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Monkey business – ‘Kong: Skull Island’

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Giant monster flick a B-movie with A-plus production values

Full disclosure – I am totally in the bag for giant monster movies.

Now, I’ll admit that I wasn’t necessarily thrilled with what we got from 2014’s “Godzilla” reboot; that movie had a lot of potential that didn’t get realized as fully as it might have. However, when the rumblings about a sort of Godzilla Cinematic Universe (GCU) started, well … I was all-in.

“Kong: Skull Island” is an effort to give everyone’s favorite giant ape the same sort of reboot treatment – and it looks like lessons were learned from Godzilla’s mistakes. This offering – directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts from a script by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly – is monster magic; it’s essentially a B-movie made with an A-plus budget. It is big and broad, filled with huge action set pieces and moments of humor and surprising pathos.

Are you the sort of person who watched “Apocalypse Now” and thought “This movie is good, but it could really use less subtlety and more giant monsters”? If so, this is the movie for you.

And besides – it’s King Kong. What’s not to love?

The year is 1973. The conflict in Vietnam is coming to a less-than-satisfactory conclusion. In this tumultuous time, the very first satellite photos are revealing images of places that man has never seen before. Under the auspices of a government organization called Monarch, a researcher by the name of Bill Randa (John Goodman, “Patriots Day”) is looking to gain access to a surveying team being sent to a South Pacific location known only as Skull Island.

Randa gets permission to tag along, but he and his team – geologist Brooks (Corey Hawkins, “Straight Outta Compton”) and biologist San (Tian Jing, “The Great Wall”) – need help. To that end, they enlist the help of a tracker named Jason Conrad (Tom Hiddleston, TV’s “The Night Manager”). They also wind up with a military escort led by Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson, “xXx: Return of Xander Cage”); said escort is accompanied by war photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson, “Room”).

Due to a freak meteorological phenomenon, Skull Island is surrounded by a massive, never-ending storm; there are just a few brief windows that allow anything resembling safe passage. But when the helicopters make it through and start using explosive charges to kickstart their geological surveys, they soon discover that there’s nothing safe about Skull Island.

The explosions disturb the massive, long-forgotten denizens of the island – including a skyscraper-sized ape that knocks every single one of the helicopters out of the sky and leaves the survivors scattered and scared. Their only hope is to survive long enough to make it to the predetermined extraction point on the other side of the island in three days or risk being left behind forever.

These few survivors are left to try and reconnect in order to enhance their chances at making it off the island alive. They find potential assistance in the form of Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly, “Sing”), a pilot whose plane crash has left him stranded on Skull Island since WWII and whose relationship with the natives allows them to put a name – Kong – to their gigantic simian adversary.

However, there are those among their number with plans of their own – plans that might well put all of them in grave danger. The group soon discovers that all is not as it seems, and that perceived enemies could turn out to be their only hope of survival.

“Kong: Skull Island” is cinematic spectacle and completely unashamed about it. This isn’t a movie that is trying to be anything other than what it is – an action extravaganza about a giant ape that does all the things you’d expect a giant ape to do. And they do not skimp on the big monster action; whether he’s taking down military helicopters or fighting enormous lizard things, King Kong is precisely the roaring, chest-beating beast that you want him to be.

Maybe the biggest surprise is the work being done by the cast. Obviously, these are some talented performers, but the fact that the entire ensemble has managed to settle into a sweet spot between taking things seriously and acknowledging the elephant (or giant ape) in the room is unexpected and impressive. Hiddleston is appropriately rakish and swashbuckling. Jackson gives his character a fun Colonel Kurtz-ian spin. Goodman is awesome like he always is; so is John C. Reilly, who is just a delight. Larson deftly avoids all sorts of potential damsel in distress pitfalls to give an engaging performance. The rest of the cast is solid as well, but a particular shout-out goes to Toby Kebbell, who does double duty as second-in-command Jack Chapman and the mo-cap actor behind Kong himself.

There’s an unrelenting sense of pace that powers “Kong: Skull Island” in a wonderfully propulsive way. It moves fast and fluidly, carrying the audience along on a wave that allows us to easily accept developments and elements that might otherwise prove distracting. It is well-crafted eye candy brought to life by people making more of an effort than you might expect.

Look, at the end of the day, I’m someone who likes to watch giant monsters fight things. Doesn’t matter if they fight military forces or other giant monsters/robots/whatever. And when it’s all wrapped up in a package as pleasing as “Kong: Skull Island,” it’s hard to go wrong.

It’s like they say – go big or go home … and this movie goes BIG.

[4.5 out of 5]

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