King Kong hasn’t changed all that much since we first met him way back in 1933.
He’s still fiercely territorial, quick to anger and has a weakness for blondes.
And, in “Kong: Skull Island,” he’s got more humanity than half the characters stranded on his jungle turf.
The new movie doesn’t quite make sense in the official King Kong movie timeline. It doesn’t matter. Warner Bros. kept Kong’s core characteristics intact. Heck, there’s a franchise to reboot, and darned if they’re going to take any risks.
The biggest surprise in the film isn’t Kong’s weakness for the ladies. It’s the time period in question. We’re airlifted behind enemies lines circa 1973, just as the U.S. was withdrawing from the Vietnam War.
It’s never too late for Hollywood to take a stand against U.S. imperialism!
The new “Kong” opens with employees from a mysterious firm reaching out to a U.S. senator. Seems the company wants to explore a “new” island perpetually shrouded by nasty weather.
They’re inexplicably given the green light, partially since Uncle Sam doesn’t want the Soviet Union to get its red hands on it first. What “it” is, though, isn’t quite clear. What’s obvious is that the journey is cloaked in both secrecy and deception.
FAST FACT: The 1976 “King Kong” remake earned $52 million at the box office. 29 years later, Peter Jackson’s “King Kong” hauled in $218 million.
The team assembled for the mission fits snugly in action movie parameters, 21st century style. You’ve got the swaggering, but sensitive hero (Tom Hiddleston), the feminist allocated multiple ‘I can save the day, too’ moments (Brie Larson), the wild card (Samuel L. Jackson doing a variation on Col. Kurtz from “Apocalypse Now”) and the heart-tugging soldier (Toby Kebbell, “Ben-Hur”).
They soon learn the true nature of the trip, and it involves the gargantuan ape that attacks them without mercy.
That sequence is ferocious, telling us director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (“The Kings of Summer”) means business. The PG:13 rating is both accurate and misleading. Youngsters trying their first taste of Kong will go home with a six pack of nightmares.
Maybe a Baker’s Dozen.
Our dwindling array of heroes soon meets Hank (John C. Reilly), a World War II veteran who managed to survive all these years on the island.
But Hank isn’t alone.
“Kong: Skull Island” is pure summer blockbuster, arriving a tad in the year sans apology. The fight sequences are thrilling, the comic relief on target (thank you, Mr. Reilly) and the messaging reminds us Hollywood rarely misses a chance to swat U.S. foreign policy.
FAST FACT: The original “King Kong” grossed $90,000 in its first four days of release.
The stars here are ostensibly Larson and Hiddleston. Neither gets the kind of role to make their star status pop. His character is so generic he might as well be called Hero McHeroson. She’s totally modern, in a way some 1970s women weren’t. And while she proves she can grunt and flash fear as well as any actress, Larson is never pushed an inch out of her comfort zone.
And that’s … OK. We’ve got Jackson doing his righteous fury shtick, along with John Goodman as the questionable head of the operation. With a cast this good, who needs memorable heroes?
Vogt-Roberts has a modest resume, but “Kong: Skull Island” should change that in a hurry. it’s muscular in all the right places, and his crisp sense of visuals makes the most of both the lush setting and intricate CGI.
For this critic’s money, Peter Jackson’s “Kong” is the superior ape. Still, the creatures here -- including a nasty race of demonoids -- are magnificent to behold.
And isn’t that what we ultimately want in a Kong adventure? Just make sure to stick around through the end credits. There’s the obligatory tease that packs a genuine surprise.
HiT or Miss: “Kong: Skull Island” will certainly spark a new “extended universe” franchise. If it’s as joyous as this film, bring it on.