Peter Jackson, suddenly among the most revered filmmakers in Hollywood, finally returns to the spotlight after his momentous night at the 2004 Academy Awards for the conclusion of the “Lord Of The Rings” trilogy. Jackson spent the last two years deep in the picturesque world of his native New Zealand, far from the public eye, filming his long-gestating, technologically stunning remake of the 1933 cult classic “King Kong.” With this visually breathtaking film, Jackson proves that he hasn’t lost his keen eye for aesthetics and singular vision for concept, even though the film itself is far from perfect.

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“WHO? MIKE JONES!” (Courtesy of Universal)

Jackson’s take on the classic story follows the original almost to the teeth. Deep in the throes of in a New York teeming with the victims of the Great Depression, scheming filmmaker Carl Denham, a surprisingly well cast Jack Black (“The School of Rock”), feverishly toils to revive his dream project. He seeks to make a film unlike any the world has ever seen, but, strapped for cash and fleeing from creditors, Denham boards a ship sailing for the far east. In tow are jaded writer Jack Driscoll (Oscar-winner Adrien Brody, “The Pianist”), a camera crew and aspiring leading lady, Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts, “The Ring”).

Tricked into venturing into the unknown, the crew crash-lands on the mystical, appropriately named “Skull Island.” They soon discover the island is not deserted but inhabited by hostile Aboriginals (ethnocentrically speaking).

Before they can flee, Ann is captured and offered to the Aboriginals’ mysterious deity, the mighty Kong. The crew fights through impossible obstacles to save her, but their motives vary: While Driscoll risks his life to save Ann, Denham tranquilizes the giant ape and takes him to New York where Kong escapes and wreaks havoc in the city while attempting to find her.

But of course, you already knew all that. In many ways, “King Kong” is the quintessential American action film. Drama and adventure effortlessly blend with heart-wrenching emotion and persistent American themes. The sequences on Skull Island – featuring dinosaurs, enormous insects and, of course, the 25-foot tall Kong – are among the most visually staggering scenes ever put on film. The herbaceous-dinosaur stampede, one of the film’s most astonishing sequences, is so intricate and realistic, it makes the “Jurassic Park” movies look like low-budget iMovie knock offs.

Jackson goes overboard on the action. Though he takes the time to intricately guide every emotional scene and play up the relationship between Ann and Kong with subtlety, the middle third of the film has such pervasive action that it begins get stuck going through the same motions time and time again. This sometimes overshadows the most important themes – Ann’s sympathy for Kong and the consequences of Denham’s overzealous acquiescence to the cutthroat world of early-20th-century American capitalism.

Meanwhile, Watts sparkles in her attempt to step into the role of the original “damsel in distress,” Fay Wrey. Her portrayal of a victim of the economic crash is touching and well accented by Depression-era New York so vividly rendered by Jackson’s team. Not only does she help make her relationship with a CGI ape feel unforced, but she caps off her performance with an emotionally stellar final sequence atop the Empire State Building. Brody is brilliant as usual, even in the unlikely “action-hero” role. His obligatory relationship with Watts is passable but might have made for a better story arc if it hadn’t been so heavily downplayed early on in lieu of the unrelenting action.

Jackson constructs “Kong” much like he did “Rings” – despite that there is much less story here to tell. Even with all its astounding action and visual wonders, the film simply feels too drawn out. Jackson would have done well to cut some of the middle third, smoothing out the central story and more tightly packaging its narrative arc. But as it stands, “King Kong” is among the most visually stunning “event” movies ever released by a Hollywood studio, cementing Jackson’s status as one of the industry’s premiere big-name filmmakers.

 

Rating: 3 and a half out of 5 stars

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