Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 15, 2004)
Sometimes we choose to watch movies for odd reasons, and I definitely put my decision to view 1986ís King Kong Lives into that category. Though I was 19 when it came out, I possess absolutely no recollection of it from that period. Really, the only reason I maintain any awareness of the flick at all comes from my enjoyment of 1998ís wild action spoof The Big Hit. Part of its plot revolves around a videotape of - you guessed it - King Kong Lives.
Just as the mention of Navy Seals in Clerks makes it infamous, the prominence of Lives in The Big Hit did the same for me. Because of that, when I saw Lives show up on my door, I couldnít resist.
Lives literally begins with the end of the 1976 version of King Kong. We see the authorities blast the big ape off the top of the World Trade Center, fall to the street and apparently expire.
Or maybe not. The flick immediately hops ahead 10 years to go to the Atlanta Institute. We see that scientists have kept a comatose Kong on life support during that period. They built him an artificial heart but he needs a blood transfusion to survive. However, since giant apes arenít exactly a dime a dozen, they lack a donor.
From there we head to the jungles of Borneo, where we meet Hank Mitchell (Brian Kerwin), an explorer who searches for gems. He happens upon another monstrous monkey, who the natives then shoot with poisonous darts and knock unconscious. Mitchell soon calls upon the Institute and offers to sell the ape to them as long as they come up with the desired sum of money.
Mitchell only wants to sell the whole monkey, but Dr. Amy Franklin (Linda Hamilton) fears that the presence of a female will stir up Kong and she just wants the blood. Against her wishes, her superiors agree to Mitchellís deal.
Mitchell escorts ďLady KongĒ to Atlanta aboard a private jet, and we see that she maintains a fondness for him; only he can calm her when she gets upset. They perform the transfusion and the heart transplant operation, both of which succeed. Lady Kong lives in a warehouse temporarily while they build a permanent facility for her, and Kong recovers with Dr. Franklin at his side.
When Kong awakens, he smells the Lady from a mile away. With the desire for some jungle love, he struggles to leave and must be tranquilized. Franklin warns that they need to keep the two big apes more separated than they currently are, and Mitchell agrees. The powers that be agree to complete the facilities within 48 hours, while Mitchell pursues a romantic interest with Franklin as well.
As they attempt to sedate and move Lady, Kong wakes up again and goes on a rampage. He easily snaps his chains and heads out to get him some nookie. He greets the Lady and takes her away with him.
Not content to let the lovebirds - uh, lovemonkeys - wander the hills of Georgia unimpeded, the military intervenes with forces commanded by Colonel RT Nevitt (John Ashton). While the armed forces take control, Mitchell and Franklin create an uneasy alliance to ensure the survival of their pet simians. The rest of the movie follows Mr. and Mrs. Kong and the various attempts to deal with their rampage.
I believe they invented the phrase ďprofoundly sillyĒ to describe King Kong Lives. Itís the insult added to the injury of the mediocre 1976 Kong remake. Any film that starts with creation of the worldís largest artificial heart starts on rocky territory, and Lives does nothing to redeem itself from there.
The film operates at two extremes: broad campiness and utter, painful seriousness. We watch these conflicting trends at work in the performances of its leads. On one hand, Hamilton plays her part with a completely straight face. Actually, she lends Franklin a surprisingly stiff and wooden turn. I canít tell if she took the role really seriously or if she felt so embarrassed to be there that she pretended to buy into it to save face.
On the other hand, we get Kerwinís broad and goofy work as Mitchell. He makes the character a throwback to a Forties adventure flick, a sort of half-assed Indiana Jones without any sense of spark or personality. Heís so loose in the part that he often veers into the realm of camp. Ashton also tends to play his role in this manner. He clearly did all of his character research through a couple of Sgt. Rock comics.
Which approach works best? Neither, though I donít think anything could have redeemed this tale. The movie itself canít quite decide which path it wants to take, so both feel unsatisfying. I canít figure out anyone who could possibly take this movie seriously when it depicts goofily enormous operating instruments and drunken redneck hunters as well as when it sends the lovey-dovey apes to Honeymoon Ridge. For the most part, though, if the filmmakers wink at us, they hide it really well. I think the director usually takes things too seriously.
Iím not sure how a movie with this oneís script ever got made in the first place. Even if we get beyond the absurdity of the plot - which exists solely as an excuse to send a couple of giant apes on a rampage - the dialogue fully undermines the whole enterprise. When Franklin finally invites Mitchell to bunk with him, he asks if sheís sure about her decision. Her response? ďWeíre primates too!Ē Add to the flick lines such as ďThe other monkeyís gone apeshit!Ē and you have some of possibly the worst dialogue on record.
Admittedly, I donít know if itís likely that a movie called King Kong Lives could have been anything other than a disaster. A flick of this sort inevitably lends itself to silliness. Still, it could have been a more entertaining catastrophe, as the final result is just too painful to enjoy.