Pop Culture Gadabout
Wednesday, January 18, 2006
      ( 1/18/2006 02:25:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"MONSTERS BELONG IN B-MOVIES!" – Riding With the King – Part Two: If the original King Kong is about any one thing (beyond its oft-repeated Big Guy Done In By Beautiful Dame theme), it's the scary pleasures of imaginative excess. As steered by Merian Cooper & Ernest Schoedsack – two onetime documentarians with a flare for ballyhoo – and realized by big kid fx-er Willis O'Brien, the film's cumulative barrage of thrills and appalling images deliver a taunting challenge to any filmmaker dizzy enough to consider taking a trip to Skull Island: "Can you top this, bud?"

If ever there was a director suited to take up the dare of a King Kong remake, though, it's the man who first gave us Dead Alive's Sumatran Rat Monkey – and brazenly thought to include a Rat Monkey cage in the hold of the tramp steamer carrying huckster moviemaker Carl Denham (Jack Black) and crew into uncharted waters. Where Dino De Laurentis' King Kong remake attempted to skirt the implicit challenge by slathering Lorenzo Semple Jr.'s studied campiness over its thrill-less action, Peter Jackson takes the Kong challenge head on.

Forget the clever games that Jackson and his co-scripters play with the original (the scene where wimp actor Bruce Baxter ad libs bad lines that turn out to be dialog that Bruce Cabot delivered to Fay Wray, the recreation of the original native dance in Carl Denham's fraudulent New York stage show, the references to rival producer Merian Cooper), what matters most is the movie's readiness to do practically anything within the range of PG-13 to out-spectacle Kong I and its descendents. Some viewers have found this kind of visual gluttony wearying at times, but I kept laughing with Jackson's willingness to pile outlandish peril on top of outlandish peril. S'not enough to give us a big ol' brontosauri stampede; let's throw some carnivores into the melee and have 'em literally nipping at the heels of our running crewmen. Let's have Kong battle three tyrannosaurus rexes to protect his leading lady – and send 'em all over the edge of a cliff, so that all five figures are entangled and dangling within the vines, swinging back and forth within reach of each other. Let's make the Empire State Building climax so vertiginous that the audience will be reluctant to look down at its shoes as it shuffles out of the theatre. It all worked for me . . .

What helps, of course, is the solid grounding Naomi Watts' Ann Darrow and Andy Serkis' Kong give to the whole affair. In place of the screaming damsel-in-distress that Fay Wray was forced to play through so much of the picture, Jackson puts his Ann on more of an equal dramatic level with his simian leading man. When Kong is fatally shot atop New York City's biggest symbol of 20th Century Progress, the two look across the domed top of the building eye-to-eye, and you can't help but feel her anguish as the creature falls to its death. It's the saddest animal demise since Old Yeller.

To be sure, the new Kong has its missteps – any movie its length is bound to – though they weren't as plentiful as I feared they'd be. As in the original, the fx work slips whenever we consider Ann being held by Kong in long shot (though I'm not convinced this wasn't partially intentional – like the occasional riffles we see on the hair of a CGI Kong) and a few of the character additions don't bring much to the picture. (I liked Kyle Chandler's ham actor Baxter, however.) I can appreciate the thought behind making Adrian Brody's Jack Driscoll a screenwriter instead of a taciturn first mate, but, even with an additional action car chase sequence, the guy remains an afterthought, overshadowed by the Girl And Her Ape as well as the monomaniacal Carl Denham.

As for Black's Denham, I'm not entirely sure that the tweaking the character receives in both script and performance helps the movie. Where the original Denham was an opportunistic showman with more enthusiasm than sense, the remade Carl is more of a conning kitsch-monger. This leads to some fine 'n' funny moments in the film's first thirty minutes that at their best recall 30's screwball comedy (the scene where Denham tricks his scriptwriter into staying on ship until after it's left the harbor could've come out of Twentieth Century), but it turns sour once the moviemaker delivers his second "heartfelt" eulogy for a fallen comrade. For me, the problem is encapsulated in Black's delivery of one of the most famous closing lines in movie history. By the time he gives it, we've already had it drummed in how full of shit the guy is (with his "unfailing ability to destroy the things he loves") that I don't think even Robert Armstrong could've carried it off.

But perhaps that's a purist's grouse – the words of a fan who still has Armstrong's cadences resonating in the back of his pointy little head. Taken on its own Blow-Down-The-Ancient-Walls terms, Peter Jackson's King Kong delivers the goods. May not supplant my continued love for the original, but it goes a long way toward healing the psychological scars from that still-remembered Christmas '76 viewing of Dino De Laurentis' big-budget let-down . . .
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Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).

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