It takes integrity to bother making a good film when a bad one might have made just as much money. “Kong: Skull Island” is a smart science-fiction action movie that doesn’t rely on a handful of monsters and random scenes of computerized destruction to run out the clock. It has a smart script, imaginative filmmaking and a cast of fine actors who really get to act.
Or to put it another way, King Kong has never looked so good.
The action takes place in the 1970s, right after the end of the Vietnam War. John Goodman plays a spooky scientist who gets government funding to explore the seismology of an uncharted island, but he’s more interested in monsters. He saw one or two in the second World War and has been trying to prove it ever since.
A team is assembled. There’s Samuel L. Jackson as a military officer, brooding about the loss of Vietnam, and Tom Hiddleston as a tracker. Brie Larson plays a war photographer who becomes interested in the mission because she smells a story: “When three sources tell you the same thing word for word, you know they’re lying.” Along for the ride are lots of soldiers, helicopters and unnamed characters, so the monsters have plenty to chew on.
The characters are introduced with care and specificity, and the dialogue is sharp. There are other nice touches, too, including the use of pop music on the sound track and a certain gallows-humor spirit that calls to mind “MASH.” But the set piece that will glue you to your seat is the expedition’s first encounter with Kong, a kind of replay of the Empire State Building scene from the 1933 classic, only this time Kong has the home-field advantage.
The rest of the film deals with the characters getting the lay of the land, figuring out which monsters are bad, which are worse, and which are only sort-of-bad. There are sincere-looking water buffalo that are clearly OK, and a disgusting spider that’s the size of an office building.
Adding to the festivity is John C. Reilly, as an aviator who has been stuck on Skull Island since 1944 and has gone a little crazy. Reilly’s performance is a comic delight, in that he can’t tell when he’s actually speaking and when he’s communicating telepathically.
“Kong: Skull Island” drags a bit in the middle, but fortunately, it recovers — completely. Let’s hope this action blockbuster sets the pattern for all that follow.
“Kong: Skull Island”
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for brief strong language. 2:00. 2D and 3D: Fayette Mall, Hamburg, Nicholasville, Richmond. 3D only: Frankfort. 2D only: Georgetown, Winchester.