AVAILABLE ON DVD
RUNNING TIME: 108 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
King Kong, after being shot down from the World Trade Center, is kept alive in a coma for ten years at the Atlanta Institute under the care of Dr. Amy Franklin. In order to save Kong’s life, Amy needs to give Kong a computer-monitored artificial heart, but Kong has lost so much blood that a transfusion is badly needed, and there is no species of ape or other animal whose blood type matches Kong’s – or so they think. As luck would have it, adventurer Hank “Mitch” Mitchell captures a giant female gorilla in Borneo, and her blood is used to save Kong. But the two giant apes escape, and Hank and Amy must get to them before the military does….
I supposed calling this film a ‘guilty pleasure” is a bit of a cheat, as until yesterday evening I hadn’t seen King Kong Lives for around a couple of decades, but I remember that one of my half-brothers and I used to watch it on video very often, and after having finally watched it again and indeed now being the proud owner of a DVD of the movie, I have little doubt that I’ll be watching it again soon. It has the reputation of being a really bad movie, and certainly the worst Kong movie. The two Toho efforts and the 1977 remake most definitely have their defenders, but few seem to admit liking King Kong Lives except as a ‘so bad it’s good’ film that’s good for a laugh if not much else, and fewer still would probably make any claims for it to be a picture of reasonable quality. Upon finally watching again: yes – it’s frequently daft and sometimes funny because it tends to play its absurdities straight, but I really didn’t find it to be all that bad. The special effects, despite being nominated for a Razzie [probably by the same kind of people who claim Godzilla movies are full of bad special effects even though many of us now know better], are mostly decent, and it’s full of heart – something which I can’t really say for Kong: Skull Island even though I still thoroughly enjoyed the film. In fact animal lovers may find it quite a harsh watch considering how badly Kong and Lady Kong – who just want a quiet life together – are treated throughout. Laugh if you may at some of what I’m writing – but come the climax, laughing was be the opposite of what I was doing.
The production of the Dino de Laurentiis-produced, John Guillerman-directed 1976 King Kong has been chronicled extensively, but the same can’t be said for this sequel, about which my usual amount of time I dedicate to researching the background of an older film revealed very little. Despite its poor [somewhat unwarranted, in my opinion – in fact I reviewed it also as a ‘guilty pleasure’ a few years ago] reputation, the 1976 film was a hit, so it’s odd that Laurentiis waited ten years to do a sequel, and on a lower budget. Peter Weller was offered the role of Brian Kerwin but turned it down to star in Robocop instead. Watching the film, I got a sense that different people on the production were at odds with how to handle the material, and indeed while Guillerman is credited as director, assistant director Charles McKracken was asked to take over the job for reasons which haven’t been revealed. Despite receiving some publicity, King Kong Lives, which was originally just called King Kong 2, was a huge flop and didn’t even make it to cinemas in the UK. Actor Peter Michael Goetz’s cheque for post release royalties came to three cents, and he has it stapled to the film poster in his house, having never cashed it, while co-writer Steven Pressfield mentions King Kong Lives as a “live-changing, validating failure” in his book The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles. De Laurentiis and Lou Scheimer of Filmation begun to develop an animated spin-off series starring the son of Kong, who would have all sorts of crazy adventures like travelling underwater in a submarine made out of giant coconuts and bamboo called the Coco-Nautilis – but of course it never happened.
A heavily condensed version of the ending of King Kong, replete with shots of Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange, leads us into the first adsurdity of this film: Kong is shot repeatedly by helicopters with the bullets gorily ripping into his chest, and then falls off the top of the World Trade Centre to hit the ground way down below – but he’s still alive. However, ten years later and he finally seems to be dying. “The only thing that can save Kong now is a miracle” says somebody as dramatic music swells up – and indeed a miracle then happens as a female Kong is found in Borneo [why Borneo and not Skull Island? – because they were apparently once part of the same land mass, which I suppose is as good a reason as any] by – well, we’re not told what he is but I called him an “adventurer” in the synopsis of the first third so I’ll call him that here too – by adventurer Mitch. She seems to take a shine to him, and he tells the folk moving her to: “Just take it easy, you’re dealing with a lady”, though this unique reversal of the usual Kong situation isn’t followed through. Mitch accepts a huge amount of money for Lady Kong, but you just know that he’s soon going to develop a conscience and join Amy in trying to help the apes. Kong is saved in the silliest medical operation you will ever see with an enormous buzz-saw, clamps and I.V. bag of blood, but soon smells that a potential mate is nearby and bursts free to go and find her. Even though Lady Kong is far less attractive than Jessica Lange, at least she’s of the same species as Kong, and it’s love at first sight for both of them, the two gazing at each other as the camera zooms into their eyes.
Yes, one can laugh – and even I found myself doing so for while. Amy shows how clever she is by stating: “some primate species mate for life” [of course these two are going to mate for life – they don’t have any choice!], and the two love birds behave in a rather humanlike fashion [love the bit where he tries to get her to eat a rather large snake and she’s not having any of it because she’s happy consuming a tree] – something which of course encourages Mitch and Amy to engage in their own brand of monkey business. But you know what [and I’m well aware that what little reputation I have left as a movie reviewer is probably going out the window as I type], I really started to feel for the pair of Kongs and detest the army general, led by John Ashton as a typical movie military type, who wants to hunt them down and not so much capture but destroy. In fact kindly humans are thin on the ground in this film, the cruellest probably being a group of rednecks who think they have Kong captured and torture him with fire – though don’t worry Kong has his revenge. He’s suitably tough and ferocious when dealing with those who try to do him harm, but for a lot of the time tries his best not to kill or cause damage at all. The story consists of little more than the two apes being repeatedly cornered or captured and escaping or being rescued, and even Amy takes forever to work out why Lady Kong is behaving oddly [something I even worked out when I first saw the film at about 15 years of age], but the second-to-last scene, perhaps inspired by the tear-jerking conclusion to Spartacus, piles on the emotion and despite its corniness certainly worked for me.
The script has some clumsy moments, like everyone assuming Kong is dead because he’s smashed his head on a rock, but Amy insisting “He’s alive and I know it!” for no good reason. And what’s with the African/American kid waving the Confederate Flag? Huh? While the handling is generally serious, some sections do approach send-up, with the all-time classic line: “We should have no problem in identifying the enemy – they’re 50 foot tall and wearing their birthday suit”. Kong looks almost the same as he did in 1976, and it’s a fairly good suit with a reasonably articulate mask, though it looks like rather less money was spent on his mate and her face isn’t really expressive enough. Still, actors Peter Elliot and Geroge Antoni are able to project some personality and certainly succeed [well, I think they do] in generating our sympathy. Technically King Kong Lives really isn’t bad. The integration of the suits with large hand and foot props, the integration of the Tennessee rural locales with scale models, the quality of the models themselves, and the matting is all superior to equivalent stuff in the 1976 film despite Carlo Rambaldi and his team having a reduced budget to play with. The only major sequence which seems hampered by not quite having enough money is Kong’s battle with the military, which is largely shot in close-up to try to compensate.
Unusually Elliot and Antoni are billed above Linda Hamilton and Brian Kerwin in the end credits, though in a way this is understandable as they deliver much better performances and share more chemistry too despite wearing ape suits. Hamilton, as she tends to be when not given a good role to get her teeth into, is very stiff and Kerwin is just incredibly bland. It’s impossible to tell which footage was shot by Guillerman and which was shot by McKracken, but the direction is generally solid if nothing more. The score by the underrated and underused composer John Scott is a definite highlight though, with a very poignant main theme [which I actually remembered as soon as the first few bars came up despite not having seen the film for around 20 years] that emphasises the primate romance, and some exciting musical set pieces elsewhere. No, I’m in no way making any claims for King Kong Lives to be a neglected masterpiece, or to even be especially good, but far worse monster movies come out every year and the 1986 film holds up better today than, say, the average SyFy offering you tend to get these days. For the most part, they did try. And even if you’re not the sentimental type and do end up just constantly laughing at the thing, that’s got to be worth something too hasn’t it?