Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Finally, A Kong Review

Peter Jackson’s “King Kong” is the bastard child of Ang Lee’s Hulk.

Both films feature misunderstood monsters being hunted by a swiftly-mobilized military that fears them. Both contain beautiful women weirdly attached to the great brutes who fruitlessly petition the army-folk not to go all Waco on their “boyfriends.”

Both films are overlong, play havoc with audience expectations, and feature unconventional-though-sometimes-brilliant casting.

Overly literal, meandering, occasionally incredibly exciting, and undeniably brilliant in places - that’s King Kong. Not much of a pull-quote, I know, but King Kong was a mixed experience for me.

So much of Kong’s problem lies in the editing, or the lack-thereof. There’s a thrilling, moving, powerful picture lurking within the bloated beast that is the theatrical release. Had Jackson cut about fourty-five minutes off “Kong,” we’d be looking at a modern-day adventure classic. As it is we’re looking at a wildly ambitious swing-at-the-fences that falls regrettably short.

Seeing Jackson’s WETA effects group recreate 1930’s Manhattan is neat, but not one-full-hour of the movie neat. You can argue that the film is taking its time in setting up the characters to make us care for them when they finally hit treacherous Skull Island, and it’s a legitimate argument, but Jackson wastes so much of that time with maudlin exposition (the old man who is some sort of surrogate father figure to Anne Darrow gives wholly-unnecessary speeches that serve as clunky descriptions of Darrow’s character) and long, wordless shots that he doesn’t accomplish much texturing, and we really don’t “care” about any of the various players any more than we would have after spending half the time with them.

Besides, I didn’t plunk down $10.75 for a movie on 1930’s depression-era New York. I came to see the big monkey. “Kong” shares “Hulk’s” difficulty in setting up its own narrative; taking far too much time to get across what could be simply and effectively conveyed in half the time.

Jackson also spends farrrr too much time on the crew of the “Venture.” The relationship between a young shipmate and an older, “wiser” crewmember is laborious and unrewarding. They’re also somewhat corny, and while part of this feeling may be based on the fact that Jackson pulled chunks of the original film’s dialogue for his remake, it’s more the way that these actors pop up for a while and then disappear completely, having contributed nothing of emotional or physical value for all their setting-up.

But all (or nearly all) is forgiven when the Venture washes up on Skull Island. Jackson hits his stride with the introduction of some truly freaky-ass natives, and like the darker moments in the Lord of the Rings films, the native scenes are suffused with a queasy, creeping horror that hearkens back to Jackson’s earlier filmmaking.
And from the moment that Kong himself emerges from the jungle the entire movie goes electric like Dylan. Kong is a show-stopping feat of acting and animation. His introduction, like Ang Lee’s depiction of the Hulk’s wanderings through the American desert, immediately elevates Jackson’s film to something approaching majesty.

From there, the film is mostly a blast. It’s kinetic, surprisingly moving, and thoroughly entertaining.

Performance-wise, Andy Serkis shows that he’s as much a powerhouse talent as any of the industry’s currently anointed acting elite. He pulls double duty on “Kong,” as the titular gorilla and the Venture’s cook, Lumpy, and he’s astonishing. Hollywood will, of course, totally misuse the man outside of his projects with Peter Jackson. I can easily see him cast as the rote villain in some hokey new Travolta thriller.

(Here’s a thought – team Serkis with Christopher Nolan in the Batman sequel and have him play the Joker. Everyone’s talking up Paul Bettany for the role (and I think he’d be fantastic), but Serkis could act the living fuck out of that part. The man believably portrayed insanity as Gollum in Lord of the Rings, and disappears entirely beneath digital “makeup” to play Kong. He could nail the clown prince of crime without batting an eyelash.)

Jack Black comes off surprisingly well, though he’s hampered by his essential Jack Blackiness. He’s entertaining and surprisingly poignant, so kudos to him. Adrian Brody, on the other hand, is kind of a wash. The pompous actor who runs off in the jungle only to return and help save the crew had a better, more dramatic character arc than Brody’s Jack Driscoll, and that shouldn’t be the case. I completely buy into the emotional relationship between Anne Darrow and Kong, but I don’t for one minute believe that Darrow and Driscoll have a spark between them. Since Naomi Watts pours her heart and soul into her performance I’m tempted to lay the blame for that fizzle at Brody’s feet.

There’s a lot to enjoy and recommend about King Kong, so why do I feel like I’m waffling on it? Maybe it’s because, despite numerous wonderful moments, the whole affair feels too overly-stuffed to be enjoyable. It’s like arriving in your kitchen to find all your favorite foods piled high and waiting to be eaten – only you have to eat every bite - and there’s a TON of it. It’s enjoyable, but it’s also work. There are, of course, more terrible curses for a film to labor under than an overabundance of riches, but too much of a good thing is wasted, and Kong’s essential storyline, unlike the monkey himself, isn’t large or strong enough to carry the excess padding without staggering around a bit.

Plus, despite having a vertigo-inducing biplane fight scene at film’s end, there is nothing to equal the acid trip finale of Lee’s Hulk. In the end, “Kong” is a movie about a big monkey and unlike Ang Lee’s Hulk - which justifies its near-willful obtuseness with some pretty big ideas and some pretty wacky shit - “Kong” never convinced me that it was anything more than a grandly entertaining monkey movie.

That said, there are far worse ways to burn your petty cash than watching a true artist play in the sandbox he’s built for himself. “Kong” is a solid, enjoyable, surprisingly tender film complete with flesh-eating insects and monkey-on-dinosaur wrasslin’ matches. It’s not a film I have any great urge to revisit, but that may change. After all, despite promising myself each year that I won’t gorge myself to the point of explosion on turkey and stuffing I return to the trough and dig in like the ziggy piggy I am.

On DVD, Kong may play tighter (with the added bonus of being able to skip past the slower parts), and the very padding that seems so unnecessary in the theater may seem less egregious on my couch, where bathroom breaks and seventh inning stretches are much more convenient.


At 10:58 AM, Blogger Scott Roche said...

Plus since his name is Serkis, serkis = circus = clown = joker. ;0

At 8:47 AM, Blogger codemorse said...


Just, wow.

I fully expect Stadler and Waldorf to heckle you from a balcony at any moment. :)

At 1:26 PM, Blogger Scott Roche said...

wakka wakka wakka


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