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It's been pointed out almost since movies began that while actors are narcissists, directors are megalomaniacs, and never has it been truer than in Peter Jackson's current iteration of "King Kong." Mr. Jackson - I mean Jack Black, who actually looks like Jackson - plays Carl Denham, monster producer/director/cameraman, who follows his instincts to make a film on Skull Island, the last unknown place on earth (don't ask why, if it's so unknown, how come Carl knows about it; there's an answer but it won't help you).
Let's go back a moment. The year is 1932, the city is New York, would-be actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) can't find work until - well, until she runs into Carl, who hires her for his movie about romance on the island, a screenplay written by the mild and meek playwright Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody). He cons the captain (well played by Thomas Kretschmann) of a rusty old steamer to take his cast and crew there, and then -- Whoo-hoo! Is he in for a surprise! There are actual inhabitants, who look like extras from one of those early faked 'native' films, albeit without bare breasts this time. More important, there are also dinosaurs, enormous worms and insects, and, yes, Kong, the mighty ape, apparently the only mammal other than the natives. Do the cast and crew of Carl's film have to fight for their lives? Does Kong take a liking to Ann? Do the dinosaurs attack everybody? Does Kong battle the dinosaurs to the death? Is there anything we can't see coming about thirty minutes ahead of time? Of course not. Well, one thing, which is a delicious moment that comes when Kong takes Ann to his nest on the island's cliff and she tries to interest him in her talents, which include juggling, doing cartwheels, and the kind of dancing that she did as a showgirl. It's the one witty scene in the film, which could have used a lot more of them.
But Mr. Jackson and his writers have other things in mind; they make sure to keep us tense in our theatre seats for the film's entire three-hour running time, by constantly throwing more battles, more threats and more last-second escapes at us. The computer effects are the best I've seen of the type, and are amazingly realistic, although in the course of the film the size ratio between Ann and Kong varies by a significant amount: in closeups of the two of them she is about one-fifth his height; in long shots she is about one-tenth his height. And another glitch: if you're in the film business you know that by 1932 all motion picture cameras had electric motors (and batteries), yet Carl insists on hand-cranking as though he's remaking a silent Robert Flaherty film. Am I being picky? Yes, but it really doesn't matter; the fact is Mr. Jackson knows his stuff and knows how to make it work for us.
After the opening scenes in New York the film divides roughly into thirds; on the ship going to Skull Island, on the island, and finally back to New York with Kong, their prize, which leads to the moment when Carl gets his comeuppance and Kong climbs the Empire State Building, naturally holding Ann in the palm of his hand. A confession: I get vertigo when I'm anywhere near a height, even looking at a film, and this was difficult to watch, but it was extremely well done. A sad, though probably unavoidable reminder of 9/11, however, comes at the climax of the film; it has to do with the bodies falling from the World Trade Center. A jarring moment.
It is difficult to sustain even an action film for three hours; it's a tribute to Mr. Jackson's drive and talent and control over everything on screen that we in the audience are with him even though we know the story as well as he does. "King Kong" is exciting and well made; you can't ask for more from an action film.
12/14/05 <! new pasted review ends on line above>