King Kong

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Peter Jackson is the Cecil B. DeMille of the new millennium. Faced with the task of following the tremendous artistic and commercial success of the Lord of the Rings series, the writer-director has reinvented the granddaddy of all cinematic spectacles, King Kong. He creates an awe-inspiring, terrifying and poignant film — that needs to be trimmed by 30 minutes.

The epic bug has bitten Jackson. There are more action sequences, more personal vignettes and more character arcs than necessary, and the movie comes dangerously close to exhausting its audience.

The opening scene, a masterful re-creation of Depression-era New York, introduces Carl Denham (Jack Black), a flamboyant but failing filmmaker determined to shoot his next feature on the mysterious Skull Island. When his star actress goes AWOL, he convinces penniless vaudevillian Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) to accept the role. His old friend, Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), an up-and-coming playwright, is then shanghaied onto the boat to write the script.

This should be a pretty simple setup, but the film tests our patience with extraneous supporting characters, endless in-jokes and meaningless conversations. The myriad personalities and subplots in Jackson’s LOTR movies made sense given the novel’s epic scale. Kong, on the other hand, is essentially a simple and twisted retelling of Beauty and the Beast. These superfluous flourishes end up undermining the pace, especially in the film’s first hour.

But once we get to Skull Island, Kong earns every penny of its ticket price. After establishing an atmosphere of mystery and dread, Jackson spins the movie into a sprint of frenzied action and astonishing special effects. The crew has barely had time to drop anchor when all hell breaks loose. Ann is kidnapped by frightening natives and offered up as a sacrifice to the ape-god, Kong. Driscoll leads a rescue team into the island’s deep jungle, and Denham drags his film crew along to capture the wonders, resulting in 60 minutes of men getting picked off by the claws, teeth and tentacles of Skull Island’s voracious residents. Things kick off with a brontosaurus stampede that outclasses anything seen in Jurassic Park. Though the effects occasionally slip, Jackson gives the sequence thunderous energy. The movie’s centerpiece, a jaw-dropping brawl between Kong and three T-Rexes, is a confrontation unlike anything ever seen in cinema that you have to see to believe. Watts is tossed from hand to hand while the behemoths savagely tear into each other.

As if that weren’t enough, Jackson then tosses the sailors off a chasm-spanning log and into “The Spider Pit” — a terrifying scene that marks the high point in his filmmaking career. Cut from the 1933 version of the film because it was “too shocking,” the film restores the sequence, a nightmarish horde of giant insects and fanged leeches that assaults our heroes.

But, wait, that’s not all; there are yet more chases, an attack by giant bats, the heartbreaking capture of Kong, his New York City rampage and the final showdown atop the Empire State Building. King Kong may be considered the Eighth Wonder of the World but Jackson seems to think his film is the Ninth.

As good a director as he is, Jackson sometimes mistakes bombast for drama. His action sequences are second to none, but, unlike Steven Spielberg, the director can’t evoke suspense or edge-of-your-seat thrills. There’s no doubt you’ll be awed by the eye-popping effects, but rarely are you emotionally pulled into the action. The movie’s greatest achievement, however, is Kong himself. Beautifully realized as a terrifying and savage beast wracked with loneliness, the colossal ape is astonishingly realistic, setting a new standard for effects realism.

Jackson takes important breaks from the film’s action to develop moments of intimacy. Kong’s delight in Ann’s vaudeville routine, the solace of a magnificent sunset and a touching moment of childlike wonder on a frozen New York City pond leave a lump in your throat — especially because the great ape’s tragic fate is so unavoidable.

Like DeMille, however, Jackson is less convincing with his actors. Black does a decent job of keeping his shtick in check while playing the contemptible, ambitious Denham, but fails to sell us his character’s final remorse. Brody seems completely lost as the romantic lead, unable to step out of the big gorilla’s shadow. Only Watts rises fully to the challenge of her part, presenting a three-dimensional heroine.

King Kong is the cinematic spectacle of the year. Clearly a labor of love, Peter Jackson works overtime to balance personal storytelling with extravagant special effects wizardry. But unable to let go of his darling, the director lets exuberance rob his film of emotional resonance. Kong’s 10-minute last stand teeters on the brink of mawkishness, and his eventual death never achieves the total heartbreak it deserves.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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