Hollywood operates under the assumption that bigger is better, and usually ends up proving the opposite.
Its new Kong, though, is a happy exception. In Kong: Skull Island, the "monster" has been super-sized, reportedly for a pending matchup with Godzilla for a sequel down the road. For now, though, he has his big hands full -- rousingly so -- with Samuel L. Jackson, who plays an Army Air Cavalry colonel assigned to guard a scientific expedition to recently discovered tropical locale called (dunt-dunt-dunt dah!) Skull Island.
Jackson is bald, a bit mad, and recently pulled from the jungles of Vietnam, and if that has you film buffs thinking the movie is making a cheeky reference to Apocalypse Now, you are correct.
Right down to the helicopters, photographed Coppola-style against a setting sun, outfitted with speakers that blare music -- here, it's a collection of early '70s hits to establish the movie's time frame. It's 1973, and shadowy government operatives (John Goodman, Corey Hawkins) have persuaded the United States to pay for the mapping expedition to the mysterious island. They are to be accompanied by the colonel and his men (Tony Kebbell), an Oscar-winning actress (Brie Larson), a British guy (Tom Hiddleston), and Asian woman (Tian Jing) so that the film can be sold in foreign markets.
The bland dialogue seems written so as to be easily translated and dubbed, but it also sounds the right note of hokum and sets the right tone for the old-fashioned Saturday matinee fun to come.
The cursory character sketches that mark the opening moments also speak to the movie's efficiency -- it wastes no time getting to the feature attraction. Kong makes a quick, witty, action-packed entrance, dispatching invaders with a verve that suggests he doesn't like the dialogue or stock characters any better than you.
His attack scatters the survivors, and the movie follows separate groups as they hack through the jungle, where they discover that Kong is the least of their problems. Skull Island may be a knockoff, but it has a knack for knocking people off.
Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts delivers one fresh and imaginative surprise after another, cleverly framed, nicely paced, and he even offers a good performance: John C. Reilly pops up as a marooned island inhabitant, doing an amusing riff on a man driven bonkers by isolation, a funny yin to Jackson's increasingly demented and Kong-hating yang.
As for Kong himself -- nice going, Industrial Light & Magic. He's not (just) a special effect here, he's a character. The look and movement of the creature are first-rate, and he looms large as a metaphor for the dangers of tampering with the natural order of things.
All who gaze upon him do so with awe and wonder.
Except for Hiddleston, who looks relieved to be on an island with a celebrated figure who is not Taylor Swift.