In many ways, selecting Peter Jackson to helm a remake of King Kong is a no brainer. Fresh from changing cinema history after realising JRR Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings into a series as beloved as Star Wars, the Kiwi movie genius came equipped with an obvious love of classic cinema and had even tried to remake the film as a child with a Kong made of wire and fur from one of his mum’s coats. Helming a remake that would hopefully restore the crown to one of history’s greatest monsters after nearly 70 years of shitty remakes and even worse sequels, Jackson dove straight in using much of the same crew he had on LOTR, hoping that he could do the same justice to a giant, blonde-obsessed ape that he bestowed on Tolkien.
While the finished product was easily the second greatest Kong movie ever made at that time – it’s a two horse race between that and the craziness of 2017’s Kong: Skull Island – some iffy CGI and a staggeringly long running time (a hefty 187 minute theatrical cut with a directors extended version released later) took some of the shine off Jackson’s second return of the King…
It’s 1933 and as the Great Depression covers New York like a quilt of anxiety and as vaudeville actress Anne Darrow struggles to make ends meet she bumps into unscrupulous movie maker Carl Denham who is desperate to get a film made and is short exactly one lead actress. This fateful chance meeting has Darrow whisked away on a ship heading for uncharted lands as Denham intends to shoot a motion picture by hauling his cast and crew to Skull Island, a place thought mere myth. However, Carl is a man well versed in taking the myth and after a bumpy voyage, actually arrives at his destination that proves to be as hostile as the comments section of a politics thread on Facebook as deranged natives, prehistoric creature and a giant gorilla dubbed Kong all jostle for position as the most lethal thing on the island. Anne, swiped by Kong after she’s offered up as a sacrifice by the beastial tribe, eventually wins over her hairy abductor while the crew, led by loved-up playwright Jack Driscoll, brave the horrors of Skull Island to save her and eventually succeed getting themselves, Anne and a drugged up Kong back to New York and opportunist Carl sees a way to recoup some of his loses. Soon Kong, billed as the 8th Wonder Of The World, is on show on Broadway, but a child of three could predict that things will go South and as an escaped Kong rampages through New York in search of Anne, the military mobilizes against him…
King Kong 2005 is a film of three sections, the first concerns the scene setting and a voyage of The Venture; the second is a Spielbergian romp on Skull Island itself as the cast avoid the crushing fists and snapping teeth of an entire ecosystem that seems utterly dedicated to killing them and the third wraps things up with Kong’s ill fated trip to the Big Apple. It’s a canny way to guarantee that Jackson gets some decent characterization in before he drops V-Rex fights and giant spiders on proceedings and he also smartly plays up the familiarity of the material by leaning into the tragedy of the story by drawing out seemingly innocuous moments for extra dramatic value. Darrow first stepping foot on the Venture gains an ominous music cue, whereas Driscoll types the word SKULL ISLAND while spelling it out loud in sinister slow motion – it’s a little heavy handed but it’s invaluable when getting us stoked for a story that we already know the ending to. The rather eccentric cast work suprisingly well with Naomi Watts finding more dimensions to Darrow than just an epic screamer and Adrian Brody trying on an action hero role before unlikely popping up in Predators; but Jack Black as Denham is the real wild card as you fully expect him to start rock-scatting as any minute – but dammit, he works. This sections all contain some suprisingly savage jokes at the expense of movie making with at one point Denham flatly stating “I’m someone you can trust, Anne. I’m a movie producer.” and on set writer Driscoll has to bang out his script while rooming in an actual cage.
As the film moves into it’s action packed second section, it reveals itself to be the most inconsistent of the three by far thanks to some extended set pieces that have some glaringly bad CGI (the Brontosaurus stampede is awful!) but it also contains the some best moments in the entire film. Chief among these is thankfully Kong himself who thanks to some Gollum-style work from the mid-cap king, Andy Serkis, emerges comfortably as the best thespian Kong’s ever been. Less the savage beast who has his head turned by the novelty of a screamy blonde, this version this Kong is an alpha male brute who sees his animalistic toxic masculinity start to erode thanks to Anne’s influence and purests may moan that this Kong is a little too refined (no sniffing of his gropey fingers for this guy), but any complaints soon out the window during an astounding redux of the V-Rex fight as our funky monkey has to rescue his squeeze from not one, not two, but three drooping carnivores in a brawl that takes them all off a cliff and has them ripping chunks out of each other as they dangle from vines.
Jackson is insanely reverential to the material (some might argue too much), recreating classic scenes while even reinstating ones lost from the original such as the infamous ‘spider pit’ sequence where we have the horrifying honor of watching Andy Serkis (in a second, human role) get eaten alive by giant penis leeches. Cheers Pete!
But by the time we finally get back to New York in time for the retread of one of the most iconic last stands of all time, we’re still moved, but we’re also tired and but the time Kong fights off what feels like the hundredth strafing run of biplane fire you kinda want the movie to just hurry up and end.
After the towering achievement of his Lord Of The Rings trilogy, this sort of marked the beginning of Jackson’s transition from the man who made tight, down and dirty horror comedies to the guy who gave us the hopelessly bloated Hobbit trilogy and while this movie just manages to keep us on side, there’s still absolutely no excuse why a swashbuckling remake of a monster movie should clock in at over three fucking hours.
It’s harmful, but not fatal, although as your attention starts to wane you do find yourself starting to nit-pick unnecessarily, especially at Jackson’s questionable representation of what the human anatomy can actually endure. For example, some of the ways that Naomi Watts is manhandled by a giant ape that weighs 25.6 metric tonnes would undoubtedly leave her skeleton with the consistency of crushed gravel – it’s an issue that misses the point, especially considering Jackson is trying to emulate the golden era of movies, but you find you just can’t ignore them..
With all that being said, King Kong ’05 instigates a worthy return to cinema’s number one primate (sorry, Duntson Checks In) not being realised by a dude in a monkey suit and apart from the story bloat, Jackson, Serkis and Weta Effects gives us a gorilla that’s thriller despite all the filler…