Kong: Skull Island

★★★ ½

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Samuel L. Jackson is tired of this muthaf**king ape on this muthaf**king island, and everybody else in Kong: Skull Island is caught in the maelstrom generated by his face-offs with the gargantuan gorilla of the title. Jackson’s Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard is an air cavalry commander, mere days out of Danang, who eagerly accepts one last mission before reluctantly rejoining the world. When Kong takes out the bulk of his helicopter squadron during a “scientific” expedition to uncharted Skull Island, Packard is not about to “cut and run” from another fight before exacting retribution.

Kong: Skull Island, the second installment in Legendary Entertainment’s MonsterVerse revival, reimagines the Kong introduction story through an Apocalypse Now lens, grounded in the evergreen allegory of perilous American military interventionism. But the kitschy vibe of this CGI-laden creature feature has more in common with Starship Troopers than “Heart of Darkness.”

Packard’s patrol accompanies a group of scientists led by Bill Randa (John Goodman), a dogged government official who desperately wants to discover what’s beyond the storm clouds shrouding Skull Island from civilization. Along for the ride is Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), a disillusioned British airman turned tracker-for-hire. After Kong crash-lands the crew, the survivors encounter Marlow (John C. Reilly), a gonzo World War II-era pilot who, having survived the film’s cold open, has spent the past twenty-nine years living communally with the natives—why isn’t he named Kurtz?

It turns out Skull Island is essentially a fissure along the fault line of Dante’s “Inferno,” and Kong and the rest of the island inhabitants are the evolutionary vanguard beating back the reptilian Skullcrawlers, satanic spawn that regularly slither from a subterranean hellscape. The meddling Americans get caught in the crossfire, with everyone except Packard quickly recognizing the maxim that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

Any political commentary is strictly secondary, however, to director Jordan Vogt-Roberts’s creative camp. His sole previous credit, the 2013 Sundance coming-of-age dramedy The Kings of Summer, would seem a meager training ground for an effects-driven monster-movie blockbuster. But he keeps the action moving, and the viewer at rapt attention. To concoct this milieu, Vogt-Roberts harvests everything from Hollywood war flicks to Japanese anime, and his daedal camerawork thrives on peculiar perspectives and unexpected outcomes—if you think a moment of self-sacrifice is going to end heroically, think again. In one of the quieter scenes, the famished Kong trawls a riverbed for a giant decapus, then sucks down its tentacles like spaghetti. When a Skullcrawler ingests a defective camera, the group tracks the demon through the mist by the whir and glow of the constantly recharging flashbulb emanating from inside its gullet. A bamboo forest doubles as the appendages of a mammoth arachnid.

Still, the thrill-a-minute opening half eventually becomes bogged down by second-half exposition. There’s no trip to New York City for this Kong, and an anti-war photographer played by Brie Larson seems to have been included only as a faux-Fay Wray. Kong: Skull Island has no interest in showing Kong’s softer side; it would rather revel in stare-downs between the great ape and Packard, their glowering visages of each reflected in the eyes of his nemesis, set against the backdrop of a lake aflame with napalm. King Kong ain’t got shit on him.