Coming out on video March 24th from Universal Pictures;
Of all the "King Kong" films that exist (and there are others besides the original 1933 classic and its 1976 remake), Peter Jackson's lavishly produced new Kong is clearly the best. As good as it often is, it is also an occasionally elephantine, desperately overlong tribute to what was always an adventure film with an uneven central love story (thought the love story in this one works).
The film is set during the Depression Era of the 30's, specifically 1933 in the city of New York. In an evocative montage set to Al Jolson's "I'm Sitting on Top of the World," we see police raiding buildings, destitute families living in squalor, high-angle views of New York City as everyone scuttles about their business, vaudeville shows and the construction of the Empire State Building. Jack Black is in the middle of all this as Carl Denham, an obsessive film director who is also a huckster, promoter and a bad businessman. His current leading lady has pulled out of his latest project (he has trouble procuring the talents of Myrna Loy and Fay Wray!) until he finds a forlorn beauty on the streets, a vaudeville performer named Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts). He persuades her to go on a maiden voyage to Singapore aboard the Venture ship, though they are really headed to Skull Island unbeknownst to all. Also along for the ride is Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), a playwright who has written some dialogue for Denham's latest opus. He inadvertently travels along and knows trouble is headed his way, though not the trouble he imagines when he first sees Kong. Jack has a brief fling with Ann, who adores him. But how can Jack compete with a hairy giant gorilla?
Skull Island is the uncharted land that time forgot, and you Kong fanatics know what is in store for these passengers once they arrive. We are talking red-eyed aboriginal natives with pierced tongues and eyelids who all seem possessed by the devil. We are talking skulls and carcasses that grace every inch of this island. We are also talking about a 25-foot silverback gorilla whose roar can shake even the most determined sleeper. We are also talking about giant spiders, giant T-rexes, lots of stampeding Brontosauruses chased by velociraptors, millipedes, centipedes, various other insects and giant worms, and much more.
Most of "King Kong" is an eye-popping marvel of special-effects. Particularly convincing is Kong himself, as played in a motion-capture suit by Andy Serkis ("The Lord of the Rings"),an angry, battle-scarred ape who growls but can also laugh when Ann saves her own skin by performing some vaudeville routines to amuse him. There is even a tender scene shared by Kong and Ann by sunset and a touching moment at an ice rink. But this Kong is all action as he glides and jumps with great ferocity - he is an animal after all who pounds his chest with pride when killing a vicious T-Rex. Thanks to Serkis and Jackson's own WETA effects team, Kong is the most realistic creation seen on screen in the history of cinema, and certainly the most convincing Kong ever. I can't imagine it getting any better than this.
As for the story, the first hour of the film is devoted to the main characters and the crew members on board the Venture ship. The film truly brightens every time we see Jack Black up to his conniving ways, bewildered and bewildering everyone around him. His portrait of a 30's film director who wants to make epic adventure films (not unlike Merian C. Cooper) at any cost, even at the cost of losing his crew members just to get a shot of a Brontosaurus, is spot on and sharply observed (Howard Hughes might've been scared by this guy).
Less intriguing is Adrein Brody's portrait of what appears to be a Beatnik playwright (he did play a Beatnik in "Last Time I Committed Suicide") - he is just off by twenty years. I expected to see a playwright who was as passionate as Carl but instead we are saddled with a weary writer who has not much passion for anything. Even his brief fling with Ann hardly convinces - Ann finds the big ape far more beguiling as will the audience.
Naomi Watts makes the most out of her role, which has an extra dimension or two than Fay Wray's famous incarnation. Watts invests time in her character during the first hour, and afterwards she mostly jumps, stares, screams, runs and wells up with tears. Not to begrudge Watts but this is a role that could've been filled by any actress even, god forbid, Tara Reid had it been written as a one-dimensional bimbo who is merely sexual eye candy for the big ape (Well, maybe not Reid, but you get the idea). Thankfully, Ann is written as a sexual object of desire, more like an angelicpresence who cares for Kong. I appreciate Jackson's choice of using Watts whose past screen roles have never depicted her as the typical, busty blonde beauty. No wonder Fay Wray approved shortly before her unfortunate demise.
"King Kong" is simply too long though, with far too much action at Skull Island. The stampeding brontosauruses sequence is practically unwatchable since it is all shot too tightly (a frequent criticism of mine of Jackson's previous work). Even the fight between the T-Rexes and Kong might give you motion sickness - funny how it is clearer and sharper when seen on a TV screen than on the big screen. Despite my criticisms of length, the first hour could easily have been expanded into an extra half-hour simply because I was engaged by Carl Denham's hubris - I was willing to go wherever his character took me. Unfortunately, the film ignores his character (as well as others including an irate captain and Carl's assistant) and has Carl (SPOILER ALERT) deliver the famous last line. That is an error in character judgment that didn't work in the '33 original and doesn't work now. Carl should've said, "Hubris killed my soul, and I have killed the beast." If it wasn't for Carl's hubris and showmanship, Kong might have still been alive.
Another technical flaw is the strobing of images in slow-motion that Jackson uses far too frequently - they deter from the action. At times, the movement of the camera with a strobing effect makes it difficult to discern what is occurring on screen. For all of the film's flaws, the love story between Kong and Ann works because they care about each other. The ape is simply exploited by Carl and the public because of his freakish size, and Ann is exploited by the natives and Carl because she is so sweet and fragile. That is at the heart of "King Kong" - it is not a soulless, mechanized blockbuster but a story of two beings who share a love greater than anything Jack Driscoll could dream up. This version of "King Kong" has its heart in the right place.
Movie Review by Jerry Saravia