'Kong: Skull Island' Review: A Visual Feast Of Gnarly Monster Movie Action & Adventure

There have been plenty of iterations of King Kong over the years, from his debut in the classic RKO picture in 1933 that would influence generations of filmmakers to Peter Jackson's romantic epic in 2005. But I can guarantee that you've never seen a King Kong as badass, stylish and just plain cool as director Jordan Vogt-Roberts delivers in Kong: Skull Island.

It's been a long time since there's been a monster movie as bold, daring and gruesome as Kong: Skull Island, and that's what makes it a refreshing action adventure that is chock full of mesmerizing visuals, startling action and some of the most amazingly repulsive monsters the big screen has seen in awhile.

Read on for our full Kong Skull Island review.

Our story is set in 1973, just after the conflict in Vietnam has ended. Bill Randa (John Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) are desperate to make their way to a mysterious South Pacific locale called Skull Island so they can find proof for their scientific theories regarding the continued existence of ancient creatures that used to rule this planet. Their theories are regarded as crackpot nonsense, but they somehow convince a senator (Richard Jenkins in a brief cameo) to give them a military escort to investigate the island.

Before they leave, Bill and Houston head off to recruit Jason Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), a former British Special Air Service Captain who is an expert tracker, only persuaded to take on the danger of this expedition by the prospect of a hell of a lot of money. Also joining them is Brie Larson as a self-proclaimed "anti-war photographer" with an eye for detail and fiery ambition and guts, and Jing Tian as another Monarch specialist whose character seems to solely exist to appeal to the Chinese box office market, because she's given almost nothing of value to do in the movie. There's also a group of scientists that include John Ortiz and Marc Evan Jackson.

Then there's the military crew, led by Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), a career military man who was on his way out the door but seemed relieved to take on one last assignment. With him are his usual soldiers, a fine assembly of talent that includes Packard's right-hand man Major Jack Chapman (Toby Kebbell), pilot Glenn Mills (Jason Mitchell), Captain Earl Cole (Shea Whigham), and warrant officer Rev Silko (Thomas Mann). There are plenty of other soldiers joining them in the pack of helicopters journeying to Skull Island, but they exist only to give King Kong some bodies to mercilessly throw around.

As soon as the choppers fly in to Skull Island, they drop bombs as a way to help map the island seismographically, but all that does is piss off the island's chief resident, the massive ape known as King Kong. Brought to life with stunning visual effects and a motion capture performance provided by Dawn of the Planet of the Apes actors Terry Notary and Kebbell, Kong has never been bigger or more intimidating than in this movie. He towers on the island, acting more like a warrior protecting his land than an animal acting on primitive instincts. This unit doesn't stand a chance as Kong viciously and delightfully tears through every single helicopter, ripping them in half, tossing one chopper into another, creating beautiful fireballs that light up the sky.

Kong Skull Island

From this opening sequence alone, it becomes clear that not only will the action shine, but the visuals that present it will elevate it to another level. The way the camera sweeps around Kong in his attacks puts the audience right in the thick of everything. But it's not just sweeping Michael Bay camera moves used over and over again, because there are some stunning, creative visuals here too. That shot of Kong from the trailer where he smashes a helicopter to the ground, creating a burst of flames around him as he gazes into the eyes of Samuel L. Jackson's Lieutenant Colonel Packard, is gorgeous on the big screen (especially IMAX 3D), and it's far from the only breathtaking shot.

There are also nice little touches throughout the picture, such as a quick shot of a Richard Nixon bobblehead on the dashboard of a helicopter, which gets a fantastic callback when that same chopper crashes. Throughout the movie, we're treated to a smorgasbord of beautiful camerawork that only makes the adventure more engaging. Cinematographer Larry Fong, who traditionally works with Zack Snyder, gets to stretch his legs beyond creating the fantastical motion paintings from movies like 300, Watchmen and Batman v Superman. Instead there's a more genuine touch to his work this time. Because as big and stylish as Kong: Skull Island is, everything is also extremely grounded, or at least as grounded as they can be on an island full of monsters.

Speaking of which, the monsters of Kong: Skull Island are more dreadful and frightening than any other creatures the big screen has seen in at least a decade. They are ruthless, bloodthirsty and some of the gruesome kills they pull off are surprising to see in a PG-13 movie. Just when you feel comfortable after a narrow escape, another damn monster comes along to kill someone else in the group. Bodies fly, blood splatters, and Kong is the King that tries to keep them all in check, as the protector of an ancient civilization that lives on the island, who also happen to have a stowaway with them.

Kong Skull IslandJohn C. Reilly has only been glimpsed briefly in the trailers for Kong: Skull Island, interjecting jokes, but his character, who has been stranded on the island since his plane crashed there during World War II, runs away with the entire movie. Reilly is comic relief most of the time, sure, but not in a way that's overbearing or stupid. Beyond that, he has plenty of purpose, a real story to be told, and ends up being quite the hero in his own right. Reilly has an amazing gift of bringing natural comedy to the action adventure proceedings, and his backstory makes you care about him more than anyone else in the movie. The performance has heart, humor and you just might be surprised by how much you love his character.

Meanwhile, if there's one shortcoming in Kong: Skull Island, it's that it has such a big ensemble cast, and we don't get to spend enough much time with all of them. But each cast member gets at least one scene to shine. Actors like Kebbell don't entirely get their due, but having performers of that caliber in smaller roles also adds some weight to the proceedings. It makes the continued death have a little more weight than it would if these roles were played by unrecognizable actors. If you're not expecting a character to die because they're played by a known actor, think again.

At the same time, if you're thinking Hiddleston is the star of the movie, it's not even close. Hiddleston honestly isn't given much to do until one purely cool action sequence comes along. Otherwise, his character feels like it could have been beefed up a bit. On the other hand, Larson does a great job with the screentime she's given. She's as close as we get to giving Kong the beauty that the ape traditionally becomes obsessed with in previous incarnations of the monster. But this time, his motivation isn't just because he thinks she's beautiful, and it's elements like that which give this take on Kong more layers and complexity than he's been given before.

Overall, Kong: Skull Island is one gnarly monster movie that doesn't hide the monsters in the darkness or create tension by having them lurk in the background. Instead, it puts monsters front and center in the spotlight, and they come through with shining colors. Kong has never been more thrilling, and his nasty opponents make for such compelling monster fights that you'll be even more disappointed in the fact that we didn't get to see Godzilla do this much in his own return in 2014. Charged with a 1970s rock and roll soundtrack, Kong: Skull Island also never loses steam. It plows through an endless array of vicious monster attacks, all presented through a lens that masterfully captures the action, scenery and delightfully grim adventure that Jordan Vogt-Roberts has assembled on screen.

/Film Rating: 9 out of 10