King Kong Lives

March 14, 2011

Dino De Laurentiis is the Italian producer who now runs his own studio in North Carolina. His films these days run a bizarre gamut from the artfully adventuresome (Blue Velvet, Manhunter) to the broadly trashy (Raw Deal, Tai-Pan). That range suggests a mogul who is willing to try different things, without really understanding why.

Dino is nothing if not a character. And when he gets an idea into his head, it is apparently there for good.

Witness his devotion to a 50-year-old movie legend, once billed as “the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood.” We speak, of course, of King Kong.

The greatest of the great apes was hatched in 1933, with the magnificent film by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack. That movie, even with its occasional creaks, is simply one of Hollywood’s all-time imaginative triumphs.

It’s also one of those films, like Gone With the Wind or Casablanca, that should never be remade. But back in 1976, no one could convince Dino of that.

Not that Kong was sacrosanct. He’d been ripped off many times, including a couple of sequels, Son of Kong and Mighty Joe Young, by his original creators. And then he got trashed in a series of cheap Japanese movies, in which he squared off against Godzilla and that ilk.

Still, Dino was going back to the source, and there was something impudent about that. Instead of climbing up the Empire State Building at the end, Kong went up the World Trade Center. Despite Dino’s promise that “When my Kong die, everybody cry,” audiences only yawned.

The film was notable—strictly in retrospect—only for launching the career of Jessica Lange, who played Kong’s leading lady. Unaccountably, she deigned not to appear in the new sequel, King Kong Lives, except in a prologue that recaps the end of the 1976 film. The ape died, you will recall.

King Kong lives, it seems. Like the rumored suspended animation of John F. Kennedy, Kong has been in some sort of coma for years, waiting to be revived and come save us all. He finally is reanimated, thanks to an artificial heart—one humongous artificial heart—implanted by a specialist in the field of giant gorilla hearts, played by Linda Hamilton. Kong gets a love interest in Lady Kong, a 50-foot-tall redheaded babe, who is imported from Borneo by an adventurer (Brian Kerwin).

There really isn’t much to say about any of this. The Kongs run amuck, as they always do, and tear up a lot of miniature trains and trees, and snap a few people in half. There is a Baby Kong thrown in, but he’s too late, too little.

Carlo Rimbaldi designed the ape suits, which are okay. They’re no match for the eerie stop-motion effects of the 1933 films. John Guillermin directed, as he did on the 1976 Kong. He is guilty of allowing the Kongs to exchange too many humanlike wistful glances.

King Kong Lives shapes up to be as big a box-office snoozer as the ’76 version. Dino, let’s agree to let this once-noble beast rest in peace.

First published in the Herald, December 1986

How did Dino unleash this movie and Tai-Pan in the same year and stay in business? Oh please. Nobody actually knows how the business works, or how somebody like Dino De Laurentiis just keeps going year after year, and maybe it’s best not to know. On the other hand, this was getting close to the end of the road for the man who directed The Towering Inferno, the ineffable and perhaps inflammable John Guillermin, who made one more TV-movie before hanging it up. Reading this review now, I can’t fault Guillermin for giving the apes humanlike wistful glances—because what else do apes do, if not exchange humanlike wistful glances?