'King Kong': A Beauty of a Beast

Kong and Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) high above the jungle that is 1933 New York in Peter Jackson's hugely entertaining version of the classic.
Kong and Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) high above the jungle that is 1933 New York in Peter Jackson's hugely entertaining version of the classic. (Universal Studios Via Associated Press)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The new "King Kong" answers many important questions:

Can a girl outrun a dinosaur? (Yes.)

Can a tommy gun kill a prehistoric spider? (Yes.)

Can a blonde and a monkey find true, if chaste, love at the top of the Empire State Building? (Yes.)

Can three hours feel like 90 minutes? (Yes.)

Can Jack Black act? (No.)

One hundred eighty-seven minutes of mesmerization, astonishment, thrills, chills, spills, kills and ills, Peter Jackson's big monkey picture show is certainly the best popular entertainment of the year. The film is a wondrous blend of then and now: It honors its mythic predecessor of 1933 while using sophisticated movie technology to seamlessly manipulate the fantastic. It's more fun than a barrel of dinosaurs, and in fact it takes us into the center of a barrel of dinosaurs, or at least a dinosaur stampede in which our heroes and 10 or so panicked brontosaurs try to merge lanes without any traffic cones to govern the flow, and the effect is that of being stuck in a keg of thunder lizards bouncing downhill.

Aside from such flourishes, Jackson sticks close to the original, both in story and milieu. It's still 1933, courtesy of extremely detailed and convincing digital cityscapes: Energetic film entrepreneur Carl Denham (the obstreperous Black), one step ahead of the practical-minded money boys trying to close him down, hires a tramp steamer, tricks playwright Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), movie star Bruce Baxter (Kyle Chandler) and untested actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) into joining him, and heads off to a mysterious east-of-Sumatra locale named Skull Island, where he plans to shoot a film against a heretofore unseen background (a big deal in the '30s). There he discovers a land that slipped time's mind, ruled by a 25-foot-tall ape whom the natives call Kong and to whom they offer apparently virgin-bride sacrifices. But Kong sees Darrow and falls in hot monkey love.

After much bloody travail, Denham manages to bring him back alive, but during an exhibition in Manhattan, Kong breaks free. He has, you might say, a big night on the town. Par-tay, par-tay, par-tay. Call out the riot squad. The Bronx is up and the Battery's down, and he squishes them all. Ultimately, Kong finds his soul mate and, for a little privacy, takes her to the top of the Empire State Building: A squad of double-winged pursuit ships is called in and they hose him off the spire with Lewis guns, but not before he squishes a few of them. Lovingly, he says goodbye to his babe before falling down, down, down, to the hard pavement of 34th Street. In both versions, the closing line is delivered by Denham, who points out that it wasn't the airplanes, "It was beauty killed the beast."

But while, all the way through, you sense Jackson's love of Merian C. Cooper's original, Jackson brings to his dream project (earned by the staggering success of his "Lord of the Rings" trilogy) a need to correct it in some way, to finally get it right. Thankfully, he corrects it on its own terms, not the terms of 72 years later. He doesn't impose any touchy-feely 2005 stuff on the events: It remains a parable of exploitation, cultural self-importance, the arrogance of the West, all issues that were obvious in the original but unexamined; they remain unexamined here, if more vivid. Thus the natives of Skull Island are still "primitive" and debauched, the death count is casually high, the tracer bullets that miss Kong atop the sky needle apparently sail on to pick off members of the Algonquin Round Table quipping over their martinis in the bar and nobody gives a damn or even thinks about it.

The larger tweaks aren't based in political sensibilities but in dramatic ones. For example, instead of brainlessly going along with Denham's exploitation of the captured Kong, both Jack and Ann disassociate themselves from it. Both understand -- even in the year 1933 -- that some sort of original sin has been enacted and both understand that there will be consequences.

That development is set up by a larger one, which really makes the movie work in ways the original "Kong" never could. It's that not only does Kong fall for Darrow but in some way the blonde also falls for the monkey. This, really, is the heart of Jackson's movie and what distinguishes it from Cooper's -- far more than the digitalized magic Jackson uses. In Cooper's version, Darrow, played by Fay Wray, summed up her feelings this way: "AYEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!" She remains the best screamer in movies, and could turn a hysterical bugle call into a narrative of operatic intensity.

By contrast Watts's Darrow is smart, funny and talented (she's presented as a vaudevillian, with gymnastic and stage skills) and has resilience, courage, spunk and integrity. She's much less victim than was Wray's Darrow and never puts a frail hand to her mouth -- Wray's signature move -- in a futile gesture to ward off a paw the size of a small SUV. She's also athletic, and when she dodges or evades as this or that T. rex tries to turn her into sushi, you believe it. In ways that are almost magical, she relates to the big guy.

Well, he does save her from three T's, and that ought to count for something. If a guy can't get a date after killing three dinosaurs for a gal, something's wrong, huh? Like, it's that varsity letter in dinosaur killing, it gets them all the time. But the relationship is built around what goes on in the eyes. Jackson, a master of special effects, is particularly good at eyes: Watts's are real (and she has superb control of them, considering that in the actual making of the film she was emoting to a big green screen), but Kong's are electrons organized on a cyberdrive in a bunker in suburban Auckland or somewhere. Still, it works because the hardware or software is so advanced. Kong's eyes, the size of basketballs, nevertheless dilate in pain or adoration in the presence of Ann. They open to radiate anguish, confusion, the tragedy of the enslaved and exploited, the rage of the righteously vengeful. They focus; they see . You could lose yourself in them.

In fact, the whole concept of Kong, as Jackson designs it, is provocative. The role is actually "acted" by Andy Serkis, who played Gollum in the "Ring" films -- which is to say that Serkis physically performed the stunts and moves, which were recorded on computer disk by sensors attached to his body, and those data were in turn decoded into images (don't ask me how and I don't really care). Clearly he studied gorilla movement. He's also a uniquely physically expressive man, almost a dancer, who communicates eloquently with his body. His Kong, though big, is extremely athletic. He has the NBA power forward's spring and body control in midair, a running back's fast lateral moves and ability to improvise evasion at speed, and an outfielder's hand-eye coordination. (Twice he makes catches that would get a center fielder slow-mo on "SportsCenter" for a week, only it's not a dipping white pill he's snaring in the last of the ninth but a falling blonde in the second and third acts.)

Darrow's relationship to Kong is also initially expressed by physical movement. Purloined, she stands before him; he isn't sure what to make of her (he's never seen one before), and he keeps knocking her down because it's funny. Well, it is funny and you understand how his ape-brain is working. But she shrewdly realizes that he'll respond to action, so she starts tap dancing, shuffling off to Buffalo, shim-shamming, slide-stepping, cartwheeling. Thus is love born, and why not? She's in peril, he saves her. She moves magically and he falls in love with that, a sense of her physical presence. What else is love based on? Plus, they laugh at the same jokes, such as when he wittily rips a tyrannosaur's jaws apart at the hinges. She understands his strength, his courage, his intelligence. Ladies and gentleman, are we so bigoted, are we so narrow-minded and judgmental that we cannot open our hearts to the love of monkey and gal?

The other performances don't really matter. Black does the shtick that electrified "School of Rock," that kind of one-note frenzied intensity with an unpleasant note of aggression to it. A little goes a long way and a lot goes no place at all. Robert Armstrong gave a much stronger performance 72 years ago. You could believe in him as a leader and visionary, while Black seems like an annoying little punk. As for Brody, he's not an irritation, which might seem like less than a compliment but is actually all to the good. In the original, Bruce Cabot gave what was probably the worst performance in a great movie on record -- he seemed more wooden than a tobacco store Indian and not nearly as colorful. It could be said that Cabot was out-acted by an eight-inch monkey puppet.

The bottom line, or, actually, the last line: This 800,000-pound gorilla is going to sit anyplace it wants, namely in your multiplexes for the next eight months or so.

King Kong (187 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for disturbing images and violence, which, if largely bloodless, is still intense and results in much animal and human death.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company