Film Reviews

KING KONG (Gordon)

By • Dec 5th, 2005 •

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Universal Pictures / A Wingnut Films production
MPAA rating PG-13 / Running time 188 minutes

There is no need to cover the basic plot, so moving right in, overall, I was disappointed in Jackson’s KING KONG. It had streaks, fits of greatness amidst its otherwise long, mediocre haul, but tragically, it is a story that did not need to be retold despite the light years in technological advances. As if to remind you just how far we’ve come, Jackson has even given you a few dozen shots of Jack Black hand-cranking the camera. Not that I’m a big fan of the whole King Kong story in general. I’ve always been fascinated by gorillas, Tarzan, Gorillas in the Mist, and I’ve always followed Rick Baker’s struggle with a perfect representation of one. I wonder what he would think of this new, flawless-looking Kong, having worked on the previous 1976 version, even playing Kong himself in that film. However, I think Kong is a B-movie premise and you can’t make a $200 million B-movie. It doesn’t work, the grandness of the scope that money affords conflicts with the pulpy-premise, which is why the last three STAR WARS movies are dreadful. This is KING KONG, not as Jackson would have you believe, ‘Heart of Darkness’. You cannot shift Kong into epic mode, he’s an atomic one liner, even if he wasn’t created by radiation. I haven’t read the original 160-page (a clue as to proper length) novel, but I think it’s a very unsatisfying and pointless story on the big screen. The original was a gimmick, all about seeing sights you have never seen and wrapped around it was the most basic of adventure plots with a syrupy dose of simple tragedy thrown in. There might be depth in the book, but here it’s all skin deep. This ain’t Shakespeare (Adrien Brody is even called this by Andy Serkis, during his bizarre Popeye riff).

In an epic you need a theme and KONG’s, like the title character, is painfully simple – Man vs Beast – Man is cruelest. I get it and I hate that theme. I know we suck, don’t remind me with a $200 million brick to the head. It’d make an interesting half an hour episode of Amazing Stories or Twilight Zone, but as a three-hour movie it is negating its wham-bam-thank-you-m’am heart.

The first hour of KONG is completely pointless. When I say pointless, I really mean utterly wasted. It doesn’t build character or interest, it stumbles and falls around trying to find footing. It doesn’t set the stage, it kills time. Everything, character-wise and plot-wise, gleaned in the first hour could have been handled in five to ten minutes on the ship, heading to the island. And it would have been so much better to learn about these people during the island adventure. Instead, Jackson tries to cram it all up front so he can be free to blaze away on the action for the rest of the movie and not have to worry about developing his characters, but it’s the audience that needs to worry about the characters, and we don’t, so he does a disservice to the grand action he finally delivers. More on that later.
The dialogue is so bland it is non-existent. Not that it has to be Mamet or The Cohens…Actually that would have been great. Nothing said in KONG is funny, nor witty. Nothing endearing, or even expositional, it’s just there, as if Jackson wanted to make a silent movie (it essentially is one) but everyone told him it had to be a talkie. He even manages to make quotes from Conrad sound bland.

The movie is also fatally, even criminally, miscast. Jack Black is just the worst pick for this role. I can think of a hundred other actors, better suited, who would have had a delicious old time with Carl Denham. Alec Baldwin anyone? Black is incapable of delivering these stale, dry lines. Most sinful is the famous ending line, which here is almost laughable coming about of Black’s signature evil elf mouth. Black is capable of good acting; just watch his earlier small roles. I think the problem is with Jackson. He is not very good with borderline-actors. Orlando Bloom, fresh out of film school, and sexy as he may be, was the worst actor in LOTR (keep your hate-mail to yourself.) Everything is so over the top in Jackson’s films, acting always included, it took an incredible actor like Ian MacKellen to get a natural performance in LOTR (the only one nominated BTW).

Adrien Brody is the other terrible choice. Yes, he can act, he won an Oscar for it, and here he doesn’t look the part at all, so they make light of it, but he has no charisma as an action-hero or even screen presence in general, and you can’t explain that away with exposition. “Yes, he is a boring book worm, but he’ll save us all and we won’t find it compelling in the slightest.” Why Jackson couldn’t go to Viggo Mortensen for his Driscoll we will all be left to wonder. There is nothing wrong with re-using actors. There are great director-leading man parings throughout film history. I think maybe Jackson wanted to distance himself from LOTR, but it’s futile, he can’t, just like Spielberg will always be JAWS and RAIDERS. So here we are left with the Captain and the First Mate of the ship bringing more charisma than the lead, which takes us to a major problem. Other than the basic sympathetic fear of brutal mutilation we share with most humans, you feel nothing for anyone, most especially Naomi Watts. I don’t where all this praise is coming from for her performance, but almost all of her screen time is spent looking up at Kong, with varying degrees of awe and terror. Big deal. She provides no reason to like her, Ann is pretty and dumb. I hate to say it, but how about a little more moxie. She doesn’t need to be toting a tommy-gun, but this Ann Darrow is a damsel in distress and nothing more.

The only character to care about in the whole show is clearly Kong, and that is what Jackson devotes everything to. Jackson is obsessed with Kong as a character and his execution in every way. Kong is King of this show, but he’s not Dracula folks, you can’t spend this much time on a giant gorilla and have it be interesting. You like Kong and want him to destroy everyone, especially in the end, and Jackson seems content with this, problem is, our hero dies, and once again this isn’t Hamlet, so what is the point of this journey. Literally a three hour carnival sideshow?- No thanks.

I have no problem with killing off movie-heroes, in fact I support that, it’s a brave choice in a film, if warranted. You know from imagery already ingrained in pop-culture for 72 years that Kong is going to die, and everyone is going to do him harm, so in some way, surprisingly it feels like Gibson’s PASSION OF THE CHRIST, especially the last 45 minutes, only here Christ kicks some major Roman ass before kicking the bucket.

Now, of course the special effects are amazing and Kong is riveting, which makes you forget all of the movie’s other faults piling up until after the movie. This is by far the most jaw-dropping, flawless effects work I have ever seen. Kong looks 100% real. The animators and Serkis did an incredible job with Kong, his performance, like Gollum’s in LOTR, is the most natural and nuanced of the whole cast. I would dare to say Kong is an even better performance than Gollum since the ape can’t speak and only emote.

The action scenes are equally amazing. The middle hour is solid thrills. Which would, however, be so much more grand if you cared about anyone and if they were handled a little more realistically. People are either killed instantly, squashed into oblivion, or bounced around like they were related to Gumby. No scratches or broken bones. Dead or perfectly fine.

The music is probably the weakest part of this film. Forgettable in every sense. I don’t know what Howard Shore’s sounded like (he makes a cameo appearance as a conductor – and the music they supply is better suited), maybe on the four hour extended DVD we’ll get to hear, but I will bet it was so much better than this stock-score that James Newton Howard supplied (two month deadline or not). James Horner would perhaps been a better choice, he’s notorious for working under such deadlines (WRATH OF KHAN). Even Horner repeating himself in the worst way would have been better. Elfman churning out his most basic, signature work would have been better. This is nothing. No theme, no bravura, nothing.

Every year there are a couple films that get vastly overrated. I think out of hype and appreciation for breaking the glut of crap, anything remotely good is put up on a pedestal. Critics are letting Jackson coast on LOTR good cheer. Don’t get me wrong, I love the LOTR films and was looking forward to this as the savior of the year, especially after a painfully rote NARNIA and a boring POTTER, but KONG is not a relief, it is just as problematic as the rest. Hollywood has finally infected Jackson, the lone wolf has been caged.

He has definitely become a master in technical ability, perhaps surpassing Cameron, Lucas, and Spielberg, but he handles everything with a sledgehammer. Spielberg is a master manipulator and knows what strings to pull and how to pull them without you knowing. Jackson doesn’t know how to manipulate, he just knows how to thrill, blind roller coaster thrills. Thrills without investment in the characters is hollow, like a theme park ride. Roller coasters don’t pretend to be LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. KONG is not Roland Emmerich’s I-want-everyone-to-just-die type of hollow, but almost as ineffective. Perhaps this just shows how much LORD OF THE RINGS was source material, or maybe Jackson just chose the wrong movie to remake.

Still, KONG must been seen by any blockbuster fan, and seen in the theaters for proper affect. The island set pieces alone are an argument for $9.50 ticket prices. Jackson put Lucas to shame with LOTR and here he tried to put Spielberg to shame. He can’t, because Spielberg did it better with JURASSIC PARK twelve years ago, despite my major preference for rampaging Gorillas over rampaging Dinosaurs.

Ann Darrow: Naomi Watts
Carl Denham: Jack Black
Jack Driscoll: Adrien Brody
Capt. Englehorn: Thomas Kretschmann
Preston: Colin Hanks
Kong/Lumpy: Andy Serkis
Hayes: Evan Parke
Jimmy: Jamie Bell

Director: Peter Jackson
Screenwriters: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson
Based on the story by: Merian C. Cooper, Edgar Wallace
Producers: Jan Blenkin, Carolynne Cunningham, Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson
Director of photography: Andrew Lesnie
Production designer: Grant Major
Music: James Newton Howard
Co-producers: Philippa Boyens, Eileen Moran
Costumes: Terry Ryan
Editors: Jamie Selkirk, Jabez Olssen

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