* * * * * KING KONG     

    Ferocious, breathless, moving and panoramic, King Kong is a gigantic Mack truck of a movie with an even bigger soul, what big-budget Hollywood aspires to and rarely achieves. Terrifying and touching, with an originality of action and violence that is equaled only by the film’s dedication to the cross-species romance that Peter Jackson has made central to the story, King Kong effectively answers the question “Why the heck did Peter Jackson want to remake King Kong?”

    King Kong keeps all the set pieces from the 1933 original: Skull Island, Kong’s cliff top lair, the fight with the tyrannosaurus, the log bridge, the Empire State building. Still set in the 1920’s, a slight rewrite of the story has impresario Carl Denham (Jack Black) cast as a devious movie producer out to shanghai a cast and crew to the unmapped Skull Island, where he can make a movie to put him back on top. He taps down-on-her-luck nobody Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) to star, and with action hero Bruce Baxter (Kyle Chandler) and screenwriter Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) in tow, they head off on a tramp steamer into the unknown.

    And this is where the re-imagining of a classic begins. When the first fog surrounding Skull Island appears off the bow, the brakes are taken off the roller coaster. Breathlessly original action set-pieces pile one atop another. Dizzying camerawork and FX highlight the near-crash of the steamer into the island’s gauntlet of rocks; the gigantic wall bisecting the island and the “deserted” native village at its base are brilliantly realized. The Skull Islanders – men, women and children – are convincing, bizarre and inhumanly ferocious. There is no shortage of grisly death in this film and the filmmakers let you know up front not to get too attached to anyone but the main characters.

    Kong is immediately introduced at Ann’s siren scream. A huge, scarred, roaring nightmare possessed of eyes that actually do mirror his primitive soul, Kong takes his sacrifice into the jungle and opens the film up to monsters that make “Jurassic Park” look like a kids’ playground. Skittering legs, yawning maws and monstrous yellowed teeth push characters to the limit of endurance while pushing you farther and farther into the back of your seat. Roars and squawks and screams accompany beasts that are endowed with a weight and naturalistic fluidity of movement that is stunning. Just when Carl and Co. (and you) think you can relax, another astonishingly unexpected and brilliantly executed action sequence is set into motion.

    While “King Kong” the movie is tireless and truly breathtaking, King Kong the beast is alternately fierce, embarrassed, protective, berserk, amused, coy, and indifferent. A stunningly achieved film creation, Kong is a giant wonder of the world who cannot help but wonder at the world -- especially when it is reduced to the size of Ann Darrow and it fits in the palm of his massive hand. Through Kong, you feel, and not just fear or thrills – the beast elicits joy and sorrow, and is as poignant a creature as film has ever created.

    Andy Serkis, who voiced and modeled Gollum for Jackson’s Lord of The Rings trilogy, is the physical basis for Kong, though kudos for this creation must be awarded to Kong FX and sound designers as well. Naomi Watts (The Ring, 21 Grams) practically glows in initial scenes, and is terribly convincing as a woman who unexpectedly finds herself in love with the biggest pet in the world. Adrien Brody (The Jacket, The Pianist) is perfectly cast as screenwriter cum hero Jack Driscoll; Brody’s soulful eyes and mournful demeanor are a perfect contrast to his character’s derring-do, and never has a modern actor looked so comfortable in period surroundings. Kyle Chandler (Mulholland Falls) is appropriately self-involved as the action hero, and Thomas Kretschmann, an established German actor with few English-language credits, brings solidity and stature to what could be the rote role of the steamer captain.

    As the driven and underhanded producer Carl Denham, Jack Black is dreadfully miscast. His sly and wonderfully smarmy characterizations that helped make School of Rock and High Fidelity such hits have little place in a story this simple and epic, yet this is all that Black offers. Black’s Denham sees no shadow of regret, feels no self-doubt, and barely even registers any real fear at any point in the film. Black is not at the same level as other actors in the film; he simply is not convincing.

    Fortunately, however, nothing can undo the knot in your stomach that the pyramiding action of this film ties. You push into your seat trying to get away from the next and the next and the next terror that either Kong or Ann or Jack faces. You long for a simple cut to the beach – please don’t got through any more jungle! And when you do find a moment of languid, exhausted calm, or unexpected frivolity or joy, the sky falls with impeccable and emotionally devastating timing. Over and over again you begin to relax only to have the roller coaster start up again.

    And at the end, you really feel. As Kong slips off the Empire State Building, the light literally goes out in his eyes; his giant, hairy fingers slide out from under Ann’s hopelessly helpless hands, and he falls, endlessly, to the street. You wait for the thud of impact, but there is none. This is the way the world ends when you’re giant and hairy and blinded by beauty – not with bang, not even with a whimper, but in total silence.

    King Kong has it all.

    (-Steve Wisniewski-)

    | copyright, 2005 |