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John C. Reilly upstages King of the Apes in ‘Kong: Skull Island’


Come for the giant ape, stay for John C. Reilly.

For the most part, “Kong: Skull Island” is just an excuse — albeit a more entertaining one than it should be — to launch the MonsterVerse, which will bring King Kong into the fold along with Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan and other classic Atomic Age creatures for a series of big-budget battles.

But during a scientific mission to Skull Island in 1973, Reilly shows up as Hank Marlow, a World War II fighter pilot who crashed there 28 years ago, and things take a hilariously bonkers turn.

“Skull Island” features a top-flight cast, led by Tom Hiddleston, 2016 Oscar winner Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson and John Goodman. But Reilly is jangling with pure electricity. He plays Hank as a cross between Randy Quaid from “Independence Day” and Randy Quaid from TMZ. You’d need something a whole lot more interesting than anything else going on in “Skull Island” to pry your eyes away from him.

Anyway, Bill Randa (John Goodman), a senior operative at the shadowy, X-Files-ish government agency Monarch, leads the first expedition to Skull Island. It was hidden for decades by a perpetual storm system, but it’s just been revealed by the advent of satellite photos, and Randa wants to get there before the Russians do.

 

He’s given an Army escort, led by Lt. Colonel Preston Packard (Jackson), who seems all too happy to accept the mission despite the fact that, with the conflict in Vietnam at its end, he and his men are 24 hours away from shipping home.

Randa and his colleague Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins, “24: Legacy”), a geologist he recruited out of Yale, seek out Captain James Conrad (Hiddleston), a former black-ops officer and expert tracker. For some reason, Mason Weaver (Larson), an “anti-war photographer,” also is brought along for the ride.

And what a ride it is. More than a dozen choppers, rock music blaring from onboard speakers, punch through the storm system and start setting off seismic charges to map the island’s interior. In other words, they’re dropping large bombs all over the jungle, and the resident king of that jungle is none too pleased.

The thing about colossal apes is, they don’t understand science, and even if they did, they surely wouldn’t care about it. For having never encountered a helicopter, though, Kong quickly figures out several inventive ways to destroy them. This leaves the aforementioned characters, along with some colorful cannon fodder, to attempt to make their way to an exfiltration point while surviving the island’s other deadly creatures, including a spider the size of a condo tower and a squid-type thing big enough to fill the Strip’s calamari needs for months.

Jackson’s Packard makes a formidable foe for Kong. Clutching the dogtags of the men he’s lost during the mission, it’s hard to tell who’s more terrifying: an angry Kong or a vengeful Jackson.

Much like Aaron Taylor-Johnson in 2014’s “Godzilla,” which unintentionally laid the groundwork for this MonsterVerse, Hiddleston is a bit of a bore as the lead. And Larson mostly just gets to wear a tank top and run.

Thankfully, Reilly’s there to breathe life into the whole affair with a performance that feels largely improvised. It’s hard to upstage King Kong, but he does — with ease.

Written by Dan Gilroy (“Nightcrawler”), Max Borenstein (“Godzilla”) and Derek Connolly (“Jurassic World”) and directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts (“The Kings of Summer”), “Skull Island” takes itself far less seriously than the joyless “Godzilla.”

“Mark my words,” Randa says, back in 1973, “there will never be a more screwed up time in Washington.”

Ha!

Next up for the MonsterVerse is 2019’s “Godzilla: King of Monsters” and 2020’s “Godzilla vs. Kong.” Be sure to stay through the credits for a glimpse of what’s to come.

I had zero expectations for either “Kong: Skull Island” or the MonsterVerse. But if the filmmakers can keep unleashing surprises like Reilly, these upcoming King Kong movies are going to be bananas.

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@reviewjournal.com. On Twitter: @life_onthecouch.