KING KONG directed by Peter Jackson, written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Jackson from a story by Edgar Wallace, with Naomi Watts, Jack Black, Adrien Brody and Thomas Kretschmann. 180 minutes. A Universal release. For venues and times, see Movie Listings. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
King Kong is Peter Jackson's labour of love.
You can see it plain as day in his contributions to the recent two-disc DVD edition of the 1933 original. He loves the story, loves the old-school effects and thinks Kong may be the greatest movie ever made. That's what gives his lavish remake both its strengths and its weaknesses.
He has studied his source deeply. The film is full of visual and verbal references to the original. The story is intact, all the way to the Empire State Building climax and the 1932 setting. But Jackson has shifted the slant and revisioned the action radically to make the version he's always wanted to see.
He's turned Skull Island's lethal jungle into the overgrowth on the ruins of a long-lost civilization. It's breathtakingly beautiful and a clear extrapolation from the line in the original faithfully used in the current version about the origins of the giant wall. And he gives us a good long look at it, as he does with everything else in the film.
That mix of imaginative but faithful revisioning and the desire to hold onto the images shapes the entire movie.
Kong's original battle with the tyrannosaur now features three creatures and keeps going far longer and more imaginatively than you'd think possible. It's almost as frightening as the genuinely gross spider-pit sequence that follows it.
Imagination peaks in Kong himself. Andy Serkis, who did Kong's green-screen acting, deserves a best-actor Oscar nomination. The effects work on Kong is flawless, as it is elsewhere. He's fully convincing and endowed with a credible, likeable personality an absolute must if the story is to succeed.
It's a major accomplishment given that he's presented as an almost completely realistic gorilla, right down to the sideways charges and the quick sidelong glances. And he gets some quiet time with Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) so their relationship can develop past the screaming-and-running stage. Which gives an added kick to the climax.
But that same thoughtful fidelity leads Jackson to devote whole scenes to backstory when the material could be covered in a line or two. He tosses in a needless matinee idol to act with Darrow in the movie-within-the-movie and pads out the sea voyage with pointless complications. As a result, we're 50 minutes in before we even reach Skull Island, and 70 before Kong first appears to abduct Ann and launch the story. It slows the pace.
Then Jackson kills the pace when he cuts away to his lovers Ann and Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), her rescuer just as the climax is about to launch.
It's the price we pay, I suppose, for a labour of love, but the original comes in at a tight 100 minutes. Kong is on- screen by 40 but it feels like 20, and once the action starts, it never stops.
Brody (The Pianist) is always good. Here, he's the essence of a 30s action hero, all workmanlike determination and unthinking courage. Watts does a wonderful job of making us believe in Kong but doesn't really project the sadness the script attributes to her. Jack Black as Carl Denham, the movie producer cum explorer who launches the expedition, is perfect as a hustling showbiz weasel but utterly unbelievable as a man who's ever set foot outside a city. He's so repellent that you find yourself hoping Kong will just crush him.
Still, despite Black and the overlong opening, King Kong is a major treat that may well become a classic in its own right.