Starring: Naomi Watts, Adrien Brody, Jack Black
Director: Peter Jackson
Fax: 2005, adventure
As a kid in New Zealand, Peter Jackson caught the original "King Kong" on TV one Friday night and was so blown away, he decided to make movies just like that 1933 classic.
Thank heaven his local station wasn't running a Jerry Lewis marathon.
It was reasonable to figure there was no way Jackson could top his monumental "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy. Yet Jackson's done so with his spectacular update of the country-ape-meets-city-girl love story, his "King Kong" passionately commemorating the original while adding chills, frills and thrills by the boatload.
Just when it seemed Hollywood had reached a visual-effects plateau where all a film could do was pile on more of the same without distinguishing itself from its computer-generated predecessors, along comes "Kong" to swing to new peaks of dazzling digital storytelling.
Apart from a few curiously phony-looking special effects, "King Kong" presents a fantastic world seamlessly blending live action, computer imagery and miniature sets and props.
Likewise, aside from a couple of absurd moments where "Kong" strains credibility even in a tale of giant apes, insects and dinosaurs, the action sequences are stupendous, some almost visionary in conception and design. We're used to seeing bigger, badder variants of things we've seen before in Hollywood movies, yet "King Kong" is a rare beast that startles again and again, each chase, battle and flurry of motion more intense and innovative than the last.
Certainly, Jackson is guilty of piling on throughout "King Kong," indulging himself in an excess of excess like a famished gorilla turned loose at a farmer's market.
Topping three hours, the film is almost twice as long as the 1933 version and feels like the extended cut studios put out on DVD a year or two after the theatrical release. The overlong Manhattan setup and shipboard journey to Kong's island could have been cut considerably, and even some of the action scenes are longer than they need to be.
Still, when what's on screen is as good as this, three hours pass quickly.
Unlike the woeful 1976 remake, which updated the story to modern times and had Kong climbing the World Trade Center instead of the Empire State Building, Jackson's version takes the story back to 1933.
Unscrupulous filmmaker Carl Denham (Jack Black, showing dramatic chops beyond expectations) is about to get shut down by his financiers on his trek to Skull Island, a lost world where he plans to shoot an adventure epic. Denham unleashes flurry of lies to assemble his equipment and crew aboard the tramp steamer that will carry them to the south seas, hoping to shove off before the money men can stop him.
With his leading lady a no-show, Carl encounters out-of-work vaudevillian Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), who proves she has as good a set of pipes as her "Kong" predecessor Fay Wray). Carl cons Ann into signing on and manages to hijack his screenwriter, playwright Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody, a sturdily heroic presence), to complete the script during the voyage.
The screenplay by Jackson and writing partners Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens fleshes out the lead players into much richer characters than the 1933 version.
Jackson and company also craft a full-bodied ensemble of shipmates: Steely Capt. Englehorn (Thomas Kretschmann), dauntless first mate Hayes (Evan Parke), impressionable deckhand Jimmy (Jamie Bell), Carl's devoted aide Preston (Colin Hanks) and colorful ship's cook Lumpy (Andy Serkis). Jackson also used Serkis' motions and performance as the foundation for his digitally created Kong, the same way Serkis formed the basis of the computer-generated Gollum in "The Lord of the Rings."
At Skull Island, the natives kidnap Ann as a sacrifice to the feared 25-foot gorilla. Having fallen for Ann, Jack convinces the others to mount a rescue mission, leading them into a land that time forgot overrun with dinosaurs, huge bugs, monstrous bats and other creatures.
When the branches begin to creak and the boughs start to break before Kong's first entrance, it's as big a moment of expectation as today's seen-it-all audiences are likely to experience.
From then on, the action and drama never let up. The island natives are terrifying in a demonic, "Dawn of the Dead" manner. The dinosaurs are even scarier. The giant insects will have you squirming in your seat. Kong's battle with multiple tyrannosaurs in a net of vines is one of the greatest action sequences ever made.
Instead of Kong's love-at-first-sight fixation with Wray in the original, Watts' Ann has to work for the ape's affections, her charms gradually elevating her from battered plaything to cherished trophy girlfriend.
As for Watts, this woman can really scream. With little dialogue and only Serkis in a padded suit to act off of, Watts captures mournful tenderness for the big galoot. The relationship progresses from Watts' "My boyfriend's back and you're gonna be in trouble" smirk when Kong shows up to save her from dinosaurs to her profound despair over the ape's subjugation after he's captured and brought back to New York as a sideshow freak.
The computer-generated Kong is a marvel, his movements and expressions embodying primal rage, bestial bewilderment, even hearty humor. The filmmakers suffuse Kong with majestic melancholy and deepen his sense of loneliness with hints that he once had brethren but now is the last of his kind.
From his king of New York chest-beating atop the Empire State Building to his last tortured glances at Ann, Kong feels like a living, breathing character with old-soul pathos.
Jackson sticks in a clever Fay Wray mention early on and offers a dedication in the end credits to the actress, directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack and other co-stars of the 1933 "King Kong."
But the whole remake reveals Jackson's reverence for the original. Many sequences, shots and even individual dramatic beats are lifted from Cooper and Schoedsack's version and transfigured through the director's personal vision and masterful command of the 72 years of film technology that has come since.
"The whole world will pay to see this," Denham declares, contemplating the fortune he can make putting Kong on display.
Jackson can count on the same reception for his "Kong."
*Review by David Germain, Associated Press
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