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King Kong Review

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by Chris McEneany Mar 1, 2006 at 12:00 AM

    King Kong Review
    “In a few months, his name will be up in lights on Broadway. Kong ... the Eighth Wonder of The World!”

    Regular readers will already know how eagerly I awaited the release of Peter Jackson's remake of Willis O'Brien's masterpiece of the fantastique, 1933's groundbreaking King Kong. The latter half of last year saw my home transformed into a veritable Skull Island of figures, posters, toys and assorted paraphernalia. And, in many respects, my wife even applauded the removal of a lot of the usual Gladiator stuff to make way for the big simian's arrival - well, swords lying about the place can get a bit uncomfortable, I suppose. For, alongside Gladiator and all things related to Batman, my passion for movies and the whole spectrum of creative imagination is hinged on the epic tragedy of Kong and his grand last stand. I can safely say that were it not for the original movie, and its everlasting legacy to filmic lore and legend, you would never have read a review beneath my name, such is Kong's implacable foundation within my obsession. Thus, as a viewer and a fan, I feel I had as much at stake, personally, as the Rings maestro himself, Peter Jackson, when he attempted to bring a re-imagining of his own favourite film to the screen for a modern audience. That's a sweeping, egotistical statement, I know - but if the filmmaker I most admire cocked this one up, it would have inevitably tarnished the story that I know and love so much, as well. And that really would have been painful.

    Thank God, then, that he didn't.

    “Wide angle'll do just fine.”

    Put quite simply, Peter Jackson's King Kong is a triumph. It's not perfect, I'll grant you that. In fact, it has a great many flaws - namely a dire script and uneven pacing - which I will address in due course. But, as one man's labour of love to a film, a story and a concept that radically altered his life, shaping his own amazing career in the process, it is as respectful and as beautiful as any epitaph that original story-conceivers Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace could have wished for. He took what many considered untouchable (Dino De Laurentiis' own 1976 production seemingly proving that) and invested so much love, attention and cinematic verve that the King of Skull Island truly does live and breathe again, and reign supreme. He stuck to the story, fleshing out the characters very successfully in some cases (Ann and Carl Denham), not so well in others (Jack Driscoll as a playwright-cum-adventurer just doesn't cut it, I'm afraid), recreated the era with incredible precision, provided a poignant history for Kong - the clever reveal of his ancestry amid a morose array of skeletons - and captured the fantasy, terror and excitement of such an incredible lost world with all the dynamism and flair that a director of his skills could muster. Sure it's a huge indulgence on his behalf, but it is one that he has proved highly worthy of having. Oscar was never going to come knocking at his door, but then his reward was just being able to sit back and watch scenes that he had attempted to create with a cranky old cine camera in his home as a child played out on the big screen with all the power of his own memories and boundless imagination finally entwined. And, uniquely, seeing his movie myself again and again, has almost the same effect of transporting me back to a time when I couldn't spot how an effect was done, or how cliché and contrivance ever seemed to get in the way of a great story. In short, just like Willis O'Brien's stop-motion animation from over seventy years ago did, and still does today, his achievements make you believe.

    “His ship had run aground on an island way west of Sumatra, an island hidden ... in fog.”

    We are back in Depression-hit 1933 and hard luck vaudeville girl Ann Darrow (the gorgeous Naomi Watts) is offered a dream movie role by entrepreneurial filmmaker and adventurer Carl Denham (Jack Black) and is soon whisked off across the high seas aboard Captain Englehorn's ship, The Venture. With aspirations of making herself a star, she is also delighted to meet playwright Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody as a character that has been altered from his original guise as Bruce Cabot's First Mate), an upcoming new writer she has admired. Driscoll, himself, has a literary bent and does not altogether relish scripting one of Denham's less-than-savoury adventure yarns, but has been duped into staying onboard the ship. As the voyage continues, Ann becomes held in great affection by the crew, and especially Jack, despite the sailor's credo dictating that having a woman on board is bad luck. And bad luck is certainly on the horizon for a lot of this crew, even if it is hidden by the fog that surrounds the legendary Skull Island - Denham's secret destination. Hardly a celebrated filmmaker, Jackson's re-thought-out Carl Denham is much less of a mogul than Robert Armstrong's incarnation, totally on the edge - of bankruptcy, sanity and professional talent - his reputation sunk unless can he can get some prized footage in the can. The mysterious Skull Island represents his last chance for something big to happen.

    “For 25 cents, you get to see the last blank space on the map.”

    Bolstered by the usual myths that seafarers employ, Skull Island still strikes fear into the hearts of Englehorn's crew, among them Andy (Gollum) Serkis as the gruffly great Lumpy the cook, who looks like a cross between a First War mercenary and a dockland brawler, Jamie Bell as the idealistic young Jimmy and Evan Parke as the staunch-but-protective First Mate and ex-soldier Hayes. Jackson's version certainly probes these characters a lot more than the original crew, who were, let's face it, just disposable dino-fodder who scurried about the jungle with about as much lifespan as the red-jerseyed crew aboard the Starship Enterprise, and this is dealt with during the lengthy voyage to the island section that so many people thought interminable. Yes, it is the long haul of the movie and one that Jackson, no doubt, believed would have us investing in the new brood. However, barring some nicely judged comical asides with Kyle Chandler's vain “movie star” Bruce Baxter and Lumpy's rough 'n' ready bruiser - love that porridge and shaving combo - these intentions may have been a little ill-conceived, considering that the plot will effectively jettison most of its cast once New York is back in the frame. The bond between Jimmy (who is reading the rather “obvious” literary classic of Joseph Conrad's Heart Of Darkness) and Hayes is especially regrettable as, despite all the scenes of them together in a heartfelt pseudo father/son relationship, the plot strand goes nowhere and is stippled with some sadly hackneyed dialogue. Thomas Kretschmann makes a wonderful Captain Englehorn though, whose itchy trigger-finger certainly comes in very handy during some tense encounters. There is a great little in-joke during this segment featuring a snappy reference to Jackson's own riotous splatter-fest Brain Dead - check out the species named on one of those cages in the cargo hold.

    “Check the stars.”

    “There are no stars, Cap'n.”

    The thing about all this build-up is that, once we land on the incredibly hostile Skull Island, we cue into a very abrupt and nasty new mood, and one that very swiftly turns the old school adventure yarn into a violent and frightening culture clash. Once the Venture nudges through the fog and gets bashed about against the spiky, prehistoric rock formations that ring the island - look at the amazing faces carved by an ancient civilisation into the jagged edifices - all bets are off. Now, we have spear and club-wielding Skull Island natives that are truly ferocious and only take prisoners if they then intend to sacrifice them to whatever lives behind that massive wall they shelter beneath. Sadly, after their great introduction, the tribe will be forgotten - an element that even Dino's Jessica Lange outing remembered to sign off, with the marvellously eloquent shot of them bowing before their fallen God. But, of course, this middle section is the one that we have all been waiting for and, man, does it deliver in all other respects! The veritable avalanche of spectacular imagery that Jackson hurls at you just demands repeat viewing. There's just so much going on that the odd lull in the action is actually a blessing. The pole-vaulting native snatch-squad that seize Ann during a typhoon; the powerfully intense, almost voodoo-style sacrificial ceremony that is wildly akin to some kind of evening entertainment that a band a orcs would cook up (the bone-punctured natives even resemble a mob of underfed Uruk-hai); Kong's arrival to the flame-spewing, drum-beating summons and his roaring flight back into the jungle with his new plaything clutched in his mighty paw; the brontosaurus stampede that sees men stomped underfoot or pummelled against canyon walls; the seminal log-twisting descent into the steaming abyss of the infamous bug-pit; and Kong's calamitous decision to pursue his new friend into the vile clutches of the gas bomb-hurling, harpoon-firing ambush. With more incident packed into this middle act than languished within the entire duration of many of last year's so-called blockbusters, King Kong hits the adrenal accelerator without mercy. And I haven't even started on the monumental V-Rex smackdown yet.

    “You're the star of this picture - get in character and head towards the animals.”

    With Andy Serkis performing the motion-capture stand-in for Kong, the level of realism attained for this older, more battle-scarred gorilla is absolutely unparalleled. After studying real apes, Serkis was able to imbue Kong with mannerisms, expressions and postures that blow all previous attempts to portray him clean away. Willis O'Brien's creation was revelatory, and is still fascinating to watch, but it never acted like a real ape. The '76 remake had Rick Baker in a lousy, zip-up fur-suit. What we have now, with the aid of incredible new CG work - that Weta Digital pioneered for the Rings Trilogy and perfected here - is nothing short of astounding. Kong's eyes shine, his fur ruffles in the wind, the density of his muscle shifts convincingly and his animal physicality never once strays into the realms of something that a genuine 25 foot gorilla couldn't actually do. He moves with the strength and grace of a real animal, his reactions to his environment are by turns, subtle, majestic, terrifying and reflective, but always natural. He is not a monster at all, but a living, breathing animal, with a backstory, relevance to his locale and, above all, character. Like any misunderstood animal in a film, your heart cannot fail to go out to him. It's those eyes. It's always the eyes. And if yours tell you that Ann Darrow is not really grasped in his paw then that is the cynic in you that refuses to give in. Me, I bought into it without question. The occasional clumsy live-action integration that popped up in any of the Rings films - that initial shot of the Fellowship cresting the mountain after leaving Rivendell always springs to mind - is never an issue here. Well, maybe. I do have a slight problem with Jackson's oft-used sweeping overhead CG shots - the native camp perched on the rim of Skull Island and the glide along the wall ramparts for instance - because they always look too elaborate, resembling well-detailed and highly populated models as opposed to genuine structures or locations.

    “I'm just an actor with a gun, who's lost his motivation.”

    The other residents of Skull Island are a feast for creature-feature lovers of all ages. I love the greedy little Weta-raptors that plague the poor Brontos - nice the way that the FX guys got to christen their own species - and the grisly-looking bat-beasts hanging out like fixtures in Kong's mountaintop lair. The notorious bug-pit sequence, a scene that Jackson was determined to put into his take on the tale since its incarnation from the original, then known more specifically as the Spider Pit, has been long-lost and since passed into cinematic legend. The new scene is grim indeed, pushing the boundaries for a PG13 into severely uncomfortable new territory that definitely has you squirming. I can't quite see how young Jimmy could be so precise with a Tommy-gun as not to blow Jack's face off, but the massed tangle of Weta-Rexes (oh, those Weta boys are at it again) climbing all over everybody is a skin-crawling delight. The bloated, fang-faced worms that rise up from the murk - the Carnictis - must have spawned quite a few nightmares too, especially considering the gloopy and remorseless way in which they despatch their quivering prey. Lumpy's squintey-eyed, machete-swinging mania here provides one of the film's many indelible images. And the atonal scoring of the scene can't help but pile on the bleakness, and the sense of utter helplessness as all manner of enhanced insect surge towards the fresh meat. And what about the body casually tossed amongst a squad of the larger arachnids, Starship Trooper-style? But, of course, the ultimate inter-species encounter just has to be the awesome Kong vs the V-Rexes sequence. Yep, that's V-Rexes and not T-Rexes as many magazines, reviews and even some of the merchandise would have you believe. These energetic toothy monstrosities are a Jackson-creation that flesh out the GREATEST ACTION SET-PIECE that the film has to offer. A real showstopper in its own right - and a huge OTT indulgence on Jackson's part. This phenomenal battle features such eye-popping choreography and bone-crushing violence - a boulder bashed on the skull and enough Kong-unleashed punches, kicks and throws to satisfy any jaded martial arts fan - that you don't just watch it, you try to keep out of the way of it. Kong offering his arms to his mighty-jawed enemies just so that he can wrestle the juicy prize of Ann to safety, the heart-lurching rush as we all drop over the edge into the vine-filled chasm and the deadly climbing frame of beasts that Ann has to navigate as the whole savage ensemble tumble earthward. There is a certain Indiana Jones quality to the way in which the sequence ups the ante every ten seconds or so, with a new and more dangerous predicament just around the corner - but the pounding ferocity and the sheer large-scale spectacle of it all defeats any criticism. This, and the new Batmobile's rampage through Gotham are my winners of cinema's most exhilarating moments of 2005. Bar none.

    “It's not an adventure story is it, Mr. Hayes?”

    “No, Jimmy. It's not.”

    But Peter Jackson doesn't just want to blister the eyes with roaring visuals. He knows that the power of the story is the relationship between Ann and her simian suitor. It's not a romance, however. I mean, even in a Troma film, that would be unthinkable. But, the resonance of these two disparate and lonely souls coming together to enrich one another's solitary and unfulfilled existence is wonderfully evoked and charmingly detailed. The scene of Ann trying to appease her mighty captor with some impromptu clifftop vaudeville would have been laughable but for the desperate power and comical beauty it possesses, which is completely acceptable and, in essence, necessary to portray their fledgling kinship. The top of the world moment when the two look out upon a captivating sunset has a primal sensitivity that belies morality, logic or even the blatant absurdity of the situation. Ann coming to realise that she needs Kong in order to survive isn't quite as clear cut a motivation for the good-time gal now. After the punishing V-Rex skirmish, there is a palpable sense that the two have now become a team, with a mutual understanding and a growing respect for each other. When Kong scoops her up and places her on his shoulder, the two ploughing through the jungle, listen to James Newton Howard's score as it wails out a post-battle lament, signifying the doom that inevitably overshadows the pair. Despite all the amazing and heartrending visions on display in the three-hour cut of the movie, this one brief shot seems to symbolise their bond more than any other. The later scene in Manhattan when the two go ice-skating shouldn't really work, either. Yet we can allow it because it is the last moment of joy that the pair will share. Again, Howard's score cradles the situation with a tenderness and beatific bliss, keeping all potential daftness locked out of the scenario. But the next moment that I find utterly heart-stopping just has to be that of Kong reaching what we all know will be his final destination. Of course he will head for the highest ground. Without giving us the flashback that director of the '76 version John Guillermin thought necessary in order to show the similarity between the World Trade Centre and Kong's volcanic domain, Jackson lets the towering building's obvious familiarity to the Ape King go unsaid, and somewhat understated, even visually. But when Kong, fleeing from the rickety gun-carts and artillery pursuing him, makes that leap and begins his ultimate ascension, there is an instance of keening despair that, even thinking about it now (although having the soundtrack playing as I write this obviously helps) just chokes the breath in my throat. This sad inevitability is actually the film's trump card.

    “Beautiful ...”

    We've seen this moment before. In this film I mean, not just the other versions. Jackson makes a clever symmetrical repeat of the mountaintop rescue of Ann by Jack Driscoll. On both occasions, Kong is thwarted and withheld from his companion by winged demons and the machinations of mankind, his fate turning full circle. He “must've known what would happen,” as one bystander will later say. Or is he just a “dumb animal” as another will smugly claim? Of course he knows what he is doing. It's in the eyes again, you see. Just look at the resignation in them when he spies the planes coming around against the last sunrise he will ever look upon. After this flicker of recognition, I knew that Jackson had understood Kong implicitly, all along. There's a weary expression, and a fateful snarl ... but there's no surprise. This new Kong, the last of his noble and ferocious kind, knew as well as we all did that he would only be coming down from such a lofty perch the hard way. And such a gesture as this makes the painful climax somewhat easier to take, I feel. Still, it's in the little victories that Kong has even now - swatting a biplane from the air and watching it crumple as it falls from the sky, his desperate death-defying catch as Ann's stricken ladder gives way, the momentous long-distance image of his roaring defiance atop the Empire State Building as the squadron closes in again - that have you cheering, praying that the pre-ordained won't happen. It's cinema's most iconic climax, a wrath and thunder finale that Peter Jackson and Weta ensure is even more exhilarating, powerful and tragic than you've ever seen it before.

    “It wasn't the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.”

    As I've already mentioned James Newton Howard's score is phenomenal, and certainly up there with the best that the big hitters came up with last year. In fact, it was the most exciting, ominous and dramatically heartrending score from 2005, and this is all the more impressive when you consider how little time he had to produce it once original composer Howard (The Rings Trilogy) Shore had been ousted from the picture. The Brontosaur stampede is a standout track, but my favourite has to be the V-Rex battle. Listen for the western-hero theme when Kong faces off against two of the huge lizards, and slowly backs away with Ann held protectively in his hand. This is an incredible cue that matches the onscreen carnage with aural dexterity, wit and complex orchestration. Max Steiner would have been proud. Steiner, thankfully, gets a musical homage or two. The Broadway rendition of the tribal ceremony is from the original, for instance. Oh, and have a gander at the conductor during this sequence - it's Howard Shore. They may have ditched his music, but he's still in there. Speaking of cameos, I haven't spotted Jackson in his usual walk-on yet. No jokes about him being the big monkey, please.

    Kong is King. Long Live The King.

    So, in case you hadn't already guessed it ... I loved the film. Now, I know that critically it was lauded by all and sundry but, to be honest, I saw this at the flicks with several different groups of people and on every occasion I was the only that seemed to have enjoyed it. Many feel that the film is too long, but I reckon that the three hours literally fly by. Certainly more so than the theatrical cuts of the three individual Rings movies. I agree that the pacing is uneven - especially compared to the streamlined original, which is the template for that oft-used “rollercoaster-ride” tagline - but the extended edition (and we will get one) may address this. For one thing, we are missing the entire Piranhadon sequence, which has the adventurers harassed by the said beast during a raft-crossing of a swamp. You can quite plainly see where this scene was going to be - and let's just hope that it doesn't become Wacky-Jackson's own “lost footage”. And then there's the initial landing on Skull Island, scenes of which have been seen in trailers and the first set of production diaries. And those disappearing natives is a narrative glitch that needs to have a proper resolution. And what about how they transport Kong all the way to New York? That's the one area where the seventies version wins hands down over all others - a miserable Kong is seen dumped in their hold. But still, there will always be those that think King Kong is too sprawling a film. It is perhaps true that it plays a lot better on the small screen, removing all the fidgeting and irritation of being glued to a seat for fear of missing something during a toilet break. Whether or not this version of the classic story will be held in such high esteem for years to come is hard to say. As Jackson is firm to point out - this is not, and was never meant to be, the definitive telling of the tale. But it is still a damn good one. He has nailed the sense of adventure, the horror and ferocity of the lost world and brought one of motion pictures' most treasured creatures to brutal, pulverising life. Yet he has also retained, and even magnified, his nobility, his grace and his pathos. Though one thing is still for certain ... blondes will always be his downfall.