Step Right Up 

In an era of reduced expectations, Peter Jackson's King Kong is a movie behemoth that's worth every penny.

Peter Jackson is a man who appreciates architecture. From Helm's Deep's ancient keep to Minias Tirath thrusting from the mountain like the prow of a great ship, the director can't resist swooping his camera to take in the walls and the scrollwork on the columns. His films have become architectural too: huge edifices whose crushing weight is inseparable from their terrible beauty. But Jackson is also the guy who made Bad Taste, a comically bloody movie about aliens who eat people as fast food. His roots are in horror, specifically the low-budget, high-body-count variety. It makes sense, therefore, that he's always wanted to make King Kong, a movie where a giant, destructive monster meets his demise atop one of the crowning achievements of American architecture, the Empire State Building.

King Kong is also a movie about making a movie. Carl Denham (Jack Black) starts out trying to make an adventure film and ends up unleashing a giant ape on New York City. Black's Denham used to be a successful filmmaker, but the studio wants to sell his new picture to be used as stock footage. He is so monomaniacal that he'll lie, steal, and endanger other people's lives to finish his film.

After the amazing financial success of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Jackson was paid a record $20 million to direct his dream project and then turned around and sank most of it back into the project to cover budget overruns. It is clear that he has as heavy an emotional investment in King Kong as he does a financial one, because he takes what could have been a well-compensated victory lap and makes an instant classic bursting with life and energy.

Black's performance is a revelation. He has the kind of control over his face and body that a great actor must have. He just usually uses it to get a cheap laugh. Here he uses it to draw a complex character that goes beyond the original version's well-meaning huckster. But he may have had the advantage of direct access to his subject. Early reviewers have compared Black's take on Denham with Orson Welles, but Black is playing Peter Jackson. The director is living his dream of inserting himself into his all-time favorite movie. King Kong is such a dizzying trip because Jackson is along with us for the ride. When Black's character announces to a Broadway crowd, "I am actually laying my hands on a 25-foot gorilla," it is Jackson announcing his intentions to the movie house.

Most movies about making movies are ultimately kind of hollow, perhaps because the process is not as interesting as the product. But Jackson shows you exactly why he loves making movies by delivering the kind of incredible set pieces and action sequences not seen since Raiders of the Lost Ark. Mr. Bad Taste comes out in a scene on Skull Island where the party who set out to rescue Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) is attacked by a hideous variety of overgrown insects and huge phallic worms. Soon after, he gets one of the movie's biggest scares by menacing his heroine with a millipede. In 1933, Kong fought a Tyrannosaurs Rex. In 2005, he fights three of them while juggling a screaming girl between his hands and feet.

Watt's Darrow is also deeper than Fay Wray's scream machine. She's a struggling vaudevillian brave enough to tame a giant ape by doing pratfalls and walking like an Egyptian. The relationship between Darrow and Kong is not, as in the original, a strangely sexual one. It is more like the relationship between a person and pet, only in this case, it's difficult to tell which one is the pet.

But the star of monster movies is always the monster. Based on a meticulous physical performance by Andy Serkis, this Kong is the standard by which all future computer-generated characters will be measured. He may not be as scary as the original, but he is more believable and more simian, both in movement and temperament. This is a Kong who enjoys watching sunsets and chases an Adrian Brody-driven Yellow cab through the streets of New York City like a cat playing with a Roomba.

Brody plays Jack Driscoll, a screenwriter shanghaied by Denham for the trip to Skull Island who becomes Darrow's human love interest. Brody does the put-upon writer with Black pretty well, but when he and Watts are on-screen together, the sparks are only flying from her. When Driscoll leaves the rescue party behind to go after Darrow alone, he doesn't seem to be doing it for any other reason than to advance the plot.

King Kong isn't flawless. There's no doubt it's too long. As in Return of the King, Jackson uses an awful lot of slow motion for a three-hour movie. Sometimes, when he is particularly impressed with a set or monster, he'll show three different angles where one would suffice. A subplot with a young sailor reading Heart of Darkness feels forced and corny, even for a film as proudly cheesy as this. The soundtrack never really equals the grandeur on the screen. But these are minor quibbles. By adapting the ur-text for all special-effects-based action movies, Jackson is trying to take plot out of the equation. He hangs baroque variations of movement and sound on the spare framework of the Kong story and has a rip-roaring good time doing it. In an era of reduced expectations, King Kong is one movie where everyone, studio and audience, gets their money's worth.

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