Written by: Ronald Shusett and Steven Pressfield
Directed by: John Guillermin
Linda Hamilton as Dr. Amy Franklin
Brian Kerwin as Hank Mitchell
John Ashton as Lt. Col. R. T. Nevitt
Peter Elliot as King Kong
King Kong is probably the only giant monster of the silver screen whose worldwide fame rivals that of Godzilla. Walk up to any random person on the street and, even if they haven't seen a single frame of any one of the movies, if asked, they could probably tell you he's a giant ape who climbs up a building in New York and gets shot by planes. Even among die-hard monster fans, however, there is one Kong movie that doesn't get talked about a whole lot. Perhaps because it was only briefly available on DVD (I just have a much-loved, oft-watched VHS) that is now out of print and goes for exorbitant amounts on the secondary market, perhaps because it didn't get much play on cable (although I can't imagine that was the case – this movie seems almost tailor-made for filling the 3am slot on HBO or Showtime). Whatever the reason, tonight's movie just doesn't get the love it deserves.
For reasons known only to himself and the people he convinced to pony up the $10 million production cost, a decade after his moderately successful 1976 remake of King Kong Dino De Laurentiis decided the world was ready for more hot monkey action. If monkey a-die again, everybody a-cry again, right? Well, someone a-cried, but I'm pretty sure it was the investors. King Kong Lives made back less than half its budget during its American theatrical run. Surely the licensing fees from the two Japan-exclusive video games, Kingu Kongu Tsū: Ikari no Megaton Panchi (King Kong 2: Furious Megaton Punch) and Kingu Kongu Tsū: Yomigaeru Densetsu (King Kong 2: Revived Legend), made up the difference, right? Right. And I have a perfectly functioning 40 foot animatronic Kong I'd like to sell you.
Because it had been ten goddamn years since anyone had seen nauga hide or yak hair of the big ape, we begin with a brief recap of the final moments of the 1976 movie. Kong must be a lot tougher than previously expected, because right off the bat we're asked to believe that being riddled with thousands of Gatling gun rounds and falling 1,377 feet from the top of the World Trade Center resulted not in a half-mile-diameter splash zone of greasy grimy gorilla guts, but a completely intact Kong being held in a medically induced coma at the Atlanta Medical Institute waiting for a suitable blood donor so they can fix his dodgy heart. Just as Dr. Franklin is about to give her patient up for lost, the Institute receives a call from wilderness explorer and general jet-setting gadabout Hank Mitchell. Mr. Mitchell was doing some particularly fruitful gadding about in Borneo when he encountered a massive female gorilla which, despite not being a scientist, his intuition led him to believe would be of interest to those who were. After a bit of haggling, and a warning from Dr. Franklin that close proximity to a female of his species would almost certainly excite Kong into full blown cardiac failure, Lady Kong finds herself pumped full of tranquilizers and on a cargo plane bound for Georgia.
With the most unlikely blood transfusion in medical history a success, Dr. Franklin manages to fit Kong with an enormous pacemaker that looks as much like some kind of alien space craft as it does a heart. He recovers in mere days without so much as a surgical scar, becomes the new spokesman for those catheters they sell on MeTV during Svengoolie, and everyone lived happily ever after. All right, that's a lie. We wouldn't have much of a movie if Kong didn't smell his sanguinary benefactor the second he swam his way up out of the anesthesia fog, would we? Kong smashes his way out of his enclosure and sweeps Lady Kong off her feet and into the Georgia night. Dr. Franklin gives chase, worried about Kong's ticker. She has a remote control unit she can use to stabilize it, but with all the strenuous activity, even that might not be enough. Hank follows her, because we need a human love story to mirror the hot monkey love, and close on all of their heels is a very pissed off Col. Nevitt.
It's not long before the army corners Kong and his mate at the precipice of a cliff. Powerless to do anything to stop Nevitt's fury, Dr. Franklin and Hank can only watch as Lady Kong is gassed into submission and Kong is chased off in a hail of gunfire, jumping from the cliff rather than give Nevitt the satisfaction of killing him. Kong lands in a river hundreds of feet below and cracks his skull on a rock, sinking into the churning water.
Despite Dr. Franklin's worries that even if Kong survived the fall, he'd never find enough protein in the wilds of Georgia to sustain him (an odd concern, since gorillas are largely herbivorous), we know the big guy isn't down for the count just yet. Kong's impromptu whitewater adventure washed him up in a swamp somewhere, and we're treated to his encounters with various factions of the hillbilly cultural elite as he sniffs his way back to his family. That's right, Lady Kong is pregnant thanks to the couple's prolonged honeymoon weekend, and this time the big guy is fighting to protect not just his lady, but his family. Now taking bets on whether or not Col. Nevitt survives the next fifteen minutes.
Despite having watched this movie probably two dozen times over the last two decades, until this viewing I never noticed a bystander during the celebration of Kong's successful surgery holding a sign that reads, “You Kong, Me Fay Wray, implying the 1933 movie is an actual movie in this continuity. Whether that means in this universe it was a ripped-from-the-headlines docudrama, or the existence of giant apes was one helluva coincidence, is up to the individual viewer. Either way, it's an interesting thing to ponder, which the filmmakers almost certainly put absolutely no thought into beyond that they thought it was cute.
This being a giant monster movie, though, the real question is: how does it stack up against its city-smashing cohort? If you ask this guy, pretty damn well. The greatest advantage a monster like Kong gives filmmakers is his size. At just a fraction of the stature of the mighty Godzilla (especially these days, with his size estimated at nearly four hundred feet tall and potentially over a thousand feet long), a beast of Kong's size allows for much larger, and therefore more detailed, miniature work. The more detail the FX crew can show, the more realistic the effects shots, and the final battle against the military in this movie, though short, is one of the best monster-vs.-the-army sequences ever filmed. The scale varies wildly, from a payloader being almost hip-high to Kong in an earlier scene, to him being able to pick up tanks single-handed and throw them with little effort. But you know what? Who cares? This movie is silly as hell anyway. If you can get past ridiculous scenes like Kong interrupting a square dance or playfully teasing Lady Kong with a snake, a little sloppy scale continuity probably isn't going to bother you that much. Especially when the movie in question is this much fun.
This movie isn't so much a hand-crafted pastry from a top chef as it is a funnel cake from the county fair. If you're looking for a majestic tale of noble beasts and tragedy, you'd do well to look elsewhere. If you want a deep-fried slice of giant monster mayhem with some fine practical effects work and a heaping dollop of goofy on top, this too-often-overlooked movie will almost certainly hit the spot.