John Lyttle - Gorilla warfare

Film - Epic tales of good versus evil must be shamelessly vulgar, writes John Lyttle

King Kong

It will come as no surprise that Peter Jackson's remake of King Kong includes the best action sequences of the year - indeed, perhaps of any year. In no particular order: a brontosaurus stampede; gruesome ordeal by giant insect; the gleeful destruction of most of Times Square; a flock of killer bats swooping; an attack by three rampant T Rexes which terminates amid swinging vines down the middle of a most inconvenient gorge.

More unexpectedly, King Kong also contains the most giddily romantic moment of the past 12 months: the great ape is escaping through Central Park with Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) in paw and the pursued couple slip, slide and glide on the frozen lake in a transporting parody of Astaire and Rogers on ice - an idyll interrupted by mortar fire.

Then again, King Kong's biggest shock is the most flagrantly racist scene of 2005: the crew of the Venture set foot on Skull Island and are immediately assaulted by the sort of savages once confined to Italian cannibal horror fare from the video-nasty 1970s. Chests are speared, throats cut and heads cracked in slow-motion, while ebony faces leer and cackle in nightmarish close-up. If my eyes aren't playing me false, insult is added to injury by the fact that many of the natives are actually white actors "blacked up", just as in the 1933 original.

You might blame the director. Or you could accuse the form. Movie epics demand iron control and yet, like a certain 25ft-tall primate, invariably get away from their would-be handlers. The genre calls for colossal effects and matching ego, and there was Jackson nova-hot from the Lord of the Rings trilogy shooting and shooting and shooting his three-hour long dream project until Universal had to inform the auteur that any further footage was coming from his own pocket.

Jackson's chequebook yielded $35m. One hopes not a cent of it went to financing Kong's first 70 minutes, during which the director embarrassingly attempts to render a cast of stock characters flesh and blood. Naomi Watts: starving actress. Adrien Brody: sensitive left-wing playwright in love with Watts. Thomas Kretschmann: Teutonic, terse ship's captain. Jamie Bell: sailor who quotes Conrad and tap-dances with Watts. Jackson has dwelled too long in Mordor. His monsters are absolutely real. It's his humans who come off computer-generated.

Except for Jack Black's movie director/producer Carl Denham. The stocky star is the stocky director's stand-in and voice piece. Kong remains set during the Great Depression but the subtext - defensively, I thought - is a satire on contemporary big-budget movie-making. Denham is both obsessive genius and huckster bastard. Seventeen people die horribly before the driven showman transports Kong from Skull Island to the island of Manhattan. For each fatality Denham undoubtedly delivers the same speech about the guy dying for what he believed in and giving the box-office proceeds of Kong's enslavement to his widow and children. In show-business terms, Denham - and Jackson - are right. The director has given us two-thirds of a majestic pop culture masterpiece and he's honest enough to hint how the true cost is something beyond $237m. He's saying that the "small" stuff - stuff like racism - is a distraction when talent is pathologically fixated on creating an ape who can laugh, roar, desire, joke and tumble poetically from atop the Empire State Building. The epic is slave to stunning image and crude impact. The big picture can make you blind. So blind indeed that this Kong springs from Denham's lunatic insistence on the adrenaline of authentic location filming, while being a blockbuster utterly impossible outside of a computer program and hermetically sealed studio environment. Epics can be ponderous but they can never be polite. Vulgarity is essential.

Try telling that to Disney. Kong is an untamed personal vision while The Chronicles of Narnia is grandiosity by committee. The studio so craves the Potter demographic that it hasn't clocked that a nice epic is a contradiction. How nice? Well, the priggish Pevensie family lead their army into battle in medieval costumes you know the cleaner has just run the iron over. After the ensuing clash, a magic potion helpfully raises the recently deceased.

The film is literally and figuratively bloodless. It takes Tilda Swinton's perennial perversity to subvert this impeccably flat adaptation of C S Lewis's Christian parables. When her witch stabs talking big cat and Jesus manque Aslan (Liam Neeson), a quick cut shows a clearly orgasmic face. Swinton sneaks in the malevolence every tale of good v evil needs, but why the furtiveness? Lewis's books are militant in a fashion extremists of every religion understand: light is enjoined to tear dark limb from limb.

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