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God’s lonely ape

‘Kong: Skull Island’ is a guilt-free b-movie spectacle

Take the best parts of Peter Jackson’s 2005 “King Kong” remake—the Skull Island action—throw it in a blender with “Jurassic Park, “Apocalypse Now” and “Moby Dick” and you have “Kong: Skull Island,” Warner Bros. second entry (after 2012’s “Godzilla”) in their inevitable expanded kaijuniverse.  

Monster movies are always b-movies, even when they’re good. Nothing really separates a man-in-suit, 1960s Toho Godzilla flick from a mega-budget, CGI smash-fest as long as they remember what they are supposed to be. The plot is merely a delivery system for money shots of creature mayhem. The cast requires a hero (or two) and heroine, and some charismatic cannon fodder in supporting roles, each given their defining character moment before they die. A cheeky sense of humor helps, but it’s really all about the tension and buildup to eruptions of Harryhausen-inspired spectacle.  

In that regard, “Kong: Skull Island” is a b-movie mic drop. Albeit a $190 million one.

It’s 1973 and Nixon has just announced the ending of hostilities in Vietnam. Bill Randa (John Goodman) and his geologist sidekick, Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) work for the “X-Files”-esque Monarch—a secret, underfunded government agency tasked with discovering the unknown, which, in this case, is a newly revealed island in the South Pacific responsible for more airplane and ship disappearances than the Bermuda Triangle.

Sensing their window of opportunity closing, Randa and Brooks harangue a senator (Richard Jenkins) into giving them permission to piggyback to the island with an elite helicopter unit led by Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), if only to find anything weird before the Russians do. 

Randa and Brooks, spinning a cover story to Packard about seismic tests, hire a mercenary outdoorsman, Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), to guide them in the wilderness. They are joined by Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), a pacifist photojournalist who’s convinced something nefarious is afoot.

Arriving at Skull Island, they promptly begin dropping bombs—pissing off King Kong (Terry Notary) who, unsurprisingly, takes a dim view of that shit.

Knocked from the sky by a 100-foot tall ape, our protagonists are scattered to the winds, with three days to get to the retrieval point. While the civilians think only of survival, Packard, broken by the end of the war and the loss of his men to Kong, is bent on vengeance.

Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts (“The Kings of Summer”) and scripted by a lab of writers both credited and not, “Kong: Skull Island” casts no aspersions on itself. It knows exactly how good it needs to be, and it mostly delivers. 

Shot on location in Vietnam, the film melds picturesque realism and CG leviathans almost seamlessly, and Vogt-Roberts manages a nice balance of action and humor—staging two stunning battle set pieces, and peppering the rest with unconcerned, popcorn-munching moments of gleeful (if derivative) fun with a body count.

The effects are pretty. The whole film has a textured polish that belies its period setting. The creature design of Kong—and the myriad, deadly, Lovecraftian beasties who also inhabit the island—is just…super cool. No other way to put it.      

Hiddleston and Larson hotness their way through everything, because they are both incredibly hot, so who cares? Goodman is phoning it in like the conspiratorial ghost of Walter Sobchak. When the movie isn’t being completely stolen by John C. Reilly as Hank Marlow, a downed WWII pilot who’s been living with the natives for 28 years, then its Shea Whigham—as one of Packard’s no-bullshit captains—who’s deftly kidnapping whole scenes. They’re both so good it’s almost like they’re in a different movie.

And Kong. He’s in there, too. That big lug with an orphaned heart. At war with the freaks, and protecting the ladies. “God’s Lonely Ape.” He’s basically a simian Travis Bickle. What’s not to love?

For more from Joe, read his review of the Michaël Dudok de Wit’s surreal, sublime, and devastating animated film, “The Red Turtle.”