kong’s terrific battle with a giant octopus, in which he slurps up the tentacles like spaghetti! (Parental warning: Little kids beware.) The best surprise is the tribe of calm, cool, quiet natives who show up, decorated with lavishly beautiful scarifications that match the walls of their temples.
Director Vogt-Roberts (“The Kings of Summer,” 2013) provides excellent Vietnam era atmospherics, including a stunning bad-weather launch of helicopters “made of Pennsylvania steel, guaranteed not to melt!” and the canny use of period music (Grace Slick’s “White Rabbit,” David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust”).
Nobody here, of course, has learned anything since director Merian C. Cooper’s original: Upon first encountering Kong, they immediately start shooting and annoying him with feckless human weapons — this time, with lotsa napalm. But these critters seem pretty flame-resistant, or is it flame-retardant? Whichever, it makes for great visual carnage. Mr. Goodman gets carried away in more ways than one. Mr. Reilly tries to tell them, “Kong is king around here!” — their protector from the hideous “skull crawlers”— SERIOUSLY ill-tempered giant lizard-pterodactyls, who abound.
Ah, well. However much a mashup of its predecessors and of “Jurassic Park,” “Apocalypse Now,” “Miss Saigon” and “Journey to Center of the Earth,” it moves fast and it marks the entertaining return of cinema’s most enduring and endearing beast.
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