Those stricken with Oscar-season fatigue will find a bloody, bone-crunching escape in Kong: Skull Island, a rock-solid action adventure that’s more polished and character-driven than its blockbuster budget would lead you to believe. Similarly conceived reboots typically shoot themselves in the foot by grasping at nostalgia rather than carving out their own niche in franchise history, but Kong strives for the latter, to rousing effect.
No skyscrapers are scaled in this version of the classic monster movie, with virtually the entire story playing out on Skull Island, the lush, teeming death trap Kong calls home. It’s 1973, and as the US military is pulling out of Vietnam, satellite photos unveil the ominous, long-hidden land mass, shrouded by a perpetual, near-impenetrable wall of electrical storms. A group of soldiers, scientists, and specialists embark on a risky research mission that quickly devolves into an unhinged jungle massacre, with the towering King gorilla none too happy with his uninvited, bite-sized guests.
Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts (The Kings of Summer), Kong: Skull Island leans heavier toward the franchise’s B-movie beginnings than Peter Jackson’s messy, overly ambitious 2005 reboot, embracing a rock ‘n’ roll aesthetic that oozes style and finds fun in grotesque violence in the same way the silliest, campiest, most badass horror movies do. People get crushed, impaled, and ripped to shreds in wildly inventive ways that’ll make you cringe, laugh, and stomp your feet all at once, and while there isn’t much narrative depth to be found here, the non-stop destruct-a-thon is as much fun as you’ll have in the theater all spring.
No member of the sprawling cast of characters will likely stick to the back of your mind long after the credits roll, but that’s okay; thanks to the terrific actors, they all feel real and relatable enough that their deaths don’t feel hollow or weightless. The first face we see and the first voice we hear belong to the unimpeachable John Goodman, a smart decision by Vogt-Roberts; skeptics fearing Hollywood reboot trashiness will be swiftly assuaged by that signature booming baritone, which instantly lends the proceedings a sense of gravity.
Goodman and rising star Corey Hawkins (Straight Outta Compton) are government scientists who lead a survey team on a mission to scan the island for anything of interest to the US. Tom Hiddleston plays a mercenary tracker hired to lead the ground expedition; Brie Larson is a war photographer tagging along in hope of snapping a photo that could “change the world”; Samuel L. Jackson plays the military squad leader, thirsty for one last fight on the battlefield.
The character introductions are handled so deftly it’s almost shocking, considering the sheer number of them. In addition to the marquee names, talented supporters like Jason Mitchell (Straight Outta Compton), Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), Eugene Cordero, John Ortiz, and Toby Kebbell defy archetype by lending interesting wrinkles and unique quirks to their characters, finding a way to flesh them out despite having only a fleeting amount of screen time to work with. John C. Reilly joins adventure about halfway through as a loopy fighter pilot stranded on the island since WWII, a character who’s at first hilarious, and then unexpectedly delivers some of the movie’s most poignant moments.
The crew gets split up and scattered across the island following an explosive, deliciously chaotic encounter with Kong that sees him swatting, smashing, and chomping on circling helicopters like only he can. Without spoiling too much, the constantly evolving group dynamics keep things feeling fresh throughout the movie’s two-hour runtime; whenever things start to feel stagnant, a sudden death or change of allegiance throws you off balance again. This sense of narrative locomotion is Kong: Skull Island’s secret weapon, and perhaps its greatest boon. Screenwriters Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, and Derek Connolly have crafted an unexpectedly finessed ensemble adventure that exceeds expectations, especially for a big-budget, mass-marketed production.
Beyond the real-life actors, the movie’s major appeal is, of course, the 50-foot CGI wonder at the center of all the mayhem. The visual effects artists have a lot to be proud of here. Kong’s movements are at once natural and acutely expressive, from his regal posture to the thudding weight of his fists as he pounds his chest as he lets out that famous, deafening war cry. The most impressive thing, though, are his eyes; when Larson’s photographer places her hand tenderly on Kong’s gigantic upper lip, his eyes dart around in confusion, as an abused dog’s do when touched gently for the first time. The swarms of ferocious fauna that terrorize and gobble up our hapless human heroes are rendered just as impressively, from giant spiders to giant lizard-things, though their designs are surprisingly forgettable. You’ll remember what the human characters looked like when they met their gory demise, but the look of the monstrous death-dealers will most likely fade from memory.
That’s all forgivable, though, because the action sequences themselves are wonderfully inventive and fun and brutal, brutal, brutal. The savagery on display is worth the price of admission, with highlights including a nail-biting dash through a lizard-infested gorilla graveyard (Hiddleston gets to really flex his action-hero muscles here) and the obligatory monster vs. monster showdown, this time between Kong and the humongous king of the lizard-things. Kong: Skull Island has a lot going for it, but what it gets really right is how it captures the unadulterated, intoxicating joy of watching the mighty Kong smash things to itty bitty pieces.