Kong: Skull Island (4 stars)

Kong: Skull Island

Action-packed, superbly cast reboot, featuring Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson

Rejecting the traditional 'Beauty and the Beast' narrative but retaining the pathos, this latest reimagining of King Kong packs plenty of firepower. Its fantastical island becomes a full-on combat zone as it riffs heavily on the rich vein of Vietnam war films.

Set in 1973 in a land 'where myth and science meet', it's the second entry in Legendary's MonsterVerse, following 2014's Godzilla, and continues the Hollywood tradition of snapping up promising indie filmmakers and whisking them away to the big league (see also the aforementioned's Gareth Edwards and Jurassic World's Colin Trevorrow). This time it's the turn of Jordan Vogt-Roberts, whose debut, the mildly anarchic coming-of-ager The Kings of Summer, offered few clues as to how he'd handle super-sized spectacle and a budget just shy of $200 million.

John Goodman leads the investigation of a recently discovered island, complete with its own ecosystem. A snarling, on-form Samuel L Jackson commands the men with guns, while Brie Larson is the self-described anti-war photographer who smells a story and hops along for the ride, with no intention of being a Fay Wray-esque damsel. The group encounter Kong when he bats their puny 'copters out of the sky in a bravura, Apocalypse Now-channelling introduction to his home, but the oversized ape is far from the only thing to fear.

Sadly Tom Hiddleston is a virtual non-starter as an action hero. His ostensibly edgy SAS officer is found in a seedy Vietnamese bar in scenes that evoke The Deer Hunter, yet his potential for volatility is hastily forgotten. Luckily the remainder of the ensemble are impeccably selected: from the film's Oscar-winning leading lady and Boardwalk Empire's Shea Whigham to acting greats Goodman, Richard Jenkins and John C Reilly. And there are several exciting up-and-comers (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl's Thomas Mann, Straight Outta Compton's Corey Hawkins and Jason Mitchell).

The film clocks in at a succinct two-hours (it's over an hour shorter than Peter Jackson's 2005 version) and Vogt-Roberts maintains the threat throughout, delivering scares despite the constraints of the certificate. There's a consistent sense of a director looking for an interesting angle as he oversees a number of imaginative set-pieces, with a spooky scene set in a monster graveyard especially memorable.

In accordance with the bigger-equals-better trend of modern blockbusters, this Kong is a 100-footer. If his majesty's character design impresses, then the other beasts – including real 'bad guys' the Skullcrawlers – have less wow factor. The wartime backdrop (as America came to terms with a humiliating defeat) looks great and provides fuel for Jackson's vengeful mentality; however, this well-chosen period setting isn't mined sufficiently, failing to add depth to the characterisations or themes, or produce anything resembling food for thought.

But as the latest rendering of Kong thunders through, flanked by winning retro stylings and that cast, quibbles fall by the wayside like toppling trees. A tantalising establisher for a clash of the titans, this ably-directed actioner is monstrously entertaining.

General release from Thu 9 Mar.

Kong: Skull Island

  • 4 stars
  • 2017
  • US
  • 1h 58min
  • 12A
  • Directed by: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
  • Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Jing Tian, Toby Kebbell, John Ortiz, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Terry Notary, John C. Reilly
  • UK release: 10 March 2017

In 1973 a team of scientists goes to explore a recently discovered island with its own ecosystem, which turns out to include a 100-foot-tall ape which can punch helicopters out of the sky. Kong himself is impressive, if his fellow beasts are less so, and a great cast and able direction make this a monstrously entertaining…