***1/2 out of ****
Rated PG-13
(for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for brief strong language)
Released:  March 10, 2017
Runtime: 120 minutes
Director:  Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, John C. Reilly, Shea Whigham, Jason Mitchell, Corey Hawkins, Toby Kebbell, John Ortiz

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Wow. So this is what’s possible.

Watching Kong: Skull Island is like finally realizing the full potential of CGI effects, and for creatures especially. Unleashed like beasts from the titular uncharted territory, the visual wizardry on display here not only sets a new bar for digital photo-real animation but also the imagination with which that pervasive studio crutch – often marred by dense, indulgent monotony or too-slick redundancy – is conceived and realized.

Better yet: it’s all in the service of a damn good movie.

Sort of Michael Bay meets Michael Ciminio (that’s hunting for a lot more than deer), this 1970s Vietnam era monster movie is a full-tilt Apocalypse Kong. It relishes as much in its B-movie roots as it does the auteuristic visions of Francis Ford Coppola and Oliver Stone, with an accessible sensibility akin to James Cameron’s Aliens. The thrills are as jaw-dropping as the moviemaking. This is pop entertainment at a superior level.

Its complete lack of thematic ambition is almost unfortunate as the high degree of sophisticated craft virtually begs for it, but the dearth of political or philosophical subtext is ultimately another strength. Kong: Skull Island is fueled by spectacle but grounded by a taut, uncomplicated story, efficiently and smartly told (a sharp contrast to Peter Jackson’s bloated King Kong disaster). Save the self-import for something else; I’m shoveling popcorn down my gullet too fast to care.

Perhaps most surprising is that this is only the second directorial effort by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, following his Sundance coming-of-age debut The Kings of Summer. The man has cinema in his DNA, paying homages while also making them his own. He also employs archetypes without ever being beholden to them, whether broadly speaking or specific to Kong lore, including a tip to Fay Wray that never requires a strong Brie Larson to be a damsel in distress, or that burdens Kong with a weird sexual subtext.

Vogt-Roberts shows a knack for making nods to antecedents without copying or repeating them. Kong: Skull Island feels both classic and fresh, but never recycled.

Embracing the basic action template with confidence rather than clunky subversion, the script assembles a motley mix of government, military, and academic elites to go on an expedition to a mysterious island where, as John Goodman’s senior U.S. official puts it, “God did not finish Creation.” Once there, they encounter much more than they bargained for (surprise surprise), starting with the gargantuan ape King Kong.

Split up and dispersed, the teams run into various dangers in the form of gigantic creatures, the most vicious being a new lizard-like species called the Skullcrawlers, all while trying to reach a joint rendezvous and escape the island alive.

Pushing the PG-13 rating to its limits at times, several sequences throughout are not for the squeamish, even as its graphic nature is either brief (albeit dramatic, ala cringe-inducing impalements) or strictly monster-on-monster violence. Even when it’s not gory, which is more often than not, this intense adventure is not for the faint of heart. Yet the creative carnage is also a big part of what gives you your money’s worth.

It should come as no surprise that the all-star cast lives up to its pedigree and has fun doing it; even Samuel L. Jackson meta-quotes himself from Jurassic Park. No one comes up lacking, but John C. Reilly still stands above the rest with a goofy-gonzo perf as the island’s eccentric Colonel Kurtz-ish imbed with a silly streak (and noble intentions).

A WWII pilot stranded there for nearly thirty years, and having befriended the island’s indigenous tribe, Reilly’s Hank Marlow isn’t just the crew’s best hope for survival or merely the film’s comic relief (though he’s certainly both); Reilly adds depth and, ultimately, sentiment in effective, instinctive ways. He’ll never be up for an Oscar for this, but he’d deserve the nod.

About the only thing missing here is a distinct, iconic movie theme, but Henry Jackman’s bold, brash compositions certainly more-than-do the genre trick, as does the post-credits sequence that’s worth sticking around for. The sheer pop perfection of Kong: Skull Island makes you wonder why every Hollywood blockbuster can’t be this satisfying, but the bewilderment answers its own question: it’s not easy being this good.

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