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Tuesday, July 19, 2016
(NOTE: I wrote this review in 2006 and posted it at the now-defunct Bumscorner.com. This is the first time it has been reposted since then. My opinion of the film has soured considerably since this somewhat overly generous review--I can barely watch it now--but most of my reservations toward it are adequately expressed.)
Well, I never got around to seeing it in the theater, but thanks to the magic of DVD, I finally watched Peter Jackson's 2005 remake of KING KONG. If you're curious about my reaction to it, please keep reading. If not, here are some lovely pictures of giraffes.
(There are spoilers ahead, even if you're well familiar with the original film, since Jackson's version differs in several ways. So please proceed with caution if you haven't seen it yet.)
The story in a nutshell: flamboyant movie producer Carl Denham charters a merchant ship to take him and his leading lady, Ann Darrow, in search of the legendary Skull Island, where he hopes to capture such wonders on film that audiences will line up around the block to pay admission. But instead, he ends up capturing a fearsome 25-foot-tall gorilla named Kong -- who has left the safety of his jungle lair to pursue Miss Darrow, with whom he has become hopelessly smitten -- and then transports him back to New York to put him on display and make millions of dollars. Kong escapes, of course, and wreaks havoc in downtown NYC before recapturing Ann Darrow and climbing to the top of the Empire State Building, where he is picked off by machine gunners in biplanes.
The original 1933 version of this story by producer Merian C. Cooper and director Ernest B. Shoedsack is an undisputed classic. Okay, maybe it's disputed by some who now regard it as a creaky old black-and-white bore with crummy special effects. I feel that these people are missing out on one of the greatest cinematic experiences of all time -- a marvel of compact storytelling, pacing, and bravura filmmaking with a wonderful cast and groundbreaking special effects by master craftsman Willis O'Brien that are still astounding.
How does Jackson's film compare to the original? First of all, it looks absolutely beautiful. The first and last thirds of the movie display a dazzling recreation of Depression-era New York City that is rich in detail and utterly convincing. Jackson spends a lot more time here than Cooper and Shoedsack, who were more interested in setting up the story and getting us on our way to Skull Island as quickly as possible. In fact, Jackson spends a lot more time on everything in this version, making it twice as long as the original.
This time, we get Ann Darrow's (a radiant Naomi Watts) backstory in more detail -- she's a struggling vaudeville hoofer whose show just closed down, forcing her to consider the horrors of performing in burlesque rather than starving -- before her fateful meeting with Carl Denham, who in this version is a much more devious and manipulative, almost villainous character (although Jack Black somehow manages to make him mostly likable anyway).
Ann accepts Denham's offer of "money, adventure, and fame -- the thrill of a lifetime and a long sea voyage" after finding that a playwright she greatly admires, Adrien Brody's Jack Driscoll (who was the ship's first mate in the original version) is writing the screenplay to Denham's picture. So off they go, one step ahead of the police who have a warrant for Denham's arrest for bilking his previous film's investors.
The voyage to Skull Island gives Jackson a chance to introduce us to still more characters, subplots, etc., such as the close relationship between the first mate and a youngster named Jimmy (Jamie Bell, TURN: WASHINGTON'S SPIES) whom he once found stowed away in the cargo hold. This doesn't really go anywhere, except for the fact that Jimmy is reading Joseph Conrad's "Heart Of Darkness" and it's supposed to tie in with everything somehow. I never read "Heart Of Darkness" but I know APOCALYPSE NOW was based on it, so I guess Kong is Colonel Kurtz. Come to think of it, the later Marlon Brando would've made a pretty good Kong.
Anyway, Ann and Jack sorta fall in love, Denham and Captain Englehorn clash (Englehorn pretty much despises Denham in this version), the self-absorbed actor hired as Denham's leading man, Bruce Baxter, admires himself in the mirror, and when they finally get to Skull Island there's a thrilling sequence in which the ship is almost dashed against the rocks.
The island natives are a much more bizarre and murderous bunch this time, leading to some truly creepy moments, and when they kidnap Ann and offer her as a sacrifice to Kong by tying her to one end of a rickety drawbridge and then lowering it across a deep chasm on the jungle side of the great wall which separates them from the rest of the island, Jackson's staging and execution of the scene are impressive. All of which leads up to the big moment -- Kong's entrance -- which somehow just doesn't have the impact of the original. We only get to see fog-shrouded glimpses of him at first, and a close-up of his eyes, but never one definitive reveal, which I found disappointing.
Kong snatches Ann from her bonds (somehow managing not to rip her arms off in the process) and heads off into the jungle with her. This leads to a protracted series of fierce battles as Kong protects his golden-haired prize from a succession of prehistoric foes such as T-Rexes (three this time instead of the previous one) and giant bat-like creatures that infest the cave inside his mountaintop lair. Meanwhile, Driscoll, Denham, and a group of sailors who have set out to rescue Ann end up running for their lives from a herd of stampeding brontosauruses who are running from a group of hungry raptor-like creatures. This scene becomes almost cartoonish as the men skedaddle between the stomping brontosaurus feet and the huge beasts finally begin to pile up in a scene that resembles, as one message-board poster put it, the police car pile-up at the end of THE BLUES BROTHERS.
As if that weren't enough, their attempt to cross a gorge via a fallen log (which parallels the famous scene from the original) is foiled as an angry Kong shows up and starts to shake them off the log and into the pit below. Here, Jackson makes up for the excision of the fabled "Spider Pit Sequence" from the '33 version by having the hapless sailors attacked by the most nightmarish collection of giant insects, spiders, leeches, etc. that he and his SPFX crew could conceive of. I'm wondering how many walkouts there were when this was in theaters -- it's pretty horrifying. But it's also pretty cool.
Jack survives the pit, of course, and goes it alone as he makes his way up to Kong's lair. What he and the ragged remains of the rescue team don't know, however, is that while they were going through hell trying to rescue Ann, she was falling in love with Kong. And this is the element of Jackson's remake that I was dreading the most since advance word on the movie began to hint at it, and which serves as a giant stumbling block in my enjoyment of the film as a whole. I thought it was a dumb idea when it was injected into the stupendously awful 1976 remake, and I still do.
Let's face it -- if a giant rampaging gorilla grabbed me and carried me off into a jungle filled with prehistoric monsters, I'd be screaming my head off in mortal terror non-stop, just like Fay Wray's Ann Darrow did any time Kong came near her. I wouldn't be teaching the big, hairy ape sign language, nestling in his lap to watch the sunset, or making soulful googly eyes at him. I like the part where Ann attempts to calm the beast down by performing her vaudeville routine for him and eliciting a delighted reaction, but I just can't accept seeing the film turn into a love story that could almost pass for a Harlequin Romance novel with Kong taking Fabio's place on the cover.
At this point in the movie, it's almost as though Jackson had decided to remake TARZAN, THE APE MAN instead of KING KONG -- but when Tarzan carried Jane off into the jungle and she eventually came to love the untamed wild man, it was romantic. Here, it's just weird, and I found myself wondering at times if Ann wasn't a bit off in the head. And when Jack finally shows up and whispers for her to leave the sleeping Kong and come to him, for a moment there I thought she might actually refuse.
Perhaps recalling that she does have a prospective human lover and a life back in the real world, Ann manages to tear herself away from her beloved Kong and join Jack as they race back to the native village with Kong hot on their heels (a shot from the '33 version of them running through the jungle is beautifully duplicated here). When they arrive, Ann realizes with horror that Denham and Englehorn plan to capture Kong and take him back to New York as a big money-making attraction.
As Kong kills still more sailors left and right by smashing them, flinging them, and biting them in half, Ann can hardly contain her indignation and heartbreak at such a foul scheme. Although she must've come to know these hapless guys during the voyage -- we see her happily dancing for them at one point -- their violent deaths now seem to mean little or nothing to her, just as the deaths of several innocent New Yorkers and would-be rescuers in biplanes will later have no effect on her while she's in Kong's thrall. She's even furious at Jack for restraining her as Kong smashes his way through the door of the great wall, so I guess going through all kinds of hell to save her didn't keep her erstwhile human love interest out of the old debit column for long.
Kong, as everyone knows by now, does get captured and taken back to the big apple and made the star of the biggest show on Broadway. We discover that Jack and Ann have drifted apart in the interim, and he goes to the theater to try and win her back, not even knowing that she's left Denham and gotten a job in a chorus line somewhere else.
Kong's unveiling to a shocked audience is a grand affair which Jackson uses as one of the film's most blatant homages to the original, as Jack Black's Denham recites almost word for word the introductory speech Robert Armstrong gave back in '33 and the orchestra strikes up a stirring rendition of Max Steiner's famous score. The stage show also consists of a re-enactment of the native sacrificial ritual from the old version, but when the shackled Kong wakes up to find that the peroxide-blonde actress being offered to him as a bride isn't Ann Darrow, he goes ape and breaks loose. (I had to use the term "goes ape" somewhere.)
This is when the movie really starts getting good. Kong smashes his way through the front of the theater and goes on a destructive rampage through the icy streets of New York City, smashing vintage autos and trolley cars, snatching up any blonde he sees in search of the real Ann and tossing her aside when she turns out to be the wrong one. Jack jumps into an abandoned taxicab and tries to lure Kong away, but in the resulting chase Kong manages to cause even more destruction than before.
But just when he catches up to Jack and is about to smash him to a pulp, he senses something and looks around -- and there, gliding toward him out of the mist, is his beloved Ann. She leaps into his outstretched hand and off they go to Central Park for a romantic romp on a frozen lake (referred to by some as "the Thumper scene"), where they exchange more soulful gazes until the military arrives to break up their reverie. As the army guys blast away at everything in sight and terrified civilians run for their lives, Kong at last makes his way to the Empire State Building and begins his legendary climb.
All else aside -- and whatever gripes I may have, this is still an awesome film packed with one exhilarating scene after another -- Peter Jackson's staging of Kong's last stand atop the Empire State Building is a magnificent achievement. The attacking biplanes swoop down deliriously out of the sky toward Kong in several vertigo-inducing shots as he leaps around fighting them off amidst a hail of bullets. Every time I see this movie I have to go back and watch this part again, because it's simply one of the best action set-pieces ever filmed.
It's also one of those rare instances in which I'm glad they created CGI -- rarely has it ever been employed to such impressive effect (and when it is, come to think of it, it's usually in a Peter Jackson film). By this time, Kong has come into his own as a character that we can sympathize with (due to both the skill of the SPFX technicians and Andy "Gollum" Serkis' motion-captured performance), and his final emotional scene with Ann as he clings tenuously to the side of the building before finally slipping off and falling to the street far below is memorable. Even Jack Black's stiff repetition of the original film's final line somehow works as we reach the stirring fade-out at last.
So there you have it -- a rousing, gorgeously-photographed adventure story, a heartfelt tribute to the 1933 version by one of its most ardent fans, and a film that stands on its own and is definitely worth seeing and worth having. Which makes its one great, nagging flaw all the more bothersome to me. Maybe if Peter Jackson hadn't gone so overboard on the Ann-loves-Kong angle and used a bit more subtlety it would've worked, and might even have made Ann's offering herself to Kong in New York in an attempt to avoid further carnage seem like a more heroic act.
But as it is, she just seems abnormally and irrationally obsessed with this giant ape in a weirdly romantic way, as though he were the "man" of her dreams. Which makes her embrace with Jack at the end seem somewhat cursory. (There are, however, an awful lot of people who are utterly enamored with this aspect of the film, so -- as with any movie review -- take my opinion for what it is and decide for yourself.)
Anyway, that's the thing that really bugs me about the remake and prevents me from wholeheartedly embracing it; otherwise, I found the new KING KONG highly enjoyable on its own terms. Definitely a worthy effort, although, for me, it still doesn't quite live up to the first one.