King Kong (2005)

Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
King Kong (2005)
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

It is the midst of the Great Depression and struggling actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) is at the end of her rope when the theater she works at unceremoniously closes. Hungry and desperate she attempts to steal and apple but is caught red handed. To her rescue comes filmmaker Carl Denham (Jack Black) who makes the pretty size four a proposition: come with him to the South Seas and star in his latest for fame, fortune and adventure. She finally agrees and takes the first step, aboard the tramp steamer Venture, to her new destiny in Peter Jackson’s remake of the classic, King Kong.”

Jackson had first seen the original “King Kong,” as a boy, on television and it has since been, according to the filmmaker, his favorite film of all time. Back in 1996 he wrote a screenplay to remake the classic but it wasn’t until his phenomenal success with “The Lord of the Kings” did he have the wherewithal to bring his dream to reality to remake the story about the giant ape.

Taking the 1933 tale, directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, Jackson and his Oscar winning team re-imagine that ground breaking effects film and update it with 21st century technology. I was a bit concerned that the filmmakers took the 104-minute original and expanded it to a fully three-hour long epic but, once things get rolling in the new “Kong,” time enters a different continuum.

It takes a full 70-minutes for Jackson to get to the action but the time moves pretty quickly and never feels too bloated (though it could have been a bit more condensed). Jack Black reprises the Carl Denham role originally played by Robert Armstrong. It’s an odd bit of casting with Black putting a comical spin on what Armstrong played straight as the slick, conniving P.T. Barnum-type showman. The comic edge works okay, due to Black’s on screen persona, and his performance is sucked in by the events to come.

Faring best in the film is Naomi Watts in her recreation of the role that made Fay Wray famous. But, instead of simply looking good and screaming throughout the film as Wray did, Watts is called upon to create her Ann Darrow against blue screen. Hers is a remarkable performance in that she made me believe that Watts was really in the thick of the action. Her affection for Kong is visibly palpable on the actress’s face. (As is his for her.) Plus, she does a kick-ass job doing all the strenuous physical stuff.

Oscar-winning actor Adrian Brody plays playwright and movie scribe Jack Driscoll – a different character than played by Bruce Cabot in the original – who is an intellectual compared to Cabot’s beefy first mate on the Venture. But Brody is still the hero figure as he risks life and limb to save the beautiful Ann from Kong. The rest of the supporting cast do yeomen’s work with Thomas Kretschmann (who co-starred with Brody in The Pianist”) as the tough captain of the Venture. Colin Hanks gives a grounded perf as Denham’s assistant and right hand man, Preston. Andy Sirkis, besides doing duty giving movement and expression to Kong, also plays the ship’s one-eyed cook, Lumpy. Jamie Bell does a decent turn as the orphan-turned-seaman, Jimmy.

Of course, Kong is the real star of the film and Jackson and his effects crew strive to give the big hairy ape real personality. They succeed extraordinarily well making the star an expressive, intelligent beast with real feelings, especially for the beautiful Ann. She wins his heart when, to defuse the beast’s violence, she performs her vaudeville act much to Kong’s pleasure. To see the big guy smile and laugh is, alone, worth the price of admission in a film that has many, many things to attract an audience.

Action is the key word in this new millennium rendition of “King Kong.” Once the long voyage to the mysterious, uncharted Skull Island comes to a close, things crank up a notch or two as the fogbound Venture almost crashes into the island in a harrowing, sweaty palm sequence. Then, when Denham, his actors and crew steal a lifeboat and land on the island, things really begin to rock and roll. They are shocked to find out that the uninhabited island is, in fact, peopled by an aboriginal tribe that worships…something. The natives kidnap Ann and drive her companions away. They stake Ann out on a huge alter and Kong makes his appearance.

This is where “King Kong” finds its level in two parts. Part one is Ann’s rescue which is one two levels: Kong saving her from all manner of prehistoric bugs and beasts, including a trio of very hungry Tyrannosaurus Rexes; and, when Denham and his men subdue the beast and take him to New York City to put him on display, culminating in a beautifully rendered recreation of biplanes attacking King Kong on the Empire State Building.

At its heart, though, the new “King Kong” is a love story and Jackson et al play it straight. Between Watts strong performance and the brilliant special effects for Kong (played for the computer animators by Andy Sirkis who made Gollum, in “The Lord of the Rings,” such a memorable creature) there is a great deal of warmth and affection between beauty and the beast.

Peter Jackson has firmly established himself as the master of special effects filmmaking and embraces the high tech world that provides the palate to create King Kong.” Jackson familiarity with the original work and his imagination in making it new should garner sufficient international box office to make back its 200+ million buck budget – probably a couple of times over. As I said, it could have been shorter, especial in the first third but this is a minor nitpick for a film that is tremendously entertaining and wonderfully crafted. I give it an A-.

Carl Denham (Jack Black, "The School of Rock") is an obsessed director so intent on filming at the exotic and uncharted location of Skull Island, that he hijack's the studio's equipment and theatrical playwright Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody, "The Pianist," "The Jacket") and endangers the passengers and crew of the S.S. Venture to get there.  Denham himself gives pause when, after crash landing against jagged rocks, they discover murderous natives who attack, killing their sound engineer.  But when the islanders capture his new discovery, actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts, "Stay," "The Ring Two"), to sacrifice to their god, Denham sets his showman's sights on him instead - the Eighth Wonder of the World, the giant ape known as "King Kong."

After the grueling production that produced the box-office shattering "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, one would think writer/director Peter Jackson would have needed a break.  Instead he moved his "Rings" team, including his New Zealand based Weta digital effects house, right into one of the biggest effects films ever made.  Jackson's childhood obsession, the 1933 "King Kong," was ripe, he thought, for a redo with modern technology.  And one has to hand it to the man - even at a 180 minute running time (twice the length of Merian C. Cooper's classic) Jackson's "Kong" is a pulse-racing spectacle that pits one man's heart of darkness against the feral beast's need for beauty.  Naomi Watts gives the movie its soul in one of the most impressive examples of acting against a make believe costar ever (Andy Serkis, who did motion control work for Kong similar to the work he did for Gollum, provided an eye-line from a cherry picker).

Kong opens with a depression era montage of New York City (after "Cinderella Man," the second time this year that Central Park's Hooverville has been prominently featured in a film) that is an astounding recreation of Manhattan circa 1933.  Ann Darrow works in vaudeville, but hasn't been paid for two weeks when her theater is abruptly closed down.  Denham, whose size 4 actress has deserted his film after her costumes were completed ('Faye,' we are told, is unavailable), comes to her rescue at a fruit cart where she's been caught stealing an apple.  He buys her dinner, but cannot convince her to star in his movie until he mentions socially relevant playwright Driscoll, one of her heroes.  When Driscoll only delivers twelve pages of script, Carl keeps him on board until after the ship sets sail, but he's rewarded when he catches sight of Ann.  In a clever bit of parallelism, Driscoll's libido is literally caged when he forced to stay below decks, Captain Englehorn's (Thomas Kretschmann, "The Pianist," "Downfall") primary commerce being in exotic animal capture.

Skull Island, of course, makes up the central third of the film and it's a vividly imagined and scary place indeed, from the jagged and skull shaped rocks which greet the Venture to its unimaginable inhabitants.  Jackson balances his natives, pitch black B-movie creatures with eyes rolled back in their heads like zombies, with the Venture's first mate Hayes (Evan Parke, "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang"), the educated black man who mentors young Jimmy (Jamie Bell, "Billy Elliot," "Dear Wendy") on the meanings behind Conrad's "Heart of Darkness."  The Weta Shop has created creatures both real (Kong's oversized silverback gorilla, T Rexes, brontosauruses) and imagined (the 'Wetasaur' and cartoony, demonic looking bats that are one of the film's few letdowns).  As Jack leads the charge to save Ann, losing members of both Denham and Englehorn's crews (while Carl keeps filming 'in tribute' to the fallen, a true megalomaniac), Ann proves as exotic to Kong as he to her.  Her feisty spirit, at first trying to escape, then attempting to make the great ape laugh after she spies the familiar behavior of wounded pride, win him over and Kong devotes himself to protecting her. The film's centerpiece, a three part, triple threat to Ann which ends with Ann, Kong and a T Rex suspended in vines over a gaping gorge, is breathtaking and Jackson and Watts really convey the stomach-dropping, bone rattling experience of being transported in the fist of Kong. The sequence ends with the great Kong chloroformed and Jackson giddily skips over any thoughts of the logistics of transferring him to the dilapidated ship.  On with the show!

The final, Manhattan set third features Kong's familiar rampage after breaking the shackles which bind him to a Times Square stage.  Jack, disgusted when his alter ego, the cowardly movie star Bruce Baxter (Kyle Chandler, "Mulholland Falls"), is presented as Kong's defeater, rushes to lure the ape away from midtown, while Ann, who has refused to take part in Kong's exploitation, hears the pandemonium outside and finds the bruised beast, offering him comfort. If a scene of the duo 'skating' as Kong delights in sliding on ice had me suppressing the urge to hum the 'Skating in Central Park' theme from "Love Story," it still possessed its own magic, Kong seeming somehow less anthropomorphized than those marching penguins. And if Ann's scampering about the top of the Empire State Building in heels seems impossible, it is part of Jackson's admirable refusal to break the original's hokey spell.  He's making B-movie art here.  It is unfortunate that Jack Black was incapable of giving the film's legendary last line - 'It was beauty killed the beast' - any character.

Black isn't as miscast as might be expected, it's just that he only plays one note. The obsessive, controlling, compulsive, ranting film director, however, is a note he plays well, his eyes shining and glazed over and blinded to everything but his own silver screened vision.  And while the film belongs to the amazing Watts (who should also be checked out in the diametrically opposed indie, "Ellie Parker") and the brilliantly realized Kong, some supporting players stand out.  Brody hasn't been as appealing on screen since his Oscar win, even if one does tense for a face suck when Jack first kisses Ann (the actor keeps himself in check) and Colin Hanks ("Orange County") does well by Denham's assistant Preston, the director's unheeded conscience.

Tampering with classics is a risky business.  Peter Jackson recognized a valid reason for doing so and went for it with film geek gusto.  His film is a marvelous entertainment, a great big thumping movie-movie that stands beside, all the while honoring, the greatness of the original.

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