By John D. Delmar
Despite the 7,000 new films submitted to the
Sundance Film Festival every year, and the untold thousands of
scripts stacked up in studio slush piles, when Hollywood wants
to make a film (particularly a blockbuster), they make a remake,
or a re-remake, since this is the third time around for the big
ape (not counting numerous sibling simians, from "Mighty
Joe Young" on).
Presumably, this story has legs: big hairy
legs and long nubile legs. When the original "King Kong"
(see The City Review article) was released
in 1933, people had lots of real terrors to fear, including the
Depression, bank closings, dust bowls, and a scary, racist Charlie
Chaplin look-alike in Germany. What better way to supplant legitimate
anxiety than to slip into a dark room and watch others cower in
fear from a 25-foot high gorilla?
Remakes are fine, sometimes better than the
originals. This Kong III is better at times than Kong I (the Fay
Wray version), and infinitely better than Kong II (the Jessica
Lange/World Trade Center 1976 remake). Although director Peter
Jackson (of "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy) has a way
with expansive, panoramic cinematography, this Kong unfortunately
is far too long, too dependant on visual effects and hokey thrills,
and is often as meandering as a curious monkey poking about in
The film opens on a Depression-era shanty-town
in Central Park. Jackson fairly accurately depicts the real fears
of the Thirties-not a big ape, but poverty, hunger and despair.
Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) plays a struggling hoofer, down on her
luck, looking for work. She encounters snarky Carl Denham (Jack
Black), who combines the entrepreneurial skills and looks of a
young, chubby Orson Welles with the credibility of Jon Lovitz.
On their way to Oz (or rather Skull Island) to shoot a film, they
pick up Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), a sulky but hunky writer.
Kong doesn't even appear until a good hour
or so into the saga (at over three hours long, you'll need to
bring an extra banana if the popcorn runs out). The appearance
of the big ape (or the guy in the monkey suit, or the Computer
Generated Image) is just the beginning of what most resembles
an advanced video game battle of Kong and his Jurassic Park playmates,
an extended Donkey Kong vs. Gertie the Dinosaur. Lots of inauthentic
prehistoric creatures thump through the primordial jungle, and
one expects to see a wide-eyed Jeff Goldblum hiding in the foliage.
With a budget of over $200 million dollars, one would assume state
of the art CGI, but a dino stampede has the authenticity of Raquel
Welch's torn loincloth cheapie, "One Million Years B.C."
There is a long and pointless encounter with
creepy crawling Buick-sized bugs (bigger, even, than New York
City cockroaches!), sure to terrify the kids, and scenes with
Booga-Booga type natives, who, of course, enjoy tying up and sacrificing
the very blonde Miss Darrow as a canapé for the vegan ape. I couldn't wait
for the crew to leave the Jurassic out-takes and get back to the
Because the greatest supporting actor in "King
Kong" is New York City itself, even though the City is primarily
a back lot and/or computer simulation. Jackson has stated that
the verisimilitude of the City was important to establishing the
credibility of the film, and he studied stills and period newsreels
to capture the grit and feel of the era,
the clothing and cars and crowds of downtown 1930's NYC.
He captures wonderful, evocative prologue scenes
of struggling vaudevillians (alas, my parents, a classically trained
dancer and a comedian, were among those hopeful thousands), trying
to sing and dance and make people laugh while they faced starvation
and destitution. There are vertiginous swirling shots of the entire
1933 New York City from the Observation Deck perspective of both
Kong and the bi-plane aviators who use him for target practice.
There are scenes of Kong going ape in a Thirties Times Square,
tossing Model T's and Yellow Cabs around like so many banana peels.
There is even a romantic encounter between Kong and his blonde
in a skating pond in Central Park, where they frolic like young
lovers in a perfume commercial (how Central Park pops up between Times Square and The Empire State Building only
a New Zealand cartographer can explain).
The most iconic scenes in the film (and probably
among the most famous in cinema history) are of Kong, the ultimate
alpha male, protecting his beloved atop the Empire State Building,
fighting off planes, fighting off modernity and the City itself.
This struggle between the primal beast and the "civilized"
urban environment Jackson depicts stunningly. One can sympathize
with Kong, the ultimate fish out of water, trying to comprehend
the mores of the metropolis, hanging on for dear life (sounds
like the story of many people in New York!). If Jackson hadn't
gotten carried away with his big budget, shooting scene after
scene and effect after effect, just because he could, this Kong
might have been a far better film.
In the end, it is not Beauty that fells the
great Beast, but the City itself. After all, Kong can fight off
three dinosaurs with one hand. New York City, unfortunately, is
far more treacherous.
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