‘Mark my words. There will never be a more screwed-up time in Washington.”
Thus speaks Bill Randa (John Goodman), a scientist who at the beginning of “Kong: Skull Island” arrives at the Capitol in 1973 to secure funding for a mission to a mysterious island in the South China Sea, perpetually shrouded in thunderstorms, hitherto un-mapped and unexplored. His mission: to locate one of filmdom’s most iconic characters and make him relevant for audiences inured to the usual ho-hum of crashes, car chases and explosions of solar-level size and ferocity.
And, against all odds, he succeeds: “Kong: Skull Island” is a big, noisy B-movie infused with moments of wit and sprightly visual sophistication, anchored by what surely must be the most enormous version of King Kong since the giant ape made his screen debut in 1933. (After being on all fours in Peter Jackson’s 2005 “King Kong,” now the big ape is back up on his feet again.) Liberally borrowing imagery and story points from Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War epic “Apocalypse Now,” this tale of adventure — with a less-than-subtle subtext about the perils of heedless human interference in the natural world — doesn’t necessarily tread new ground. Nor does it revisit the original film’s famous climax atop the Empire State Building. But there’s a commendable level of artfulness to the overheated spectacle, rewarding viewers not just with the expected tableaux of the title character swatting away helicopters and bullets with irritated ferocity, but also with one or two genuinely memorable human characters and some welcome panache.
The best decision made by the team behind “Kong: Skull Island” was to set it immediately after President Richard M. Nixon’s “peace with honor” speech, when troops in Vietnam are readying to go home. Randa, having secured his funding back in Washington, is in need of a military escort to the island, meaning the presence of a ragtag group of seasoned fighters, led by the bellicose Lt. Col. Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). Also along for the ride: a photographer named Weaver (Brie Larson), a team of Trekkie-looking scientists with a NASA outfit called Landsat and a British tracker pointedly named Conrad.
That plummy gentleman is played by Tom Hiddleston, who’s always improbably and unnervingly well-groomed, no matter what the occasion. But he’s an outlier within an otherwise scruffy team of misfits who make sure to pack a reel-to-reel tape player on one of the several helicopters they take to the cloud-encased redoubt. The Vietnam War setting gives “Kong: Skull Island” lots of opportunities to evoke the period in pyrotechnic explosions and yellow-tinged clouds of toxic gas. It also, not incidentally, allows for choice cuts from the likes of Jefferson Airplane and Creedence Clearwater Revival; the promiscuous use of machine guns, hand grenades, flamethrowers and napalm; and snippets of macho vocab like “two clicks to our north” and “Roger that, Fox Five.”
And make no mistake: “Kong: Skull Island” is a macho enterprise all the way. Larson manages to hold her own with very little to do except take up her camera when bizarre things begin to happen, but a scientist played by Jing Tian barely makes an impact, save as a sop to the Chinese market. When the monstrously huge title character makes his first appearance to the exploratory crew, it’s both gratifying and terrifying, and as the story deepens we discover that his rage has an altruistic purpose. What’s more, he’s not the only scary creature on the island, where Our Heroes soon meet up with supersized versions of a spider, a water buffalo and, in the film’s gruesome and seemingly endless climactic scene, a screeching, slithery-tongued lizard.
Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, whose previous film was the indie coming-of-age film “The Kings of Summer,” does a good job of doling out the requisite number of wowsers and whammies, engaging in gratuitous mayhem and destruction, but along the way creating a rich sense of atmosphere and detail. (There’s a lovely shot when a flotilla of helicopters give way to one dragonfly hovering in midair.) As most directors will tell you, casting well is easily 90 percent of the job. Vogt-Roberts has made several good decisions in that regard — the supporting cast includes the wonderful Toby Kebbell, Shea Whigham and Corey Hawkins — and one flat-out brilliant one: John C. Reilly steals the movie in his funny and poignant portrayal of a Kurtz-like figure living in an exotic redoubt, populated by an ancient tribe called the Iwi. (Reilly’s character is named Marlow, in another painfully obvious Conradian nod.)
If Reilly’s presence gives “Kong: Skull Island” its playful, gonzo edge, it’s the title character himself who gives it soul, morphing from a monster into a brooding symbol of the colossal folly of military belligerence and hegemonic hubris. With its band of interlopers destroying the island to study it, the humans of “Kong: Skull Island” quickly begin to personify the real heart of darkness, becoming far more frightening than the fearsome, regal, ultimately sympathetic figure at its center. As ape movies go, this one’s big, all right. But not necessarily dumb.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action and brief strong language. 118 minutes.