Nobody is ever going to top the gigantic gorilla classic “King Kong” (1933) with Fray Wray, Robert Armstrong, and Bruce Cabot. You may complain it is too old, too contrived, and too black & white. Sure, it is, but it remains an archetypal fantasy, and it altered the way Hollywood made movies. Few may concern themselves about its legacy, and the ignorant will never know how “King Kong” shaped the cinematic future. Meanwhile, Hollywood keeps on trying to surpass the legendary Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack classic. Although “Kings of the Summer” director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and three scribes: Dan Gilroy of “The Bourne Legacy,” Max Borenstein of the rebooted 2014 “Godzilla,” and Derrick Connelly of “Jurassic World” have taken liberties with the formulaic narrative, they have created an entertaining but audacious action & adventure epic that should rattle anybody’s cage.
Principally, Vogt-Roberts and his writers have eliminated some tragic events critical in previous “King Kong” remakes. Indeed, the title “Kong: Skull Island” (*** OUT OF ****) tells all in this captivating reboot. Aside from its double-pronged prologue that establishes the basics, virtually everything takes place on Skull Island. I know what you’re thinking: Vogt-Roberts and company linger so long on Skull Island that they are saving the rest for Kong saga sequels like Peter Jackson when he produced “The Hobbit.” Okay, might be a possibility. If you stick around after the end credits, you’ll see a scene that charts the future for “Kong” sequels. Paying close attention to those end credits may raise some questions that the after-the-end-credits stinger answers. This is one scene you need to stick around for after everybody else has left. Whatever the case, “Kong: Skull Island” deviates from previous Kongs (maybe not the 1962 Toho Studio release “King Kong Vs. Godzilla”), and the relationships among the humans and their interactions with Kong have been changed with the introduction of entirely different characters. Altogether, these changes in “Kong: Skull Island” create an interesting variation on the parable of this prodigious primate. Clocking in at 120 minutes with larger-than-life action galore, “Kong: Skull Island” does one thing better than its predecessors. Namely, the humans are more interesting and compelling than the beasts. Actor John C. Reilly virtually steals the show as a supporting character. Second, the filmmakers have dreamed up a premise that makes the setting justifiable rather than capricious.
“Kong: Skull Island” unfolds in the South Pacific during World War II as an Allied aviator, Lieutenant Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly of “Step Brothers”), bails out of his flaming P-51 fighter. No sooner has Marlow landed safely than the Japanese pilot,Gunpei Ikari (Japanese singer-songwriter Miyavi), who shot him down endures a similar fate. Marlow empties his .45 automatic pistol at his adversary, but he misses with all shots. The Nipponese pilot cannot shoot with any greater accuracy, so it boils down to Marlow dodging his enemy who discards his firearm and wields a Kantana sword. Locked into a life and death struggle, Marlow and his foe get the surprise of their lives when a skyscraper-sized gorilla interrupts their hand-to-hand fight. Afterward, the action shifts to 1975 and the twilight of the Vietnam War, as President Richard M. Nixon announces that America is calling it quits in Southeast Asia. Meantime, an enigmatic figure from the ultra-secret scientific Monarch agency, William ‘Bill’ Randa (John Goodman of “10 Cloverfield Lane”), persuades reluctant Senator Willis (Richard Jenkins of “Jack Reacher”) to let him piggy-back on a government mission to explore an anonymous island recently spotted by satellites. Willis agrees, but only because the Soviets have not obtained similar satellite images.
Randa has acquired a dubious reputation because he witnessed a monster attack a U.S. Navy vessel and kill everybody aboard except himself. Since this incident, everybody has labeled him a crackpot. Accompanying Randa to Vietnam is Yale geologist Huston Brooks (Corey Hawkins of “Iron Man 3”), and they hire former British Special Air Service Captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston of “Thor”) who knows how to find soldiers lost in the jungle. Finally, Randa recruits U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson of “Unbreakable”) and his Sky Devils helicopter assault squadron. Packard has the option of either going back to America or signing up for this mysterious mission. Incensed by Nixon’s withdrawal from Vietnam, Packard accepts the mission because he wants to do something heroic before he leaves the hemisphere. Packard is Draconian to the max. He completes missions, and he leaves the enemy a sight worse than he found them, until he takes The Sky Devils to Skull Island. Lastly, another civilian, an attractive photo-journalist, Mason Weaver (Brie Larson of “Trainwreck”), joins them at the last minute. Larson’s character isn’t as helpless as previous “King Kong” damsels. Unlike her predecessors, she doesn’t form as memorable a relationship with Kong.
Treacherous weather conditions have concealed Skull Island from mankind since creation. Storms crackling with jagged lightning and impenetrable clouds gather around the island. Some civilians dispatched to the island balk at entering those ominous clouds. Colonel Packard refuses to allow anything as trifling as weather to interfere with his objectives. The Sky Devils launch from a cargo ship. Momentarily, “Kong: Skull Island” pays tribute to the vintage Vietnam era film “Apocalypse Now” (1979) as those choppers fly over the island. Packard and company are not prepared for what they encounter after launching small bombs for seismic readings. King Kong interrupts the Sky Devils while they are dropping ordnance. The climactic scene in John Guillermin’s “King Kong” (1976), when choppers surrounded Kong atop the World Trade Center in New York City, clearly inspired this fight. After Kong destroys all the choppers, our heroes find themselves afoot on an island teeming with savage predators. They stumble into Marlow with an army of tribal warriors, and they welcome the newcomers.
Watching Tom Hiddleston play a conventional hero is a refreshing change of pace from his comic villain in the Disney/Marvel “Thor” epics. Samuel L. Jackson makes a terrific villain who is as adamant about killing King Kong as Captain Ahab was in killing the great white whale in “Moby Dick” (1956). John C. Reilly steals the picture as the rugged aviator Marlow. King Kong looks impressive, too. The way that various characters die reflects that wildlife that either chomps or stomps them. However, no death is too gruesome to observe. The MPAA has rated “Skull Island” as PG-13 for “intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for brief strong language.”