By Richard von Busack
In 3D IMAX, Kong: Skull Island is a battle of gigantic scowls between Samuel L. Jackson and a 10-story gorilla. It’s an epic stare-down, rivalling the squint-offs of Lee Van Cleef and Clint Eastwood. Jackson shows maximum indomitability as a Vietnam-era officer called Packard, bitter over the course of the war. In 1973, Packard escorts a scientific expedition helmed by Bill Randa (John Goodman) seeking to explore Skull Island and bomb it a little in the name of scientific tests.
This cursed isle, ringed by storms, is shunned by all sane mariners. Helicoptering in, Jackson roars out the legend of Icarus over the thunder; his attack force brings ammo, napalm and high-caliber weapons. In their party is a Bondian British mercenary (Tom Hiddleston) and a photojournalist, Mason Weaver. She’s played by Brie Larson, whose attractive brown-eyed melancholy is just right for the part of the lady flirting with the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood.
Online, it’s an article of faith that the 2005 Peter Jackson King Kong had crap digital dinosaurs, which misses the point: It also had soul. This one, not so much. Kong is distracted from the romance; he turns his back on Weaver after he rescues her.
The witty and energetic director Jordan Vogt-Roberts corrals hallucinatory megafauna, who attack with viscera-splattering violence. One of the surprises is a marooned and cracked old fighter pilot Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), whose comic relief is positively eloquent.
Despite the speed, the epic critter-walloping and the feverish jungle, the movie’s rules wobble. The picky should have fun pointing out the contradictions; we’re told that the gentle, tattooed natives live without theft, and then a second later, that they cut off the hands of thieves. One needs no security system when protected by Kong: “He’s a pretty good king,” Marlow says. “Keeps to himself, mostly.”