Directed by John Guillermin
Written by Ronald Shusett and Steven Pressfield
Starring Brian Kerwin, Linda Hamilton, John Ashton, Peter Michael Goetz, Peter Eilliot, George Antoni
Dino De Laurentiis’ remake production of King Kong was a success in 1976, but hasn’t aged quite as well as its predecessor. Does King Kong Lives overcome the sequel curse, or does it fall like Son of Kong?
Barely surviving his fall from the World Trade Center, Kong enters a 10-year coma and desperately needs a blood transfusion in order to have an artificial heart implanted. Suddenly, in the rainforest, another gigantic ape is found – this one a female. She is quickly brought to the States, and with her blood Kong’s new heart is successfully implanted. But when he awakens, Kong senses the presence of his lady counterpart, and breaks loose, sending both the military and scientists Hank (Brian Kerwin) and Amy (Linda Hamilton) into a scramble to contain and capture them.
As noted in my review, the ’76 King Kong contained a little too many moments of cringe-worthy and creepy theater to be considered a true classic in the Kong tradition, but it is downright sublime compared to this film. From the very beginning, I was scratching my greasy morning scalp trying to figure out which of the writers came up with this bone-brained idea for a opening: A long tracking shot through a hangar where Kong lays comatose, past the SUV of Jarvik artificial hearts, and finally into a control room where a bunch of biologists give Linda Hamilton’s Amy grief for Kong being on death’s door. Really? Let’s say he could undergo that open-heart surgery you want to take place: he’s been laying down for ten years. Aren’t his muscles mush anyway?
We quickly shift to Borneo, where Brian Kerwin’s character Hank stumbles upon a female Kong, who is swiftly tranquilized by a contingent of natives with poison darts. Maybe the natives of Kong’s island should take a few pointers? While a lazy reversal of the Kong/Ann dynamic takes shape, the big ape gets his surgery in one of the most bizarre and laughable medical procedures put to celluloid. It’s quite the shame Linda was subjected to this so soon after The Terminator, because you can tell she really tried, but the material just isn’t there. The same cannot be said for Kerwin; with such a fake swagger and annoying disposition, I can’t believe he even gets the opportunity to bed (or sleeping-bag?) Amy.
Carlo Rambaldi returns to provide on-set animatronic effects for Lives, but these were wisely limited to the arms this time, as the filmmakers learned a valuable lesson from the first film: stick to the suits. The problem is, the suits aren’t as convincing this time around. Lady Kong is passable, but Kong himself has been redesigned with a chest so big that he looks like he’s wearing hockey pads. Mattes and miniature work are wildly inconsistent, and despite there being way more battles with the military, the action never reaches the levels of spectacle inherent in Kong’s wall scene or the train derailing.
Roger Ebert called Lives a boring movie, and I’d say, for the most part, I agree. Halfway through, Lady Kong is recaptured while Kong escapes to rampage through redneck country in search of his mate. I’m not joking when I say redneck country, because in between startling naughty teenagers, Kong has to contend with polka parties and the stereotypical beer-swilling hunters, who rightfully get their just desserts but not before what feels like an excruciating eternity of bad punch lines.
Only by the end did I find any real enjoyment with the film, in the climactic offensive by Kong against the military in defense of his now-pregnant Lady. Blood spews from his wounds as explosions fill the screen, with plenty of busted tanks and men to thrill at. And once this orgy of monster mayhem is over, there actually is a somewhat touching moment–if you have a distinct, bad-80s-movie taste. I think I kinda do, but the jury is still out.
I actually think Son of Kong is a better movie, shocking as that is. There’s a lot more Kong, but that isn’t necessarily a good thing, even when done right. I would only recommend this film to fans of 80s monster cinema, Kong enthusiasts, or if you’re planning a night of laughingly bad movies to riff, MST3K-style.