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Dino and the big monkey,
This review is from: King Kong/King Kong Lives [DVD] (DVD)Even though there had been three other Kong films since the 1933 version earned its place as `The Eighth Wonder of the World' - Son of Kong, King Kong Vs. Godzilla and King Kong Escapes - it's King Kong in its 1976 incarnation that became the poster boy for bad remakes, a reputation it's never really managed to shake off in the intervening decades.
Due to confusion over the rights, there were actually two rival productions at the starting gate in 1975. In one corner was Paramount with its modern-day Dino de Laurentiis production, in the other Universal's planned rival Senssurround version The Legend of King Kong, set in the 1930s from a script by Oscar-winner Bo Goldman and to be directed by Joseph Sergeant with stop-motion effects by Jim Danforth. After much bickering and posturing from both sides, De Laurentiis won the race and Universal withdrew, and the rest is infamy. The film was given a huge publicity campaign, a massive amount of merchandising - along with ice lollies, bubblegum, coke glasses, board games, model kits, you could even get tufts of Kong's hair with every pair of Sedgfield jeans, not to mention an unauthorised autobiography of the great ape, My Side - and even grabbed the cover of Time magazine. It didn't take long for the backlash to hit: critics loathed it and it failed to live up to the unrealistic expectations that it would be bigger than Jaws, making its then-impressive and very profitable $90m gross seem rather underwhelming. It didn't help that Dino's choice of tagline for a remake was `The most exciting original motion picture event of all time,' which was just asking for trouble for a remake. Yet taken away from the inevitable disappointment of its massive hype and comparisons with the original, it's a bit more substantial than its given credit for.
It certainly isn't the turkey everyone seems to remember - or at least not when Jessica Lange is offscreen, which sadly isn't nearly often enough. It's a wonder her career ever survived her Marilyn-without-the-intellect impersonation, all exaggerated breathy mannerisms and inane dialog ("Did you ever meet anyone whose life was saved by Deep Throat?" - relax, she means the movie). Just as everyone assumed she really was that dumb at the time rather than just playing dumb, many people took the film's knowing humor for unintentional comedy. Despite some bad jokes ("What do you think took her, some guy in a monkey suit?"), Lorenzo Semple Jr's script is smarter than it's been given credit for, quite effectively updating the story to reflect the 70s concerns of rapacious and indifferent corporations, a worldwide energy crisis and cynical politicians. With the movie business in decline it's now a multinational petrol company in search of oil that captures Kong for its new corporate logo while his last stand is relocated from the Empire State Building to the World Trade Centre - which in the 1970s carried very different associations than it does today - for more than mere reasons of scale: this Kong dies because of big business. Even the replacement of biplanes with helicopter gunships shooting him bloodily to pieces evokes Vietnam.
At the same time there's a softening of Kong himself, no longer a rampaging beast but one simply trying to survive after being taken out of his element, but, curiously, in its efforts to make Kong more sympathetic (no native villages destroyed here, with Jeff Bridges' palaeontologist, almost as hairy as Rick Baker's Kong himself, constantly on hand to protect his reputation and attempt to stop him taking the big drop) it just ends up diminishing him. There is genuine pathos along with a revulsion for humanity in his last moments as his heartbeat fades while photographers climb over his body for a better shot. Unlike the original, throughout the characters are aware of their actions and its consequences but go ahead anyway, ending up, in typical 70s fashion, left in their own private hells. That does tend to make the film at times a preachy examination of ethics and exploitation rather than a great adventure story, with a lot less action and a lot more talk this time round.
But while it packs considerably less into its 132 minutes than the original did in its 99, and wastes too much time on Lange instead of the big guy, parts of it are surprisingly well directed with an impressive epic scale by John Guillermin, there's a fine John Barry score and a decent human cast, including Charles Grodin, John Randolph, Ed Lauter, Rene Auberjonois, Julius Harris, Jack O'Halloran and monster movie veteran John Agar. You can even spot John Lone, who would make a memorable ape man himself a few years later in Iceman, in the background in a few scenes. But pride of place among them goes to Rick Baker, whose contribution is simply `acknowledged' in the end credits but gives an impressively communicative performance as Kong, aided immensely by Carlo Rambaldi's pioneering use of electronics to make the face more expressive that more than compensated for the hugely expensive giant 40-ft robot Kong that didn't do much and only features in a few seconds of footage (though it was worth millions in free publicity for the film). It may be a man in a suit rather than the groundbreaking stop-motion animation of the original, but it's a helluva good suit. The rest of the special effects are variable at best - often excellent, but frequently suffering from less than seamless bluescreen work and all-too obvious studio sets and miniatures.
Ultimately this is a Kong for the 70s rather than one for the ages, and in many ways much more a time capsule of its era than the 1933 original. It was never going to be too hard for Peter Jackson to top this, but take it on its own terms and it often works surprisingly well.
Momentum's 2007 DVD release, designed to cash-in on Peter Jackson's remake, simply reuses the old widescreen master that's been on the UK market for quite a while, which is acceptable but not outstanding (it's a little too dark in places - a big problem come the night-time finale). Aside from the trailer and a stills gallery, it also includes a no-frills disc of Dino de Larentiis' forgotten sequel that never even got a theatrical release in the UK, King Kong Lives.
One of those sequels no-one seems to know about, King Kong Lives originally sounded like a joke when Dino used to pitch it in interviews - King Kong has been in a coma for ten years and desperately needs a giant artificial heart transplant but they can't find enough giant ape plasma for him to survive the operation. Luckily Brian Kerwin stumbles across Lady Kong (a redhead with comedy boobs) in Borneo, so it's chainsaws away as Linda Hamilton and a crew of what look like construction workers put what looks like a minisub in there and in next to no time Kong's up and about and as horny as Hell. Kong's just gotta have it and breaks loose, sweeps Lady Kong off her paws (he carries her off in his arms) and the lovebirds find themselves pursued by the army and rednecks alike ("I want that ape's head on the hood of my pickup!") while Linda and Brian try to save them while realising that "We're primates too."
As insane as it sounds. Did I mention Baby Kong? Kong picking a redneck's cap out of his teeth after they ill-advisedly "have their fun with him" (yes, that's really the phrase that's used!)? The fact that at one time Joel Grey was lined up to play Kong? It's a film so wonderfully inane and misconceived that it's hard not to love if you can enter into the spirit of it, and it does boast a genuinely terrific score by John Scott.
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Initial post: 13 Dec 2012 19:59:12 GMT
Great review as always ken, can you tell me if KKL is presented widescreen, and if it is 16:9 enhanced of course, thank you my friend.
In reply to an earlier post on 13 Dec 2012 20:53:39 GMT
Last edited by the author on 13 Dec 2012 20:54:15 GMT
Trevor Willsmer says:
Not on this disc, I'm afraid, but the most recent UK release is widescreen, as is the Australian DVD.
In reply to an earlier post on 13 Dec 2012 20:56:34 GMT
No problem ken, will take a look into it, thanks.
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