Kong: Skull Island ★★★

"Kill that son of a bitch!" ~ Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard

When this came out in theaters, I said to myself, "Oh no, not another Kong movie." Hasn't the story of the big misunderstood ape been done enough already? I've seen the 1933 original "King Kong" perhaps ten times, and it is still the best IMHO -- very near perfect. Neither the 1976 remake by John Guillermin nor Peter Jackson's 2005 technologically enhanced three-hour epic made a dent in that opinion. So why watch yet another pretender to the throne?

Well, to start with, there's the all-star cast, which includes Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Tom Hiddleston and John C. Reilly. Then, there's the concept of a Warner Bros. "Monsterverse" where this will be a key installment. And it's impossible to ignore any film that hauled in over $500 million at the box office. I figured this was at least good enough for a free library copy viewing. It just took a long time for a disc to become available in the request queue.

First off, this is no remake. It is a completely new re-imagining of the Kong legend. Forget 1933. Fabled Skull Island is first visited in 1944, when American fighter pilot Hank Marlow (Reilly) and Japanese pilot Gunpei Ikari (Miyavi) shoot each other out of the sky over the South Pacific. The two enemy airmen parachute onto the island and battle hand to hand, only to be interrupted by a giant ape -- you know who. They are never heard of again.

Fast forward to 1973. The U.S. government mounts a mission to map the recently (re)discovered island. Leading the so-called Monarch project is Agent Bill Randa (Goodman) with assistance from a highly skilled tracker, former British Special Air Service Captain James Conrad (Hiddleston). For protection, the team is assigned a military escort called the Sky Devils, a Vietnam War helicopter squadron headed by Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Jackson), who's accompanied by Major Jack Chapman (Toby Kebbell) and Captain Earl Cole (Shea Whigham).

Also on the mission are Randa's geologist Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) and biologist San Lin (Jing Tian). Then there's a senior Landsat official called Victor Nieves (John Ortiz), the Sky Devils warrant officers Reg Slivko (Thomas Mann) and Reles (Eugene Cordero), and a photojournalist named Mason Weaver (Larson), who is opposed to war and suspects the mission is a cover-up for a secret military operation. The mission is sanctioned and bankrolled by Senator Al Willis (Richard Jenkins).

If you dig 60s-70s music, you get in spades here -- The Chambers Brothers, Jefferson Airplane, The Hollies, Black Sabbath, Creedence Clearwater Revival, David Bowie, and more. There's humor, too, though not in large doses. And if you seek more Kong action and less build-up, look for the King to appear about 30 minutes into the film, knocking helicopters out of the sky like he was swatting flies.

Of course, Kong isn't the only beastie on Skull Island. A giant water buffalo, a tree-high spider, a massive octopus, and the lizard-like underground "skull-crawlers." And does Kong take an interest in Fay Wray ... er... Larson? Oh yeah. And so does Conrad. But don't expect Kong to remain the center of attention. The underground lizards are far more of a threat. Or perhaps the biggest threat of all is Packard, bent on revenge for the death of his crewmen.

I can't say I was disappointed by this, because I really didn't expect much. Let's say it's a typical addition to the Kong franchise and a fair start for the WB's reboot. But this Kong still lacks the charisma of the original, and the SFX aren't that much better than Jackson's effort. Another also-ran in the famous ape sweeps, I'm afraid.

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