Mark Reviews Movies

KING KONG (2005)

3 ˝ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Peter Jackson

Cast: Naomi Watts, Jack Black, Adrien Brody, Andy Serkis, Jamie Bell, Kyle Chandler, Thomas Kretschmann, Evan Parke, Colin Hanks

MPAA Rating:   (for frightening adventure violence and some disturbing images)

Running Time: 3:07

Release Date: 12/14/05

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Review by Mark Dujsik

The story of the giant ape from Skull Island has become such an American myth since its incarnation in 1933 that the third act of Peter Jackson's remake has the inevitable momentum and cathartic feeling of Greek tragedy. We know what will happen, don't want it to, and yet feel relieved when it does. In spite of it all, the world still makes sense, because Kong climbs the Empire State Building and loses his fight with the biplanes. Back in 1933, Merian C. Cooper envisioned a kind of spectacle the world had never seen in his tale of a fifty-foot gorilla that falls for a beautiful blonde with the kind of sincerity one could only get away with in the glory old days of Hollywood. Seventy-two years later, spectacle has become the rule, not the exception, and sincerity is a keystone for mockery. Yet Jackson's King Kong is still spectacular in the way it gives us what we expect and then some, and manages to find sincerity within a premise that, in this day and age, comes preloaded with irony. This is the best kind of remake, one that sees the original exactly for what it is in modern eyes and ends up feeling more like a new production of established material than an inevitability.

It is New York City in the 1930s, and the country is in the midst of the Depression. Vaudeville actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) has managed at least an escape with her work at a local theater, but soon that theater is shut down, leaving Ann with even less of a chance of receiving a pay check. After failing to land an audition at a legitimate, paying theater, she gets some advice to head over to the burlesque show to make some quick cash and just forget about it afterwards. Meanwhile, maverick film director Carl Denham (Jack Black) is screening footage of his new project and has put all the studio representatives to sleep. After overhearing that the film will be scrapped, he and his assistant Preston (Colin Hanks) take the reels and run. Denham will finish this picture on his own, but all he needs is an actress who will fit into the costumes of the leading lady who has dropped out. He checks out the burlesque theater and sees Ann staring at the place, only to walk away. He catches up with her, offers her the part, and after some persuasion, convinces her to join.

There is about fifty minutes leading us to the arrival at Skull Island—half of it spent on the characters and inside jokes, half on a sense of impending dread as the ship bound for the uncharted island nears its destination. There we meet the motley crew and playwright Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), whose work Ann has long admired and who develops strong feelings for the new leading lady. Jackson and editor Jamie Selkirk's sense of pacing is so precise, though, that it—and the remaining two and one-third hours—progresses with a sense of the unstoppable. Thrown in are thematic musings ranging from the all-encompassing presence of fate to the self-referential mention that Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" is "not an adventure story." These end up being just as excessive as the character development, as the film does indeed turn out to be a archetypal adventure yarn, but the promise of something bigger certainly raises the potential thematic stakes, which is appropriate as Jackson will ultimately raise the visceral stakes for the remainder of the film. Once the ship arrives at Skull Island, Jackson never lets up, and the result is some of the most outlandishly exhilarating action anyone has dared to try make work and, on top of it, succeeded at doing so.

Everybody knows the story from this point: They arrive at the island, encounter natives, Ann is kidnapped as a sacrifice for the giant gorilla, the crew saves her and brings Kong back to New York. It's how Jackson and screenwriting partners Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens re-envision the events that make the film stand apart from its predecessor. The native are not xenophobic caricatures but bloodthirsty near-demons who take the crew's arrival as a cue for on-the-spot ritualistic executions. Kong, in all his computer generated glory, is completely animalistic. Everything on the island is big (one crewmember goes so far as to shoot down giant mosquitoes with a machine gun), and Jackson's vision of the action scenes are equally sizeable. It's not enough that the rescue party must escape a herd of stampeding brontosaurs, but they must also compete with the huge-headed raptors spread out among the charge. After the infamous log scene, Jackson revives the lost "spider scene," as the surviving party tries hopelessly to fight off disgusting creatures at the bottom of a ravine (one, a leech-like feeding tube monster is of particularly disturbing quality). The common thread through all of this is how Jackson stays true to and ups the ante on the original's sometimes overlooked gruesome nature.

And of course, there's Kong's fight with the T. Rex. In this version, it comes after Ann escapes a carnivorous lizard, only to come face to face with one T. Rex. Clearly, this isn't enough, and soon Kong is battling three of the dinosaurs while falling down a cliff. The special effects have a polished but unreal sense to them, which is no criticism, as it fits just right in what is essentially a hugely budgeted B-movie. Following in suit are the performances (Naomi Watts has a fantastic scream for this kind of material, Adrien Brody is a serviceable writer turned hero, and Jack Black has a fine mixture of restrained humor and desperation), but the exception in both effects and performance are Kong. Impeccably rendered to the finest detail and with a motion-captured performance from Andy Serkis, Kong starts off a terrifying animal, and while he remains an ape throughout, a character manages to emerge. There is no overt attempt to anthropomorphize him, and what was played as romance between Kong and Ann before now seems like a Jane Goodall-esque relationship, albeit on a singular, far larger scale.

We need that sort of connection (whether it be the result of romance or understanding) for the third act to work, because sympathy for a misunderstood and majestic creature that is destroyed by the hands of industry is the tragic crux of the mythology. King Kong has a surprisingly lovely and tender scene in Central Park near the end of the film as the beast encounters ice for the first time. The pieces are in place for his doom. We know it; he does not. It is the first time I have ever gotten choked up over a computer-generated character and a testament to Jackson's gift for telling a story.

Copyright © 2005 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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