‘Kong: Skull Island’ delivers jaw-dropping entertainment

Monster movies have been part of film folklore since Hollywood’s beginnings, and one of the most memorable has been the giant ape known as Kong, from the original “King Kong” in 1933, on through remakes in 1976 and 2005. The big beast has come a long way from the stop-motion creature scaling a tiny model of the Empire State Building in the original, surviving the dud seventies edition and the overblown three-hour butt-numbing Peter Jackson version.

This weekend, Kong returns in the utterly bizarre, thoroughly loopy and undeniably entertaining “Kong: Skull Island.” Starring an oddly yet effectively matched cast of ace actors, the new film  manages to combine some of the most amazing effects I’ve ever seen with surprisingly touching character-driven moments to create an experience that demands to be seen on the big screen.

The movie opens with a showdown between two pilots, one American, one of them Japanese, in 1945, when both men crash their planes on an island while flying missions in World War II. As the men battle with guns and swords, they suddenly are interrupted by the giant hands of Kong swinging wildly in their direction.

Cut to the day in 1973 that the truce was announced ending the Vietnam War. A mysterious blowhard named Bill Randa (John Goodman) is seeking approval to lead a purported geological exploration mission to a mysterious place called Skull Island.

Randa works for a company called Monarch that specializes in seeking out and exploiting “extraterrestrial creatures,” meaning all manner of odd earthbound beings, and believes the island is home to countless undiscovered creatures.  He is given authorization to fly his team into the island with a battalion of military choppers, under the pretense that the US should explore the island before a Soviet spy satellite flies over it in three days.

Lt. Col. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), who is eager to score a quick success after being disappointed at the announced American withdrawal from Vietnam, leads the escort team. Along for the ride are a British jungle guide named James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and a Life magazine photographer named Mason Weaver (Brie Larson, smartly building on her 2015 Best Actress Oscar for the tiny indie “Room” with her first blockbuster role), who quickly draws Packard’s ire for having been part of the antiwar media.

With these juicy conflicts in place, they fly in only to find themselves attacked by Kong. With only a few survivors left after the choppers all crash amid the battle, two teams spread out and find that they have far more than Kong to worry about — including giant spiders, vicious birds, monstrous yaks and dinosaur-like beasties called “skull crawlers” by Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), the American pilot who crashed there 28 years before.

“Kong: Skull Island” is absolutely ridiculous but in all the right ways. Its dialogue often clunks with exposition, yet it also has a slyly self-referential sense of humor that makes it a hoot to watch, and its slumming stars are having infectious fun.

But a movie like this rises or falls on its special effects, and director Jordan Vogt-Roberts has overseen a team that is likely to set the standard for Oscar voters in technical categories next year. The movie alternates between full-bore action, impressive slow-motion, pounding sonic fury and moments of silence, all combining for jaw-dropping moments throughout that are custom-made for 3D magic.

This is one movie that absolutely demands to be seen on the big screen, preferably with the full glasses effect, yet is solid enough entertainment to stand on its own in 2D as well. After a dire opening to the year, the back-to-back punch of the late-February thriller “Get Out,” the epic superhero flick “Logan” and now this monstrous treat are enough to inspire hope that this might be a good year for fun movies after all. Grade: A

CAPSULE REVIEWS

LOGAN

Stars: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Dafne KeenLength: 137 minutes

Directed by: James Mangold

Rating: R

The ninth time is the hyper-violent charm for Hugh Jackman as the titular superhero, aka Wolverine. The switch in title to his human moniker reflects a deeper, more intense approach, as Logan hits the road with a young girl mutant who also has claws in order to save her from an evil lab’s minions. Unbelievably brutal, so do not take any kids, but if you’re an adult superhero fan you’ll love it.  Grade: B

THE SHACK

Stars: Sam Worthington, Octavia Spencer, Tim McGraw

Length: 132 minutes

Directed by: JStuart Hazeldine

Rating: PG-13

This faith-based film based on a bestselling novel follows a man with hidden childhood trauma who gets an invitation from God to meet and make peace with the Almighty at the shack where his young daughter was found murdered. Beautifully shot and well-acted but its slow pace feels like eternity.  Grade: C

GET OUT

Stars: Daniel Kaluuya, Alison Williams, Bradley Whitford, Catherine Keener

Length: 103 minutes

Directed by: Jordan Peele

Rating: R

This inventive thriller, about an African-American man who finds himself trapped amid sinister shenanigans when he visits his white girlfriend’s family at their rural home, is exciting, funny and written and directed with surprisingly stylish flair by comic Jordan Peele of “Key and Peele” fame.  Grade: B+

Lion

Stars: Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman

Length: 118 minutes

Directed by: Garth Davis

Rating: PG-13

The ultimate underdog among the nine Best Picture nominees, it might actually be the most traditional kind of Oscar winner:  a powerful drama about a young Indian boy who gets lost from his family, then tries to find them over 20 years later. Powerful, inspiring true story.  Grade: A+

JOHN WICK: CHAPTER TWO

Stars: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne

Length: 122 minutes

Directed by: Chad Stahelski

Rating: R

This hyper-violent sequel about a Mob assassin having to kill as many of his bosses as possible to get out and stay out of crime is inexplicably a smash hit. Two hours of nihilistic, non-stop violence with barely a plot and one of the most annoying music scores of all time. It makes me weep for our future.  Grade: F