REVIEW WRITTEN BY MARK MESZOROS
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Well done, you big ape.
While it’s conventional and predictable, “Kong: Skull Island” is a largely entertaining blast of a monster movie, one full of exciting action, solid special effects and just the right amount of humor.
This could be a minor spoiler for some, so be warned, but this latest take on the iconic King Kong ties to 2014’s “Godzilla,” a reboot with some admirable artistic intentions but lacking a compelling-enough story. “Kong: Skull Island” is most concerned with being an entertaining two hours at the movies, and it very much succeeds.
“Kong: Skull Island” is set in the mid-1970s — years before most of the events in “Godzilla” — as the United States leaves the conflict in Vietnam.
“Mark my word: There will never be a more screwed-up time in Washington,” says John Goodman’s Bill Randa, in the first of many jokes landed in the film.
Randa is a senior operative with the secretive government organization Monarch who very much believes in monsters and other such supernatural things. He and a highly intelligent young colleague, Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins of “Straight Outta Compton” and “24: Legacy”), convince a senator to fund an expedition to a mysterious, uncharted island in the Pacific that, they say, could hold unusual wonders leading to developments in medicine and yielding other benefit. And because the clock is ticking and they should beat the Russians there, the senator agrees.
They are part of a large team that travels to the island, a team that includes Lt. Col. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), who is frustrated by how the military’s time in Vietnam ended; a British military officer and tracker, Capt. John Conrad (Tom Hiddleston); and a war photojournalist — or, as Brie Larson’s Mason Weaver puts it, “antiwar photographer.”
If you think you’ll go deep into the movie without meeting Kong, think again. Not long after the team’s fleet of helicopters arrive and start dropping seismic charges on the island, Kong appears, swatting the hueys to the ground with his massive, furry fists. (In fact, you actually meet Kong in the film’s prologue, which will tie to something later in the movie.)
As the story progresses, Packard becomes fixated on killing Kong, as others — especially Conrad and Weaver — start to wonder if that wouldn’t be in humanity’s best interest.
Last seen on the big screen in the 2005 remake of “King Kong,” the great gorilla looks good here as digitally created, whether he’s beating his massive chest, fighting other monsters, trading sympathetic glances with Weaver — or locking hateful eyes with Packard.
“Kong: Skull Island” has its rough edges, but overall it’s an impressive directorial effort from Jordan Vogt-Roberts. Nothing from 2013 amiable but unremarkable coming-of-age tale “The Kings of Summer” — filmed around Northeast Ohio — would suggest Vogt-Roberts was the man for this job. Again, this movie is likely to captivate the masses in a way Godzilla,” directed by Gareth Edwards (“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”), did not.
Vogt-Roberts gets some help from his cast, which also includes John C. Riley (“Guardians of the Galaxy”) as a fun but important character who emerges a bit deeper into the proceedings. There are so many cast members — notable names also include Toby Kebbell (“A Monster Calls”) and John Ortiz (“A Dog’s Purpose”) — that no one gets to do all that much. However, Jackson (“The Hateful Eight”) elevates Preston at least to the level of complicated antagonist, while Hiddleston — best known for playing Thor’s brother, Loki, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe — is likable as a hero, as is Larson (“Room”) as a capable heroine.
You’d love for a few more creative ideas to have come from screenwriters Dan Gilroy; Max Borenstein, a writer on “Godzilla”; and Derek Connolly, but they’ve done a solid job with the script. (For what it’s worth, John Gatins gets a story-by credit.)
In fact, everyone involved with “Kong: Skull Island” did a fine enough job with the film that you shouldn’t mind staying all the way through the credits for a bonus scene, one that hints as to what’s to come down the line.
A few movies are planned, including a monster mash, and if they end up being on par with this “Kong,” that would be big.