Review: “King Kong”

There’s an old joke about a 500-pound gorilla sitting anywhere he wants to that suitably applies to the leading monkey of “King Kong”, and I ain’t talking its titular star. Having successfully transferred legendary literature epic “The Lord of the Rings” into one of the biggest cinematic franchises in history, director Peter Jackson has decided to follow that up with a three-hour remake of the classic that made him fall in love with films. With Jackson now in the position of being one of the few directors that’s a household name who can do what he wants, the syndrome has begun where people seem unable to stand up to him and question his decisions.

Around the middle of 2005 it was announced that Universal had originally asked Jackson to deliver a cut of the film at around the two and a bit hours, but he wanted to go with his three hour version and they acquiessed. There’s always a tough line to draw between keeping a filmmaker’s vision intact and delivering a product that will do business – too much one way and a film becomes a lifeless soulless vehicle robbed of any emotional core, too much the other and it can become a bloated self-indulgent mess that only a small handful of film enthusiasts will ever really warm to.

Maybe they should’ve put their foot down in this case. Kong is an entertaining adventure/action film that certainly looks like the $200+ million it cost, has some pretty intense action and popcorn thrills for all audiences, and thankfully understands that effects should be used to enhance the emotion and narrative of a story rather than be a crux for it to fall back on. Indeed at times whether it be the great opening shot in New York Zoo, to the drawn out reveal of Kong himself, it actually reaches points of great filmmaking.

Yet too often it falls into traps – action sequences drag out way too long, setups range from clunky to great and back again, characters change behaviours and attitudes on a dime (whilst others never change at all), dialogue is clunky, humour is scant to non-existent, and pacing veers wildly. The net result is our level of interest often swamps between compelled and bored, the product too schizophrenic and unpolished to be of real interest or rewatch value.

Jackson obviously has put a lot of love into the product and it shows, but unlike say “Lord of the Rings” in which he had so much background material that a three hour film barely covered it, here he only has Merian C. Cooper’s 1933 original story – one that was a cinematic classic in its time and certainly a big leap forward in terms of visual effects, but much like the similar “Star Wars” forty years later, wasn’t exactly a movie notable for its inventive narrative. Taking that familiar albeit thin story and stretching it over twice its original length means that Jackson has had to reinvent some key parts of it and does so with mixed success, never quite overcoming the inherit flaws that come with both the original story and stretching out said material to its current length.

The first and weakest act sets up the characters and situation, but takes over an hour to do it. The logic here seems to be that the filmmakers are given time to develop most of these characters so that when they get killed, we’ll feel empathy for them. Trouble with that thinking is that we have to like or at least feel for all these characters and we don’t. Watts and to a lesser extent Black are the only ones of any interest as in that whole time they’re the only ones that get any development.

Aside from that all we’ve got a bunch of one-dimensional forgettable gruff sailing crew including an utterly vain actor, a feral kid, a stern first mate who loves lecturing the feral kid, a geeky personal assistant, pudgy film crew members, and a Sawyer-esque Captain who only seems to complain and look brooding. Andy Serkis at least realises his human character of the ship’s cook is merely a caricature and plays up his cameo, yet others (eg. Brody) try their best with some clunky setup for their character and ultimately end up a waste of space.

Despite some impressive background matte shots, the opening spends a bit too long on the ground of New York showing us Watts and Black having a run of bum luck and how fate brings them together. Still, these scenes are necessary setup so are understandably inserted in, and the two actors make the trite developments endurable. They also play better than some of the early scenes onboard the ship where we get to see the aforementioned dull as dishwater crew.

What does work well in this first act is the suspense elements – Jackson delivering a handful of really well done scenes (the talk of the castaway pickup, the first entrance into the fog, the native attack and capture of Ann) that are appropriately foreboding and eerie, despite one clunky misfire with the mate giving a long winded monologue that bluntly draws to clueless Jimmy an analogy between their present situation and Joseph Conrad’s literary classic “Heart of Darkness”.

This leads into the second act within Skull Island itself which essentially plays out like Jackson’s attempt to do an entry in the “Jurassic Park” series. Most of the film’s action is concentrated here in a bunch of quite thrilling action sequences that suffer from the Stephen Sommers syndrome of trying too hard – sacrificing credibility in favour of making its sequences bigger and wilder. A brontosaurus stampede is visually cool but goes on for far too long, is truly stupid in terms of how the human characters are involved, and contains some surprisingly slipshot effects. A vampire bat attack serves only as filler in an already too long film.

A lot better is the ‘bug pit’ scene which is suitably icky and at least one of the few bits of the film that feels slightly fresh. There’s also a cool action sequence between Ann, Kong and some T-Rexes which starts out well, then turns into a overblown vine swinging affair before coming to a bone-crunching great ending. Where this act works is the establishment of Kong and Ann’s relationship, easily the film’s strongest aspect. Jackson’s languid pacing works to his advantage here, giving us a little time to get to know Kong as a character and understand him – such as a cute sequence in which Ann performs her vaudeville routine for him and he responds with fun baby-like tantrums and glee, or the very sad scene of his capture.

The third act is back in New York and the famous climax which pretty much everyone is familiar with. Before it gets to that comes the theatre breakout, Brody looking soppy and Watts tearing up over going back into showbusiness before being snatched by Kong again. Like the second act there’s many sequences that drag out, most notably here Kong’s long rampage through New York and then transport of Darrow to the Empire State. However once it reaches the building, it becomes pretty thrilling with some great shots and visuals of the bi-plane attack.

Performances are a mixed bag. Naomi Watts is a great actress and delivers as always with a quality job that, whilst not up with some of her other work, nevertheless shows her commitment and really engages us as an audience – especially in some of the quieter moments. Jack Black, like Will Ferrell, always seems to do the same old overblown schtick to me which I never particularly like. Yet here Jackson has him playing against his usual grain, more understated and serious than we’re used to seeing and it shows off a decent actor with potential underneath that could really shine.

Not so well played is Brody, a man of obvious talent but a character so vapid and useless that Brody’s dour presence inhabiting it sucks the life off the screen, especially in the non-action scenes. The rest of the cast ranging from Bell to Hanks all do serviceable jobs but none of them are given decent roles so don’t get to do anything with their limited screen time. Visual effects are sometimes too rushed, but work well for the most part. The score is a little too bombastic, but again works well for the material for the most part.

Pacing veers wildly. At times it drags on, at other points its almost skips too fast over some – Watts and Brody share a moment talking in the corridor on the ship, then suddenly it cuts to a very pretty scene with Naomi on the stern of the ship crying against the sunset during a film shoot. In that scene she spots Brody and gets emotional, and the next scene after that they make out in one of the cabins – the pair suddenly went from her insulting him to falling in love? What did I miss. With such a long voyage to the island, the film also quickly jumps from Kong’s capture to his return to New York, yet once there it takes an age before it hits the famous Empire State Building sequence.

When ‘Kong’ was announced one wonders why did they need to remake it, and the final product offers no real answer to that question short of more impressive effects. Good remakes should improve upon their originals in every way, not just in flash bang but in the core substance as well – with the exception of the Kong/Anne relationship aspect, this fails to do that. If you have a love for the original story or film then most certainly you’ll see the fun and/or love this, if you don’t then while you probably will enjoy it, the assorted flaws in its structure will stand out like sore thumbs and ultimately take away from it.

Ultimately ‘Kong’ is a good film – it’s not a soulless endeavour like many a tentpole blockbuster, its one obviously crafted with love and care and attention to detail. Yet it’s not a particularly memorable or even interesting one either, certainly not when compared too some of the other remake/sequel blockbusters of late which are more entertaining and emotionally engaging because they were tight and handled their familiar characters and plot elements far better. A bit more time in the editing room could’ve lifted it into great blockbuster territory. Instead we’ve got a sporadically entertaining escapade that never captures our hearts like it so desperately wants too.