Monday, January 02, 2006

King Kong (2005)

Peter Jackson must have sold his soul at some point during the four or five years it took him to complete Bad Taste. How else to explain the extraordinary grace from which he moved from hyperactive gore-festooned cult icon into world-class A-level entertainer? You want magic? You want alchemy? Try this on: Jackson's remake of the classic 1933 monkeyshines movie, despite being over twice as long as its source, flows more evenly and is altogether a better film. (Yeah, I said it.) Deep down, Jackson's always been an exuberant popcorn director -- even during something like the 'pudding' scene in Dead Alive or the massacre that closes Meet the Feebles, there's a mad sense of daring and invention (as well as a gift for hyperbole) that makes the vicious proceedings feel almost friendly. To see his talents unleashed with limitless resources is to witness a born showman doing what he does best as well as humanly possible. So yes, there is a surfeit of rousing action scenes. After the opening hour, the hits just keep coming -- the attack by the natives (embarassing in the original, creepy as hell here), the dinosaur stampede, the insect trench, the T. rex battle, the car chase, the scaling of the Empire State building... the cumulative effect of all these sequences is that of a man who is hellbent on providing every single kind of thrill there is. Truthfully, though, that's a minor achievement -- the same raison d'etre can be attributed to Michael Bay and Rennie Harlin, if you cared to break it down. What makes this film work as it does, what makes it stick in the mind, is not only Jackson's savant-level understanding of the Hollywood popcorn mentality but also the stuff that happens in between the scenes where a big monkey gets to break shit. There's a surprising amount of heart in this film that stems from the central relationship between Kong and Ann Darrow, and the film isn't afraid to let its ass hang out in that respect. (The ice ballet is undeniably corny, and just as undeniably effective in inducing sympathy.) Naomi Watts has a certain gee-shucks likeability about her that goes a long way in fostering the suspension of disbelief (i.e. the likelihood of a petite blonde Depression-era actress, you know, falling in love with a 30-foot gorilla). More than that, though, her prodigious talent comes in handy; I may get razzed for saying this, but I think this might be her best performance since her breakout in Mulholland Drive, maybe because a large portion of it has to be played silently and thus she has to convey her character through gestures and expressions rather than the big actorly speeches she is often drawn towards. (21 Grams, I'm looking at you.) Also, Jack Black is unexpectedly fantastic here, subverting his own manic-slacker image with a turn that suggests darker levels within said persona -- it's as if, much like Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love, he's decided to take his trademark mania seriously. Carl Denham comes off not as an intrepid, driven man of the future but as a dangerous and obsessive lunatic, a cousin of sorts to John Malkovich's portrayal of F.W. Murnau in Shadow of the Vampire. (Remember, if it's not in the frame, it doesn't exist.) Yes, maybe it could be shorter. (What the hell is with Jaime Bell's subplot?) And maybe the whirling-dervish approach favored by Jackson does get a bit wearying over the course of three hours. But I can't say I was bored. Excited, creeped out, entertained, even a bit moved, definitely. But not bored. Hell no.

(Final aside: I would be remiss if I didn't note the appearance of the fabled Sumatran rat monkey in the ship's cargo hold. As much as I like this film, a zombie outbreak would have made it even better.)

Grade: B+


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