Kong: Skull Island
Cinematically speaking, all the world’s a universe these days. This is the reason why “Kong: Skull Island” exists.
You can thank Marvel for that with its series of interconnected films that shifted the nature of the blockbuster franchise, linking its superheroes into one world in which they coexist, banter and bicker with each other and ultimately join forces to fight a bigger bad.
And to Marvel, I say “thank you,” for this Kong is colossally fun, a heaping scoop of cinematic chocolate ice cream without the calories.
It’s important to know that this film isn’t connected in any way to Peter Jackson’s bloated (but still fun) version of the giant ape in 2005. This is a full, hard reboot, placing Kong back in his hometown, among the savage beasts over which he rules more or less benevolently.
But then the most savage beast of all — man — comes around, under the guise of a mapping mission headed by Bill Randa (John Goodman), who touts the new location as a region potentially rich in new resources but is hiding his true intentions.
Set at the conclusion of the Vietnam War, Randa recruits a bevy of military men, including the suddenly restless Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), perhaps the only man bummed out by having to leave Southeast Asia. He happily accepts one last mission, dragging some of his people with him, young men eager to get home but also still wanting to do their duty.
Also along for the ride are photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) and British mercenary/tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston, Loki in the aforementioned Marvel universe).
The group stumbles upon Kong, who happily smashes up their choppers and leaves them scattered and stranded on the island, far from their north-shore rendezvous point . Mason, Conrad and others happen upon Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly, having loads of fun), a pilot who crash-landed on Skull Island during World War II and befriended the local indigenous peoples there. A man out of time, Hank is maybe a touch crazy after his experiences but knows the terrain and the horrors lurking within.
And those horrors are terrible, giant spiders, carnivorous birds that snatch you up and devour you, and the “Skullcrawlers,” which are sort of giant lizards with bony heads. We learn they are Kong’s deadliest enemies on the island, and all of the explosions from the expedition’s “seismic charges” have woken them from their hibernation.
Meanwhile, Packard is still smarting from what he views as Kong’s attack on his party, and goes all Colonel Kurtz on everyone, obsessed with destroying Kong no matter what the cost.
It seems obvious the cast is having as great a time as the audience, whether it’s Reilly’s cheery look-how-screwed-we-are attitude to Jackson’s stone-faced serious killer to Hiddleston and Larson’s kinda-chemistry as kindred spirits hoping to protect Kong. Even the background players get memorable lines or death scenes.
And those death scenes … gleefully chaotic, merciless, messy and brutal at times, whether Kong is squashing a GI, throwing a palm tree into a helicopter or tearing the innards from an attacking creature. The action is often breathless and fun, not nearly as heavy and depressing as, say, “Cloverfield.”
And oh yeah, about “Kong” as part of a franchise: If you don’t know already which he’s joining, I won’t spoil it (hint: it’s not “Transformers”), but stick around after the credits to get the tantalizing scoop.
“Kong” is equal parts action and laughs, with a sprinkled scare or two abounding. But make no mistake, it’s the first real blockbuster thrill ride of the year, and if it’s at all representative of what’s to come, it will be a good year indeed.