King Kong (12A)

Return of the King is a monster
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There is something irresistible about movies that keep delaying the appearance of the central character. Orson Welles didn't emerge from the shadows of Vienna until The Third Man was nearly over, but he still ran off with the picture. Likewise Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now was felt as a presence from the very first frame, yet we waited for what seemed like hours before we glimpsed that sculptural pate and heard the famous mumble.

And so it is with King Kong, "the greatest misfit in movie history", whose entrance becomes so feverishly anticipated in Peter Jackson's new remake that one fears it can only disappoint. Not a bit: from his first extravagantly athletic bound and thunderous roar, this great ape fully delivers - Ecce Kong. You can almost hear following behind him the studio's heavy sigh of relief. The $207m they have underwritten is surely safe.

Jackson knows about risk-taking; his Lord of the Rings trilogy was by no means a dead cert before launch, and yet its status now as a bona fide mass-market classic is unassailable. When reports surfaced that he was to remake King Kong, I immediately thought of Ang Lee's misjudged run-in with Hulk, and worried that a director of left-field tendencies might be swamped by the temptations of storybook gigantism. As it turns out, Jackson isn't cowed but inspired by the spectacle, and in narrative scale he has both honoured and surpassed the 1933 original by Cooper and Schoedsack. This King Kong is a barnstorming epic and, at over three hours, its attack feels occasionally stretched; it takes a while to catch fire and then a little too long to end. Yet in counterbalance it has intimacy, comedy and even a touch of humility, the more welcome for being so unexpected.

It is essentially the tale of two jungles, one a capitalist hell, the other an atavistic nightmare. The former is Manhattan in the 1930s, enclosed in the savage grip of the Depression. Here a movie impresario Carl Denham (Jack Black) catches sight of a struggling young actress, Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), and persuades her to be the leading lady on a new adventure fantasy he's going to shoot. "I'm someone you can trust, Ann. I'm a movie producer." The audience laughs, nervously. Along with her, he also inveigles a writer, Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), on board his rackety tramp steamer, and the crew set their course for Singapore. In fact, they are bound for Skull Island and a flurry of encounters with primeval horror straight from the pages of Conrad or Rider Haggard. A tribe of shrieking savages take hold of Ann and offer her as ritual sacrifice to their ape king; instead, the king falls for this distressed damsel, and becomes her protector. It can only end in tears.

That we will eventually root for this unhappy pair is down to Jackson's delicacy of touch, and to the astonishing duet played by Watts and Andy Serkis, his motion-capture performance as Kong almost the expressive equal of his magnificent Gollum in LOTR.

It proceeds in three distinct stages, echoing the structure of the movie. When Ann first turns somersaults for Kong's pleasure, the playfulness is incongruous, amusing. Then, the mood turns to pure exhilaration as Kong plays jungle scrapper, with no fewer than three specimens of tyrannosaurus rex, laying about their torsos with a ferocity not seen since the young Mike Tyson. (Some anger-management issues in common here.) Finally, when he gently picks up Ann in his mighty mitt and they stare at one another in close-up, we sense the oncoming tragedy of their requited but impossible love; the depth of feeling in Kong's regal gaze is beautifully matched by Ann's luminous compassion: is it loneliness she sees in those dark eyes? Watts hasn't been this affecting since her entranced ingenue in Mulholland Drive, and given that most of the time she's acting against technology, it's doubly impressive.

Following the horror-comedy and adventure of the film's first and second acts, one might have wondered if Jackson had enough in the engine for a third-act finale. Does he ever. Back in Manhattan, where we began, Kong is now in chains, and the vaudeville show Denham has made of the beast is certainly a reproof to the idea of progress: Homo sapiens still enslaves and humiliates his ancestors. Yet there may also be a suggestion that the entertainment business isn't exactly pure of heart, either, and nor is the audience in its illimitable appetite for the freakish and grotesque. (There are echoes of The Elephant Man.)

I think the role of Denham requires a shade more ambiguity than Jack Black's devilish impresario can muster, though his fuel-injected exuberance is mostly to the film's advantage. The image of Kong marauding through midtown Manhattan and wrecking the scenery retains the power to mesmerise, and in his final doomed ascent of the Empire State Building he attains a stirring kind of majesty, swatting at the planes that are trying to pick him off.

And talking of hairy but sensitive potentates, Peter Jackson really has proven himself lord of the blockbuster jungle with this one. From the high-low montages of 1930s breadlines and skyscrapers to the B-movie spectacle of swamps and monsters, from screwball comedy to a swooning and tragic folie à deux, there seems nothing that this film-maker can't do. He loves the scope and energy of epic, yet he's not been found wanting in the direction of actors and the shaping of mood. This King Kong comes right at you with his heady mythic allure, and just like his rampage across Manhattan he fairly stomps on the competition.