King Kong (2005)

Starring: Peter Jackson

Directed by: Jack Black, Naomi Watts, Adrien Brody, Andy Serkis

Rating: 1 2 3 4

King Kong - the mighty ape himself in Peter Jackson's remake

King Kong is a film about making a film. It's also a remake of one of the most famous and influential films ever made, as director Peter Jackson, Lord of the Rings himself, is very much aware - it was, after all, the movie which inspired him to become a filmmaker. And so he's created a multi-layered, meta-fictional, self-referential epic that becomes a compendium of ever famous movie on the market. Whatever happened to Fay Wray? She's busy making a film with RKO, apparently. That'll be. oh. King Kong.

Jackson's King Kong begins in Depression era New York, where struggling vaudeville actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts, looking remarkably like Bugsy Malone's Blousy Brown) has just lost her job. Fortunately for her (or not) she catches the eye of dodgy, desperate film producer Carl Denham (an exuberant Jack Black), who signs her up for a voyage into the unknown, in search of an island that's not marked on any map (of course - what scary place ever is?) where Denham will shoot a groundbreaking adventure picture. As it turns out, the picture is about the only thing that doesn't get shot in the action packed journey that will follow.

Jack Black as Carl Denham and Thomas Kretschmann as Captain Englehorn in Peter Jackson's King Kong

On board with Denham and Darrow are arrogant matinee idol Bruce Baxter (Billy Zane lookalike Kyle Chandler) and penniless playwright Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody, in full on Indiana Jones mode). At the helm is the grizzled not-so-Ancient Mariner Captain Englehorn (Thomas Kretschmann), a wild animal trapper with a gleam of Ahab-style lunacy in his eye, assisted by first mate Hayes (Evan Parke), whose ominous seaman's superstitions prove almost too prophetic, squinting cockney cook Lumpy (Andy Serkis, for once getting to play a human being, as well as donning the CGI sensors to provide the motion for Kong himself) and ship's boy Jimmy (Jamie Bell, aka Billy Elliot, looking almost grown up). 'This isn't an adventure, is it?' he intones, eyes widening with fear, as he lays down his copy of Heart of Darkness and prepares to enter the horror, the horror of the unknown.

But of course it is an adventure for us, the audience, now utterly gripped by the motley crew of characters as they set sail into deep waters and deeper trouble, and convinced that we are watching a pretty fantastic film, a worthy follow up indeed to the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Some exhilarating shipwreck scenes worthy of Titanic, and we're finally run aground on the dark, forbidding, prehistoric shores of Skull Island.

Captain Englehorn shakes his head and utters dire warnings, but Denham is determined to make his picture - and who can blame him? He is, after all, stepping straight into the perfect action adventure film set, the Temple of Doom writ large, a vast, primitive settlement arrayed with more skulls than the Alchemy catalogue. Yet a few minutes later and you can forget that softie Indiana Jones - suddenly we're in Cannibal Holocaust (another film about a filmmaker's quest - and one with even more disastrous consequences). Small children look away - this is scary stuff, as Ann Darrow is captured and sacrificed to the Great Ape. and at last, here comes King Kong.

And, um, a whole bunch of dinosaurs. Hang on a sec. we've seen Jurassic Park already. (Twelve years ago, in fact, and the CGI doesn't seem to have improved much since.) We've seen Godzilla too (although not the rubbish remake, obviously). Now we want the giant monkey, but instead we get more than an hour of over ambitious dinosaur peril, as first Ann and then her party of pursuers are chased by dinosaurs, trampled by dinosaurs, attacked by dinosaurs, eaten by dinosaurs, chased by dinosaurs. you get the picture. (Just a shame Denham doesn't, really.)

King Kong squares up to an annoying dinosaur

And I don't get it either. If it's now a contractual obligation for a director to include a sequence that can easily be translated into a computer game then the island scenes tick that box within ten minutes, so why carry on for another fifty? If anything, the CGI overload detracts from the majesty of Kong, who is splendidly lifelike and soulful. And besides, in this day and age it's hard to suspend your disbelief when you can see a Clash of the Titans style cut out line around the characters, and suddenly you can't help but ask yourself all the questions you're not supposed to ask - like why go to the trouble of snaring a 25 foot gorilla when you could capture a dinosaur instead? Or why, if there's so much chloroform in the air it fells a 25 foot gorilla, does nobody else pass out? Or, how, indeed, you get an unconscious 25 foot gorilla onto a ship that's run aground on a rock.

Suffice it to say that by the time poor Kong finally gets his charming scenes with Darrow (and Andy Serkis's Lumpy has been gobbled up by a giant fanged willy), we've had enough of the island and want to get back to New York.

And suddenly, the film is back on track again. Completing his brilliantly effected transformation from ambitious filmmaker with an eye for the main chance to sleazy, immoral profiteer, Denham has now turned freak show ringmaster, and the hottest ticket in town is Kong. Dejected, humbled and enslaved, the once mighty ape has been reduced to a hunched shadow of his former proud, primitive and aggressively male self. Yet just as Black's smart city slicker underestimated the dangers of sailing off the map into the unknown (echoing the urban/rural clash of so many great horror movies - from Deliverance to The Hills Have Eyes to The Blair Witch Project - another film in a film, of course) so he has now misjudged the strength of his money making captive.

King Kong (Andy Serkis) and Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) in Peter Jackson's King Kong

Now we're talking the King Kong we know and love as, with a brief and delightful detour to waltz with Darrow, Fred and Ginger style, on a frozen lake in Central Park, Kong goes on the rampage, ending up, as we've always known he will, at the top of the Empire State Building, beating his chest in powerless frustration as modern technology conspires to bring him crashing down. 'It was Beauty killed the Beast,' Denham declares solemnly, as the rubbernecking crowds gather around the fallen body - but I can't say I agree. The beautiful Ann Darrow is Kong's one friend, the only person to see the passion, intelligence and beauty in the beast, and their relationship is gentle, touching and genuinely loving. It's man, selfish, dangerous, over ambitious man who destroys this primitive child of nature. If only his hand could be stayed.

King Kong is not great, in that way that the Lord of the Rings trilogy is. In twenty years time, it won't be topping any 'best films in the whole world ever' lists on Channel 4. But, dinosaurs apart, it's still a very good film. When Peter Jackson steps away from the school boy action sequences and gives his characters a chance to catch their breath (and I'm including Kong as a character here, as he's every bit as real and strangely lovable as Golem); when he's setting a scene, be it the hopeless misery of the Hooverville slums or the mystery of a prehistoric island in an uncharted sea, his touch is flawless. In fact, cut forty flabby minutes from the middle and this is nigh on a perfect film: exciting, entertaining and exhilarating, it's a great monster of a movie that's also a brilliant homage to a great monster movie.

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