Dense jungle, insect-infested bogs, napalm and an underestimated enemy who just won’t quit. It’s not the Vietnam War, but Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ not exactly sly allegory for the mid-century quagmire, “Kong: Skull Island,” a delightful B-movie romp starring the gigantic ape who has been resurrected yet again, twelve years after his fatal fall from a New York City skyscraper.
The film kicks off amidst the end of our involvement in Southeast Asia. Pseudoscientist Bill Randa (John Goodman) and geologist Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) have discovered an island in the South Pacific. They have vague notions about what calls it home and enlist the help of an ex-special forces tracker (Tom Hiddleston) and the protection of a U.S. Army air cavalry unit, led by the bitter Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), who doesn’t much believe in Nixon’s ‘peace with honor’ talk. Also along for the ride is esteemed “anti-war” photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson). She and Packard have some disagreements.
Vogt-Roberts kicks off the action almost as soon as the gang arrives on Skull Island. Seismic charges dropped from helicopters, meant to give geologic information, make Kong real angry, and he makes short work of the fleet of helicopters with a few quick punches and some throws that would make Tim Tebow jealous.
Once scattered, the characters stumbling upon stranded World War II pilot Hank Marlow (the excellent John C. Reilly), who has been living with the island’s indigenous people for nearly thirty years. Marlow helps them to understand that — despite the still-burning helicopter wreckage strewn about the island — Kong is actually a good guy, defending the island from a crew of unkind lizard behemoths. From then on, it’s a group effort to escape the island, except for Col. Packard, who is solely focused on avenging his fallen men. He doesn’t want to Cut & Run, you see. It’s a metaphor.
“Kong” is decidedly lighter in tone than its sister film, 2014’s “Godzilla.” Between the troops’ banter and the off-the-wall dialogue from Reilly, the movie packs a lot of laughs in between primate homicides, and though the main characters aren’t very developed, Vogt-Roberts makes sure the big ape comes around regularly enough to stave off any stagnant stretches.
Shakespearean-trained Hiddleston and last year’s Best Actress Oscar-winner Larson are given curiously little to do aside from giving world-class reaction shots to massive creatures yet to be drawn in by the visual effects artists. The show is mostly stolen by outsized character actors and rivals Goodman and Jackson, as well as the lovable Reilly, who looks good with a castaway beard.
This is Vogt-Roberts’ second film after his inspired debut, 2013’s coming-of-age indie flick “Kings of Summer.” The 32-year-old director certainly doesn’t shy away from the film’s big aesthetic influence, the seminal Vietnam film “Apocalypse Now,” but his style is slick enough to make the film work on its own terms. Perhaps the most unfortunate element is the film’s licensed soundtrack choices, which mostly contains songs taken from the “Best of the Psychedelic ‘60s & ‘70s” CD in your dad’s truck.
2017 has already produced some fantastic films — “Get Out,” “Split,” “Logan.” “Kong: Skull Island” is not on that level. But it is a rollicking good time, propelled by some adventurous filmmaking, fun performances by a few of Hollywood’s best supporting actors and a large monkey who uses a tree as a club. It won’t change your life, but it’s an entertaining use of two hours.