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The Nostalgic Attic: King Kong Lives (1986)

28 July 2014

King Kong Lives (1986)


"What the hell is this? 'Deliverance'?"


For years I had forgotten that this film even existed. I had clearly seen it a few times as a kid, probably when it landed on VHS, but then it somehow got pushed away into the dusty parts of the Attic, bar a few scenes that stuck with me that I somehow attributed to the 1976 remake. So by the time I got around to re-visiting Dino De Laurentiis' re-imagining of the 1933 classic, I was surprised to see the film didn't involve Kong having open heart surgery at some point. After digging around, I was surprised to see that there was indeed a sequel to that film, as final as it seemed in its conclusion, and I had in fact seen it. Time does funny things with memories, but are these films sometimes best left forgotten?


King Kong Lives opens with a re-cap of the finale from the 1976 film; Kong on top of the tower, swatting at helicopters as they blast him to pieces with bullets. It's an emotional scene, and one worth remembering, as soon he plummets to his death on the pavement below, with half of New York gawking on as he draws his final breath. Or so the story used to go. We then jump ten years, and it seems that Kong was whizzed away to a high tech hospital, where he has been kept on life support for a decade. Looked after by the caring and cute Amy Franklin (Linda Hamilton; The Terminator, Children of the Corn), she knows that Kong is on his last legs; he has been in a coma for too long, and his blood and heart are nearly done for. Cut to Borneo as adventurer Hank Mitchell (Brian Kerwin; Getting Wasted) makes a discovery that could change his fortune; a giant female 'Lady' Kong! The natives handily knock her out, leaving him just to bag her up and ship her home.

He is soon met by the carers of Kong, who hope to use a blood transfusion from Lady Kong to allow them to give the Big Hairy Fella a heart transplant. The operation is a success, and soon Kong's heart is at full strength. The only thing is, he senses a change in the world out there. Can he tell there is a female nearby? It doesn't take long for him to bust out of his recovery ward and make a beeline for his potential love interest. The two do indeed hit it off straight away, and head to the hills for some alone time. The army are soon on their heals, though, lead by the despicable Lieutenant Nevitt (John Ashton; Last Resort, Beverley Hills Cop, Some Kind of Wonderful), who wants nothing more than to see the two apes destroyed. Amy and Hank team up to track Kong, using Amy's device that can keep tabs on his new electronic heart. They discover the two hairy love birds, and soon find they are falling for each other themselves. It doesn't take long for the army to ruin things, though, and after blasting Kong into what looks like a watery grave, they gas his Lady and fly her away. Soon she is locked up again, and refusing food. Could it be that she's pregnant? and can Kong really be dead? Will Amy and hank be able to help the two primates to freedom before the army can put a stop to them for good?


Despite the mixed reviews that the re-boot of King Kong received, the film still killed the box office, raking in huge money for Dino De Laurentiis from both cinema receipts and TV sales, which no doubt helped ease the pain of the few naysayers. It seemed strange though that he waited ten years to cash in on the success of the film, but he finally put the pieces in place to make it happen. With a greatly reduced budget, he re-assembled as much of the original talent as he could (both director John Guillermin and special effects man Carlo Rambaldi are back, but Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange appear only in the opening flashback), and unfortunately, the results are underwhelming. For me, the film suffers from a problem that dogs many sequels: it just isn't interesting enough to follow on from the original film. Many of the problems with it boil down to the script. Instead of the rollicking adventure story we got with the original, we are given a rather episodic mess here; tonally the film is bit all over the place, with near slapstick humour one moment, corny ape romance the next, followed by violent deaths and shooting shortly after. There never feels like a natural flow to the film at all, as we chop and change from following the army, our doctor and adventurer hero, to the giant apes and their romance, with things never moving beyond the countryside and the labs where they are being held. It results in a film that (ironically as it's about giant apes) feels very small and un-cinematic, and I dare say, rather TV movie-ish. 

This smallness extends to the characters, as we are given the more traditional 'good versus bad' here, which was something I was thankful that the original avoided. Lt. Nevitt is only interested in destroying Kong, and as enjoyable as John Ashton is as an actor, it feels like such a one dimensional stock character that by the time he does get killed, it just doesn't seem like enough. Same goes for the rednecks and the rest of the army guys, they are there just in the hopes that we'll eventually cheer when they get killed, and at least we do get the satisfaction of having Kong finally going on the rampage at the end. But I wish they had of gone with a more lighter tone throughout the film, perhaps upping the comedy aspects, as these moments seem to work better than any of the serious drama does. Moments like the above 'Deliverance' joke and the rednecks response, along with the visual gags of Kong stepping on the Lamborghini ('My dad's gonna kill me!) got laughs out of me for the right reasons, but they seem to jar with the rest of the film. It means that by the time the inevitable does happen (.ie, Kong finally gets taken down), even the cast seem unresponsive or moved by his death. Compared to the original, the drama seems empty.


Saying that, I think Linda Hamilton and Brian Kerwin do fine in their roles. It's good to see Hamilton got a decent shot at a lead after The Terminator, but it's unfortunate it was in a film that was so poorly received. People tend to maul the effects work in this one too, but I don't think it was quite as bad as it gets made out to be. I think it just feels weird to see Kong looking all loved up, and the moments with him and his 'Lady' just feel a bit awkward. No doubt most of the audience would be howling at the sit of Kong trying to get it on with his missus. The early scenes in which a full sized Kong are used works better than it did in the original, though (I'm wondering was it the same 'robot' used?), but as these moments are when Kong is unconscious, it's hard to tell if it was just a lifeless sculpt or not. The one moment that really doesn't work for me is the climax, involving the 'Son of Kong'. Even though they use a guy in an ape suit, the proportions in contrast to the parents is so far off it seems comical. It's the equivalent of a woman giving birth to a Barbie Doll, and takes away any emotion that could have been had in the finale.

Sadly, it was to be John Guillermin's last theatrical effort as a director. He really doesn't get a chance to shine here in the way he did in earlier films. Gone is that big scope of the first film, and it just feels like he didn't have much room to move here. The film does finally kick into gear with some of the later action scenes, with a very angry Kong stomping and ripping his way through rednecks and the army, but one can't help but wish the film had more of this throughout. There is still fun to be had in this - as I said, we get plenty of humour that is actually funny, along with getting to see Hamilton in a lead role. The action in the finale is well shot, with plenty of bloodshed and explosions, so that's worth sticking around for too, as are the ape suits.If you aren't too demanding of what you want from the film, you may actually enjoy this one (Hey, I had a reasonably good time with it). But as the final credits role, you can't help but feel that they managed to make a film about King Kong feel quite unadventurous, and that's something you never want to experience with this material.


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5 Comments:

At 31 July 2014 at 04:05 , Blogger Wes M said...

John when you mentioned you were doing King Kong Lives my first reaction was that I hasn't seen this one but the strange, mysterious power of the Attic went to work on me and I actually think I have seen this film at some point... Reading the plot synopsis the whole thing sounds a tad desperate but I shouldn't dismiss the film the way the 1976 film has been too often relegated to the scrapheap. I'm sure the film is better mounted than the trailer which looks like a Cannon production of King Kong, but I love the trailer's sign off: America's biggest hero is back and he's not happy followed by someone getting splattered by Kong's hand, ha, ha...

 
At 2 August 2014 at 03:51 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

Wes, i really wouldn't be surprised if you HAD seen this one, I recall it getting a few airings on our TV stations in the late 80's. I also wouldn't be surprised that you had forgotten about it, either. The thing is, the film is actually a bit of fun, but it just feels so sporadic and laboured in parts that it's a hard one to recommend. The 1976 film is far better, but this one is worth a watch just to see how far a core idea can go wrong. I really think if the whole film had a similar tone to what you found amusing in the trailer it would be much better loved - the problem is, we've already had our heartstrings tugged in the original and remake, and trying to replicate that with a different story was just a bad idea...

 
At 6 August 2014 at 20:22 , Blogger Craig Edwards said...

My buddy Jeff worked on this movie as a makeup artist back in the heyday of Dino D's production days here in Wilmington NC. It was like the old studios, where Jeff would wrap a movie on Friday, then show back up to work on Monday and be assigned to the next movie. He could write a book on this movie alone. While waiting for Carlo Rambaldi to create Baby Kong (which is about seven stories in itself) the entire main crew was on salary - Jeff says he took his laserdisc player in to work and he and several other crew people watched movies for 8 or 10 hours a day. For MONTHS. When Kong drops a tank on some army guys - while there is some miniature work on hand - the shots of the vehicle hitting the ground were full size (!). They rigged for weeks to lift a real tank up - then planned out the dropping for several more days. Apparently it came down to a rehearsal where they were only going through the motions - and when the director called action (to let the stunt guys practice their moves without the tank) the overexcited effects tech hit the button...and dropped the tank. No one was hurt - except the tank. They wrapped for the day while someone got on the phone to order another tank. Lastly, director Guillermin was not thrilled to be back at the helm of another monkey movie - and had taken to drinking. Apparently he would get fed up with the nonsense on a regular basis. He would simply walk off the set. The first assistant director had one of the production assistants assigned to shadow Guillermin. Sometimes he'd simply walk out and cool down, then return. But other times - he would keep on walking. The production assistant (PA) would report on his walkie talkie "He's outside the stage." Seconds later: "He's heading towards his car." Then "He's getting in his car." "The car is running." "He's pulling out." "He's headed for the gate." "He's on 23rd Street." (the street the studio is on.) As soon as the car was reported outside of the gate - the first AD would call out "THAT'S A WRAP!"

Listening to Jeff's stories is more entertaining than the movie - and I like the movie for its sheer unneeded desperate sweaty existence.

 
At 7 August 2014 at 06:28 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

Craig, thanks for a bit of insight into the filming on this one; I'm really not surprised it had such problems behind the scenes. You can really tell that director Guillermin didn't have his heart in it, and in ways I don't blame him... but still, it's all up there on the screen at this point. As I said, some of the stunts are quite good ( I do remember the shot you are talking about with the tank and the soldiers, jeez, dangerous stuff to mess up on!)... Do you care to spill some more beans on the Rambaldi/Baby Kong stuff?

 
At 7 August 2014 at 09:41 , Blogger Wes M said...

Craig, we love your comments dude, always great !

 

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