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‘Kong: Skull Island’ review: Impressive revamp of classic monster movie

The Big Ape returns in the latest iteration of the movie franchise. (Credit: Warner Bros.)

PLOT In the aftermath of Vietnam, several soldiers and scientists encounter a giant ape on a mysterious island.

CAST Brie Larson, Tom Hiddleston, John C. Reilly

RATED PG-13 (numerous gruesome deaths)

LENGTH 2:00

BOTTOM LINE A fresh take on the Big Ape, with impressively rugged action and a gritty war-movie vibe.

Societal collapse, human folly, the revenge of Mother Nature — there’s a lot going on in “Kong: Skull Island,” the latest version of the King Kong story. Big hairy metaphors aside, this is one spectacular piece of entertainment. An unusual combination of thunderous monster movie and gritty war film, “Kong: Skull Island” is a fresh take on a nearly 85-year-old classic.

It’s clear from the attention-grabbing first image — a flailing paratrooper spiraling out of the sun — that “Kong: Skull Island” has more creative juice than your average blockbuster. Its backdrop, the dog days of the Vietnam War in 1973, is also an interesting choice. “Mark my words,” says rogue scientist Bill Randa (John Goodman), while hippies march on the White House, “there’ll never be a more screwed-up time in Washington.”

Randa has bigger concerns than politics, though. With congressional funding, he assembles a team of Army grunts led by Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), plus several scientists and a British mercenary named Conrad (hmmm, like the author of “Heart of Darkness”?), played by Tom Hiddleston. Joined by photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), they will explore the uncharted Skull Island.

Its ecosystem is filled with so many bizarre creatures, including house-sized spiders and ancient-looking avians, that the sight of the towering Kong is almost comforting. Turns out he’s a god to the locals (the Iwis), who depend on him to kill the hideous creatures known as Skullcrawlers. All this we learn from that aforementioned paratrooper, Hank Marlow (an endearing John C. Reilly), who’s been stranded here since 1944.

“Kong: Skull Island” is directed with such vigor by Jordan Vogt-Roberts (this is only his second film) that we can forgive the somewhat sketchy screenplay by Dan Gilroy and others. It isn’t clear why Packard becomes so obsessed with killing Kong (“Man is king!” he bellows), nor why Kong feels so tenderly toward Mason (it seems to be just a tradition that started with Fay Wray). There’s also the question of whether Hiddleston and Larson have enough chemistry to carry us through the inevitable sequels. Still, who cares when you’re watching such a thrilling mash-up of “Godzilla” and “Apocalypse Now”? Stay through the closing credits to see what other famous cinematic monsters are on their way.

4 more ape films

Audiences have been going ape over “King Kong” since the “Eighth Wonder of the World” made his film debut in 1933. Now he’s back in “Kong: Skull Island,” and while he’s clearly everyone’s prime primate, it’s hard to forget the cinematic simians featured in these films.

THE SON OF KONG (1933) — Kong Junior was the focus of this hastily released sequel in which Robert Armstrong returned as showman Carl Denham. Little Kong was only 12 feet tall, less than half the size of his dad. Then again, the film’s budget was barely half that of the original.

MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949) — Armstrong returned for this other beauty-and-the-beast tale about a young woman (Terry Moore) who gets talked into bringing her best friend, a gentle gorilla, from Africa to Hollywood.

DUNSTON CHECKS IN (1996) — Jason Alexander played second banana to a jewelry-stealing — and scene-stealing — orangutan in this comedy involving monkey business at a posh hotel.

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2011) — Andy Serkis’ superb performance as Caesar, a highly intelligent chimpanzee who ultimately brings about a rebellion of his fellow primates against mankind, gives this film its heart.

— Daniel Bubbeo

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