In the late 1920s, the aviator, adventurer, war hero and occasional film-maker Merian C Cooper was wandering the canyons of midtown Manhattan when he looked up, saw a plane flying over a skyscraper and had a kind of vision. What Cooper saw was a giant ape on top of the building, swatting away war planes like they were wasps and terrorising passers-by below. It was Kong, though the name and the back-story would be added later.
King Kong was a monster hit in the spring of 1933, a sequel followed, then the giant ape was sidelined for several decades by Hitler, Stalin and the Cold War. In the 1960s the Japanese got hold of him, and Toho Studios pumped out two cheerfully trashy Kong films that horrified his creator. And had Cooper still been alive to comment, he'd doubtless have had a thing or two to say about Dino de Laurentis's rather camp and excessive 1976 Kong blockbuster.
In 2005, Peter Jackson treated the great Hollywood monster with the respect he deserved, using astonishing special effects to create a Kong that looked, behaved and sounded like a real gorilla. But Jackson tends to be over-earnest - he managed to take Lord of the Rings seriously for God's sake - and his King Kong lacked the brassy B-movie charm of the original.
Kong: Skull Island, on the other hand, embraces its schlocky origins with aplomb. Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, the film wittily combines the Kong story with the mood and aesthetics of the Vietnam War, and the result is a giddy but hugely enjoyable cross between a Godzilla picture and Apocalypse Now.
An uncharted island has been discovered in South East Asian waters, and two Washington wonks (John Goodman, Jing Tian) persuade their politicial superior to green-light a secret expedition. It's 1973, America's disastrous campaign in Vietnam is winding down, and so a crack helicopter combat team led by Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L Jackson) is seconded to the expedition, along with a British SAS captain, James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), and an intrepid photojournalist called Mason Weaver (Brie Larson).
They fly towards the mist-shrouded Skull Island not knowing quite what to expect, although with a name like that they really should have.
Refreshingly, Kong appears as soon as they get there, knocking helicopters out of the sky and treading on survivors. He's the island's apex predator, and views all intruders as an existential threat. Colonel Packard loses half his unit and becomes obsessed with killing Kong. But that won't be easy, and meanwhile there are plenty of other things to worry about, from hostile natives to a particularly nasty species of extant carnivorous dinosaurs.
A very decent cast includes a typically quirky turn from John C Reilly, playing a pilot who crashed on the island in the 1940s and thinks World War Two is still on. And while Samuel L Jackson's scenery-chewing soldier is the villain of the piece, Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson are the ones who begin to realise that the ape is no mindless behemoth, especially when Kong takes a bit of a shine to Larson's character. And who can blame him?
Kong: Skull Island never makes the mistake of taking itself too seriously: it feels like a B-movie that was given a huge budget by accident and knew exactly what to do with it. The Vietnam idea is a terrific one, giving the film a ready-made aesthetic that intentionally recalls a dozen or so 1970s and 80s war movies. There are lots of jokes too, about that war, Nixon's America and the ineptness of US ultramontanism.
But in the end, all Kong movies stand or fall on their special-effects, and this one's are fantastic. This Kong seems bigger, grumpier than ever, and he and his dinosaur foes are rendered in breathtaking detail, especially during a terrific climactic monster battle. Kong may have harder battles ahead, as the producers are already planning a sequel co-starring his old enemy Godzilla. I'd watch that.
Kong: Skull Island
Films coming soon...
Beauty and the Beast (Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Josh Gad); Get Out (Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford, Catherine Keener); Personal Shopper (Kristen Stewart, Lars Eidinger); The Salesman (Shahab Hosseini).