"KONG: SKULL ISLAND" — 3½ stars — Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly; PG-13 (intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief strong language); in general release
In an era when even Superman is gripped by angst and gritty realism, an old-fashioned monster movie like "Kong: Skull Island" feels like a refreshing surprise. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts' effort is many things — it's campy, it's crazy and it's thrilling. But most of all, "Skull Island" is fun.
The premise is simple enough. A motley crew of scientists, mercenaries and military escorts set out to explore a mysterious island that is surrounded by a perpetual electrical storm. Their leader is Bill Randa (John Goodman), an eccentric scientist convinced that the darker places of the world are still home to undiscovered beasts. Randa believes a newly discovered island in the South Pacific is the Skull Island of legend — a "land where God did not finish creation."
It's 1973, and Randa's military escort has agreed to handle one last job after finishing their tour in Vietnam, so the audience gets a charismatic Richard Nixon bobblehead and a barrage of classic rock tunes on the soundtrack from the likes of Creedence Clearwater Revival, Black Sabbath and The Stooges. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) is the leader of the escort, Tom Hiddleston plays a British tracker named James Conrad and a beautiful photojournalist named Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) seems destined to be the Fay Wray of the group.
The 2014 film "Godzilla" took its time before revealing its signature monster, but "Skull Island" has no such intentions. Randa and company's swarm of military helicopters have barely emerged from the electrical storm when they encounter an angry 10-story ape who demolishes the group in a dramatic showdown that would have been the climactic finale of a lesser film.
But Vogt-Roberts is just getting started. After the initial encounter spreads survivors across five miles of monster-infested terrain, they gather into two groups. Enraged by a beast that has embodied all of his pent-up Vietnam frustrations, Packard leads Randa and the other military personnel on an Ahab-like quest to slay the ape. Conrad and Weaver head up a group that discovers an American pilot named Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), who has somehow survived on the island since he crashed 30 years ago in World War II.
Before long, both parties are beset by all manner of gruesome monsters. The plan is to meet a refueling crew on the north end of the island in three days, but you know what happens to plans in these kinds of movies.
Vogt-Roberts has pulled off a fantastic balancing act here, keeping a tone that is just campy enough to be fun while just serious enough to emote genuine tension. There are moments of such over-the-top bravado couched in such striking visuals that audiences will find themselves laughing out loud, but unlike so many miscalculated movies, "Skull Island" has the good sense to laugh along with them.
The enthusiastic cast is more than happy to get in on the act. Jackson is in peak form, seething through numerous closeups and dramatic shots, but his crazy eyes are in good company, joined by Larson, Reilly and even Kong himself. Interestingly, Vogt-Roberts could have played "Skull Island" as a straight horror film, but instead imbues it with the tone and personality of an old-fashioned monster movie, albeit with just enough 21st-century swagger to avoid feeling too out of place.
This is a fun, fun movie. It's also a violent movie — the high enough body count and gore should convince parents to leave the kids at home — even though the violence comes in a frequently comic PG-13 CGI-style. It's almost too bad they didn't save this one for the summer. "Kong: Skull Island" feels like it would have been a perfect choice for the drive-in.
"Kong: Skull Island" is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief strong language; running time: 120 minutes.