Kong: Skull Island (2017)

When Peter Jackson, flush with post-Lord of the Rings clout, finally got to birth his pet project in 2005 with his King Kong remake, the result was a trifecta of well-deserved technical Oscars … and 187 punishing, interminable minutes of a mess, suggesting a director’s self-indulgence left unchecked. Now, the big ape returns — Kong, that is — in Kong: Skull Island, in which the unlikely guiding hand of The Kings of Summer director Jordan Vogt-Roberts shows Jackson how to monkey around properly. Vogt-Roberts’ film nails the effects and virtually everything else, at roughly two-thirds of the running time and $17 million less (unadjusted for inflation). Less is more, and infinitely more satisfying.

In 1973, satellite photos reveal an uncharted land mass encircled within a perpetual storm in the Pacific Ocean. Crackpot scientist Bill Randa (John Goodman, 10 Cloverfield Lane) pulls the necessary political strings to finagle a full military escort onto this so-called “Skull Island” for a fact-finding mission. Randa suspects what no one else does: There be monsters. Upon their unannounced arrival, the escorting U.S. Army troops, headed by Lt. Col. Packard (Samuel L. Jackson, Avengers: Age of Ultron), find this out the hard way: having their helicopters swatted from the sky — and, for most, to death below — by Kong’s prodigious paws. And Kong is hardly the only king-sized creature that calls this hellish locale home; Randa, Packard and the few survivors will encounter a spider, an octopus, lizards and more — all equally elephantine. It’s as if the entire isle has been stricken with Jurassic fever.

This action-fantasy seems to have taken more cues from that dino-mite franchise rather than any Kong entry before it. Bright and breakneck-paced, the film alternates between pulse-pounding and rib-tickling, barely letting up on one or the other in a winning bid to constantly entertain. If one ignores the final monster-vs.-monster battle, the movie also consistently surprises, admirably eschewing golden opportunities to milk the nostalgia teats of the 1933 original.

The movie’s weakest links are two of its top-billed visitors: ostensible leads Tom Hiddleston (Crimson Peak) and Brie Larson (Trainwreck) as, respectively, a hired-hand mercenary and an acclaimed war photographer. Barely registering, their characters have no character, which is strange considering Skull Island’s own Robinson Crusoe/Col. Kurtz (The Lobster’s John C. Reilly, stealing every damn scene) has personality oozing from every pore. —Rod Lott

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