"I feel very good that
I'm involved in a Kong movie, because it's a legend. And there's
no way it will ever not be a legend. Whether it fails or not,
it's still a Kong film."
- Linda Hamilton, Starlog, Dec. 1986.
I'll assume that the general warm fuzzy feelings surrounding Peter Jackson's trailer for King Kong has properly inoculated the kongisking.net community to the point that it's safe to once again to dip into King Kong Lives, the horrid result of the last time a major studio undertook a Kong project.
I got a couple emails from individuals who lamented that their very first exposure to King Kong was this film, which is sad indeed. The first Kong film I saw was Toho's King Kong Escapes, but that flick had no pretense of being anything more than a goofy Big Monster movie; I was unscarred. King Kong Lives, while not made with a Lord of the Rings-type budget, was still made with the kind of money that could produce a dozen Japanese genre films. And it had Linda Hamilton in it, who at the time was an actual celebrity (post-Terminator and pre-T-2/Buns of Steel/Mrs. James Cameron). I can only imagine how wrenching it must have been to have the eighth wonder of the world introduced to you as a heart-transplant recipient who makes moon-eyes at a She-Kong.
And that's the plot in a nutshell; Kong has survived his plunge from the World Trade Center, needing only a heart transplant to keep him afloat after ten years flat on his back. Now an additional complication rears its head; Kong needs more blood. Enter Lady Kong, who is magically "discovered" at this crucial moment.
"Dwan? Dwan who?" Giant apes out for a stroll.
Jack Prescott and Dwan, we learn, have gone into business together as private detectives and travel the country in a customized motor home — well, I'm only kidding. While King Kong Lives opens with footage from the 1976 film, this is only a sequel in the sense that there is a giant ape (or two) involved (imagine being the person who has to call the agent for Sweet Dreams-era Jessica Lange and asks if she could pretty-please reprise her role as a "special guest star"). John Guillermin once again directs (fresh from Sheena), but it's Peter Elliot in the Kong costume this time around (his ape credentials include Congo and Gorillas in the Mist), and George Yiasoumi is Lady Kong (he was a Greystoke primate). There is utterly no story continuity from the first film, though the mask and costume bear a low-rent resemblance to the '76 version. Kong has evidently gotten over the whole Dwan thing. Good for him! A clean start.
I could go into excruciating detail regarding the sins contained in King Kong Lives, but Ken Begg at www.jabootu.com has done the heavy lifting for me. Detour to the link above for an entertaining regurgitation of the plot. I'll echo here one of the overarching points made by Begg that sinks the film from the beginning: Dino DeLaurentiis felt that Kong was some sort of American hero rather than a terrifying, unpredictable beast capable of animal brutality on a large scale (in fact, some of the ads for King Kong Lives carried the tagline "America's biggest hero is back... and he is not happy").
This superficial characterization means that when the huge ape is improbably revived (and pretty limber despite a decade on his back), we hear a heroic swell of uplifting music rather than the foreboding notes any sane person would associate with the concept of a huge simian regaining his senses in close proximity to tasty human snacks. The reality/fantasy barrier is further fractured when we see a placard wielded by a celebratory bystander upon the news that Kong has been revived that reads "You Kong, Me Fay." Wait a minute-wasn't the girl in the hairy paw named "Ann"? And furthermore, don't we have to accept that her name was "Dwan" in the DeLaurentiisverse? Ah, forget it!
Sometimes a still from a particular film can actually serve as a review.
The real story here, as I pointed out in Part One, is that the screenplay for King Kong Lives was not banged out by no-talent hacks or studio drones forced to "shine a turd" for their bosses. On the contrary, cowriters Stephan Pressfield and Ron Shusett did great work before and after King Kong Lives (get Pressfield's book Virtues of War-it's fairly astounding and worth plugging again). And, as I said in Part One, both felt they had a hit even after seeing the finished film.
Stephan Pressfield was gracious enough to discuss his experience on the film with me via email a couple years back. He recalled:
"[Ron Shusett] was the big cheese in our partnership, having done the original Alien and having Total Recall in the works with Dino at that time. One day we were sitting around in Dino's office and Dino was saying how he'd love to do another Kong movie but he couldn't figure out how to revive the story, since Kong, the last time we saw him, had fallen off the World Trade Center towers and was dead. Ron piped up, 'That's easy. Heart transplant.'
"Dino cried, 'Bravo!' and that was it. We worked out a deal and he hired us to write it."
Surely, I suggested, you were hamstrung by a bunch of suggestions and mandates to include this or that refurbished prop in order to keep costs down.
"No, King Kong Lives was not prop-driven," Pressfield stated. "Nobody gave us any instructions or parameters along those lines at all."
And Pressfield doesn't buy the DeLaurentiis-as-hack characterization.
"His reputation was as a real philistine whose ideas routinely destroyed any good creative project he produced. But I found him to be a colorful charismatic figure, a bit intimidating but always fun. I was always conscious, whenever I was included in a meeting with him, that I was in the presence of the last of a breed. There were no more Dino DeLaurentiis coming down the pike."
And it's true. For every Orca or Mandingo on DeLaurentiis's credit sheet, there's a Serpico or Three Days of the Condor.
"He had numerous quirks of working," Pressfield continued. "One of them being that, though he spoke English, he only read Italian. So every script or memo had to be translated into Italian before Dino read it. He also deserves tremendous respect, in my opinion, for seeking out and taking a chance on new talent, writers often but particularly directors. If you go through the filmography, you'll see Dino again and again being the first major player to hire obscure but talented young directors-launching them into the big-time. So I'm a fan. And he's still going strong!"
Linda Hamilton with costar Brian Kerwin
It's clear that Pressfield and Shusett aimed to deliver a lightweight film that didn't take itself too seriously (though Linda Hamilton plays it straight as an arrow throughout the film) and therefore faced a daunting challenge in crafting a story that mixed humor and drama appropriately. When it works, it's a great idea (like the James Bond films); when it doesn't, it's a disaster (see the DeLaurentiis Flash Gordon or any Schumacher Batman film). In King Kong Lives we see Ed Wood's "Kelton the Cop" seemingly resurrected and on duty-alone-guarding the sedated Kong. Terribly unfunny. Once alone together, Kong and Lady Kong "flirt" and the feared beast-god of Skull Island-eighth wonder of the world, slayer of multitudes of challengers-resorts to the old "pretend to yawn and stretch so I can put my arm around you" move. Shudder. Kong wanders what I guess is the Atlanta swamplands (?) and has a series of "hilarious" encounters with the locals, including a golf ball to the forehead while on the links. (Giant apes are considered course obstacles in PGA rules, and therefore the player is not awarded a drop unless the giant beast actually consumes the ball. A ball that burrows into giant ape droppings in the field of play, however, is recoverable by free drop at no stroke penalty.)
Another factor to ponder regarding the production of King Kong Lives was its odd timing. In 1986, there was no outcry or demand for any sort of Kong film, particularly another from DeLaurentiis and company. It was released to general indifference; I was in college during this period and never even considered going to see it. The bad poster and few TV ads that I saw made very clear that this was nothing to waste beer and Pop Tarts money on (I was in college, remember?). Clearly, DeLaurentiis needed to exploit his Kong rights while he still had them and plowed forward heedless of the public's apathy. He made no secret of his "franchise" plans while his 1976 remake was being promoted; had that film done better, we may have seen Dino DeLaurentiis's Son of Kong (with Cher in the Helen Mack role), followed by Dino DeLaurentiis's All-Star Return to Skull Island: Shipwreck! ("Dino, it's a can't miss; a cruise ship with Farrah Fawcett, Leif Garrett, Paul Lynde, the Harlem Globetrotters-hell, we'll get Evel Knievel!-is washed up on Skull Island. It's up to a crack team led by George Kennedy and Lee Majors to parachute in and get them out of there! Meanwhile, Meadowlark Lemon is able to teach basketball fundamentals to the natives, and he nails a hoop to the great wall.").
So it could be have been worse, at least in the long term. That's the best that can be said for King Kong Lives, unfortunately.
(Writer John Michlig's online article KING KONG: LOST AND FOUND can be seen at http://www.skullisland.net/KongBoomer.html. He's currently working with filmmaker James Mansfield on a documentary entitled EIGHTH WONDER: THE AMAZING TRUE STORY OF CARL DENHAM AND THE BEAST-GOD OF SKULL ISLAND, the startling details of which he promises to share in the very near future.)
THE KONG FILES and contents are © 2004-2006 John Michlig and written for KongisKing.net, subsidary of The One Ring®, Inc.