Peter Jackson says that it was the experience of seeing "King Kong" on TV as a kid that made him want to be a filmmaker. Still, for as ridiculously gifted a director as he has turned out to be, a remake of that 1933 picture would seem a retrograde undertaking: How exciting could a big-monkey movie be in this day and age?
Incredibly exciting, it turns out. Although it doesn't have the built-in mythic resonance of Jackson's triumphant film rendering of the "Lord of the Rings" books, his "Kong" has heart and soul, and a grand romantic sweep that was beyond the conception of the men who made the original movie.
And the action, of course, is state-of-the-art amazing, in a way of which only Jackson and his home-grown army of New Zealand digital technicians seem capable right now. Some of the sequences — like a hair-raising dinosaur stampede through the jungle, and a spectacular fall through a webwork of vines to the bottom of a ravine, where prehistoric spiders mount an attack — are unlike anything else you've likely experienced. (The spider scene was cut from the original "Kong" when Merian C. Cooper, who co-directed it with his production partner, Ernest B. Schoedsack, noticed at an early screening that people in the audience were so blown away by it that they yakked about nothing else throughout the remainder of the movie.)
The story remains essentially the same, with minor tinkerings. It's set in Depression-era New York City, where a pastrami-on-rye costs 25 cents and cops busy themselves busting illegal liquor stills and beating up the homeless who huddle in the cold in a Central Park shantytown. Jack Black plays Carl Denham, a flamboyant filmmaker whose financial backers are about to pull the plug on his latest production, an action-adventure safari movie. They're not impressed by the fact that Denham is having the script for the movie reworked by his friend Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), a Manhattan playwright. (In the original "Kong," Driscoll was a sailor, and the film's romantic lead.)
Determined to flee the moneymen before they can shut him down, Denham has chartered a tramp steamer called the Venture, which is heading back to its home port of Sumatra, in the far Pacific. The boat is fitted out with cages below deck for the transport of rare animals, and this fits right in with Denham's plans.
"I have a map!" the director tells the ship's captain (Thomas Kretschmann). It's a raggedy piece of paper of dubious provenance, depicting a mysterious island somewhere out in the uncharted ocean. "It has a local name, but it doesn't sound good," Denham says. "Skull Island. Technically, it hasn't been discovered yet."
Unfortunately, the actress Denham had signed to star in the film has bailed out of the project, leaving the filmmaker with a wardrobe of size-four clothing and nobody to wear it. Scouring the city, Denham comes upon a down-on-her-luck stage actress, Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), and convinces her to come along on his filmmaking expedition — even though he won't tell her, or anyone else, where he's headed. Next he shanghais screenwriter Driscoll, and off they go. (The shots of the Venture gliding out of New York Harbor past a panoply of twinkling skyscrapers is one of the picture's many uniquely ravishing images.)
Once they're out at sea, Denham immediately starts rehearsing Darrow for her role. It's one of Jackson's wittier touches that the dialogue she recites is taken from the original "Kong," and that Ann's "acting," which is quite bad, replicates the actual bad acting of the first movie's heroine, who was played by Fay Wray.
The Venture finally reaches Skull Island, and, in a brilliant, harrowing sequence, nearly founders on the offshore rocks. Denham and the ship's crew wade ashore and quickly encounter a tribe of unfriendly natives, who are preparing for a strange ceremony alongside a towering stone wall their ancestors built to keep out a mysterious beast who inhabits the jungle beyond. They kidnap Ann and tie her up to be sacrificed to this creature, who is of course King Kong.
Kong doesn't make his appearance until about an hour into the movie, but he's worth the wait. (As soon as he shows up, the rest of the cast, with the exception of the glowingly beautiful Watts, begins receding into the background.) The giant ape is an enormous creature who nevertheless seems every bit as "real" as the chattering Gollum in "Lord of the Rings" (a character that was also modeled on a motion-capture performance by Andy Serkis, who plays Kong here). The monster gorilla doesn't kill Ann, though. Instead, he makes off with her through the jungle's alarming array of wildlife (huge mosquitoes, giant lizards, big creepy centipedes and carnivorous, muck-dwelling slugs). To him, she's a fascinating blonde bauble, and after she charms him with one of her vaudeville-style dance routines, he becomes her protector. (The scene in which she and Kong, now at ease with one another, sit atop a cliff gazing off at a gorgeous sunset is another of the film's virtuoso passages.)
Denham and his crew eventually subdue Kong and sail him back to New York. (The way in which this seemingly impossible feat is accomplished remains undemonstrated, as was also the case in the first movie.) Kong is put on display in chains in a Broadway theater; he breaks loose, and then sets off on a thundering rampage around the city in search of Ann. (He keeps snatching up blondes wherever he finds them, and then, realizing they're not her, blithely tossing them away, presumably to their deaths.)
Like the original movie, this one ends atop the Empire State Building, in an astonishing sequence in which the enraged Kong swats away machine-gunning biplanes to protect Ann, but finally succumbs to their onslaught. In the theater where I saw the film, the shot in which Kong is slowly sliding off the top of the building to his death, and he and Ann gaze one last time into each other's eyes, elicited audible snuffling from some of the people around me. It's an extraordinarily powerful and heartbreaking scene.
Peter Jackson's "King Kong" sets a new standard for action movies, and maybe for movie romances, too. You feel almost privileged to be in the presence of such an awesomely accomplished and exhilarating picture. Its enchanting effect is probably best suggested by a remark that's made in it by the moviemaker Denham: "There's still mystery in this world, and for the price of admission, we can have a piece of it."
Check out everything we've got on "King Kong."
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