There were many things working against Kong: Skull Island, but the biggest was the simple fact it’s the fourth telling of an incredibly iconic story. Does the world really need another telling of King Kong? Particularly just a dozen years after Peter Jackson already reintroduced the mammoth monkey to the CGI generation, is there anything new to be done with the gigantic gorilla?
Absolutely, it turns out. The truly reimagined Kong: Skull Island somehow finds a whole new way to tell a story most already know too well, subverting almost each expectation in turn and breathing new life into Merian C. Cooper’s behemoth creation.
There’s no movie director role this time. There’s no damsel in distress. There’s nary even a shot that takes place in New York. This time, there’s John Goodman.
Goodman and Corey Hawkins (Straight Outta Compton) are government agents who are granted a military escort over an uncharted island — because if they don’t claim it first, those pesky Russians could beat them to it.
Oh, right. Ingeniously, Kong: Skull Island takes place not in 2017 but 1973, a time long before cell phones, global positioning, or the end of the Cold War. The leader of the military unit flying Goodman and Hawkins over Skull Island, in fact — played ferociously by Samuel L. Jackson — has just received his orders to pull out of Vietnam, and he’s itching for a chance to take out his aggravation with another tour of duty.
Goodman and Hawkins also hire a British Special Air Service Captain (Tom Hiddleston) to guide them while charting the island, as a strapping explorer is always needed on these kinds of jungle quests.
Best Actress Oscar winners almost always follow up their awarded dramatic work with a big-budget action movie, and thus Brie Larson also stars in Kong: Skull Island. Rather than play a helpless damsel like the original’s Ann Darrow, though, her Mason Weaver is a capable anti-war photojournalist who saves others as much as she’s rescued herself.
John C. Reilly steals every scene as a character who is best left introduced by the movie itself. Reilly has always made a meal out of characters that walk the line between funny and crazy; let it just be said that his performance here is one of the best (and funniest and craziest) he’s given.
Of course, it’s not really about the humans. The 800-pound gorilla of the picture is Kong, who swats the team’s helicopters out of the sky when they drop seismological explosives over the island, and what a sight it is to see. The CGI is a wonder in and of itself, but what makes Kong: Skull Island such a sumptuous feast of popcorn entertainment is director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and his cinematographer Larry Fong.
Like Jurassic World‘s Colin Trevorrow, Vogt-Roberts was hired to helm the big-budget blockbuster after delivering just one indie film-festival darling, 2013’s The Kings of Summer. That enjoyable movie didn’t hint at the visual eye for scene and shot that he brings to the proceedings here, keeping the movie inventive and unpredictable from start to finish.
The script, written by Nightcrawler‘s Dan Gilroy, Godzilla‘s Max Borenstein, and Jurassic World‘s Derek Connolly, may not be quite as creative as Kong‘s direction, but for every zig you see coming, there’s a zag that comes out of nowhere. Even so, Vogt-Roberts keeps the whole affair moving at such a speedy clip and with such vivacity, the few moments that feel reheated still come off better than they should.
Just a week ago, the first great movie of 2017 arrived in Logan. That alone was surprising, with how atypical it is for great movies to be released this early in the year. Much more surprising is to have two in as many weeks of March.
Is Kong: Skull Island as good as Logan? Well, no. Logan is a richer movie with realer emotions and better performances. Logan is art. But like lots of art, it’s not very fun. Kong: Skull Island may not take itself as sombrely, but it’s far more entertaining, much more enjoyable, and the first truly great “fun” blockbuster of 2017. And that can be almost as good.