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The big guy takes a large swipe at an attacking helicopter in 'Kong: Skull Island.'(Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures)
When the gigantic gorilla star of Kong: Skull Island is onscreen, as well as his other large-scale jungle buddies, there’s serious monkey business on tap.
It’s when there's a distinct lack of King Kong that Skull Island (**½ out of four; rated PG-13; in theaters nationwide Friday) turns into a plodding affair. The colossal creatures rule — not only Kong but also giant squid and horrifying Skullcrawlers — when it embraces its place as a monster movie, yet there's nothing particularly innovative or new about this Kong adventure. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (The Kings of Summer) tries hard to make it an Apocalypse Now-style war film, with mixed results.
Set in 1973, Kong catches up with its iconic ape in the waning days of the Vietnam War on an uncharted South Pacific island where jungles are filled with intriguing creatures.
Scientists Bill Randa (John Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) get the go-ahead to survey this wild place, which Randa calls “the land where God did not finish creation." They arrive with intrepid war photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), British tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and a military escort led by Lt. Col. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), a war horse nowhere near ready to leave the battlefield behind.
The situation goes sideways quick, and Packard’s helicopter company is swatted down mercilessly by the huge Kong. The big guy is just protecting his home, though, as the group finds out when they meet Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), a World War II pilot who’s been stranded with local islanders since 1944 and taken leave of a few of his senses.
Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson are hunted by a Skullcrawler in 'Kong: Skull Island.' (Photo: Warner Bros.)
Hiddleston and Larson are fine playing it straight, but Kong really cooks when it embraces a kooky B-movie style. Jackson chews up every bit of jungle scenery as Packard slowly goes mad with vengeance, and Reilly is pretty much in his own fun movie. “Do you smell that? It’s death!” Marlow says to no one in particular when entering a freaky area with giant gorilla bones.
Even though his name is in the title, the sizable simian takes more of a back seat than might be expected. A lot of time is spent with the humans as they overcome obstacles to reach the other side of the island, and not enough with Kong, a visual effects wonder.
Kong's main task is to keep dangerous Skullcrawlers (large lizard-like beings with two arm-legs and a massive tail) at bay, and Kong has a massive throwdown with one that’s an impressive filmmaking feat for two computer-generated beasties. Kong also shares an up-and-close personal moment with Mason — shades of Fay Wray in the 1933 classic, for sure — that showcases the ape's world-weary eyes that have seen their share of tragedy.
All the monsters, though, are missed when they’re not around, even the weirdly cute insecty thing that hides as a downed tree. They tend to be much more watchable than soldiers hanging out listening to '70s rock.
Kong still commands respect when he’s unleashed upon cinemas, and even in limited action, his presence alone makes it worth a trip to Skull Island.
photo of Review: 'Kong' is a wonder in an otherwise middling 'Skull Island'
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