In 21st-century moviemaking, money can buy you a lot of things, but often it just buys you the look, the clinical evidence, of crazy expenditure without any guarantee of customer payoff. Exotic, complex location shooting; high-priced actors, compensated like pashas; digital effects running rampant. We see the results every quarter on our screens. The movies may not stink, and some are pretty good. But too many settle for meeting expectations, in the language and the spirit of an employee evaluation.
"Kong: Skull Island" is different, better, lighter on its feet (digital feet and human feet) and more fun than its reported $190 million production budget would suggest. I honestly don't know what you'd call it: a franchise reboot? A sequel to Peter Jackson's 2005 "King Kong," which I admired, even with its protracted bloat, but didn't enjoy like this one?
Whatever. It's a Kong movie, and we know from fans online and the credits on the screen, as well as the epilogue already widely reported, that its corporate directive requires setting up sequels already in development. Kong will go on, in future films, to deal with various headliners in the Toho studio empire, chiefly Godzilla (whom we re-met in the grave, compelling 2014 movie), Rodan (the winged wonder), Mothra (voted "least likely to dominate a movie" in high school) and King Ghidorah (one head short of a barbershop quartet).
All well and good, but the news this week is particularly well and good, because director Jordan Vogt-Roberts' "Kong: Skull Island" zips along and treats the Kong mythology seriously without getting balled up in the storytelling. Any movie with the sense, the wit and the visual instincts to introduce Kong the way this one does is fine with me. Booooooom, the mighty paw slams down on the top of a cliff as Skull Island's landlord, chief cook and monster-masher rises up to check out, nose to nose, the first humans we see on screen. No fuss, no formalities.
This moment cements the prologue. It's 1944, and a World War II fighter pilot crash-lands on an uncharted South Pacific island, as does his Japanese adversary. They are not alone there. If they were, they'd be starring in a $190 million film version of a Harold Pinter play, not a King Kong movie.
The bulk of "Kong: Skull Island" takes place a generation later, in 1973. The U.S. military is hobbling out of Vietnam. For a lucky few, there's time for one last operation. A shadowy survey crew led by John Goodman needs a helicopter transport and bomb-detonation pros to assist in their island-mapping project. Samuel L. Jackson plays the squadron leader, spoiling for a fight; Brie Larson is the savvy "anti-war photographer" along for the ride; Tom Hiddleston, Larson's partner in T-shirt and tank-top action heroism, portrays the British SAS officer who knows something's fishy about the mission but needs the money.
The script by Dan Gilroy ("Nightcrawler"), Derek Connolly ("Safety Not Guaranteed") and Max Borenstein ("Godzilla") handles the character introductions with unusual finesse, and I loved details such as the Nixon bobblehead parked on the helicopter control panel, indicating the difficulty of flying through "perpetual storm system" to get to paradise/hell, aka Skull Island. I don't want to blow all the surprises here. It's enough to say that the Goodman character is famous for his controversial "hollow Earth theory" and specializes in the study of "massive unidentified terrestrial organisms." The Jackson character wants to re-fight the war he just left all over again, this time against the largest single enemy he's ever known. The island's creatures include spiders, water buffalo and what you might call "Alien"-looking secretaries of the interior, who give the mighty but melancholy Kong his daily workout.
The prologue's Yank fighter pilot grows older and in the 1973 time frame of the movie, he's played by John C. Reilly, a delightful, scraggly asset to an already formidable ensemble. A Chicagoan just trying to get home someday, the pilot Marlow (cheekily named for Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness"; Hiddleston's character is named Conrad) dreams of the day he'll be back at Wrigley Field for opening day. One soldier, in an outlandishly obvious but effective cliche, writes "Dear Billy" letters home to his son, describing the wonders and terrors he encounters on the island. The blend of knowing comic touches and propulsive, well-designed action works throughout, and without overstaying its welcome the way Peter Jackson's Kong movie did. "Skull Island" takes time to make sure everybody has enough to do in between sprints through the jungle. (The film was shot in Vietnam, Hawaii and Australia.)
Director Vogt-Roberts has only one previous feature directorial credit, a stridently quirky indie from 2013, "The Kings of Summer." He came to "Skull Island" the way director Colin Trevorrow came to helm "Jurassic World" (his previous picture was "Safety Not Guaranteed"). One of these days, a producer hooked up with a franchise will give a female director or a director of color, with a similar one-movie track record, a shot like this one. Someday. But I was wrong about Vogt-Roberts; I saw little in his first feature to indicate the deftness and buoyant spirit he brings to "Skull Island." This time, the money's on the screen, but it bought a really good movie, too.
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
"Kong: Skull Island" — 3.5 stars
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for brief strong language)
Running time: 2:00