King Kong Lives (1986)

My World Of Flops is Nathan Rabin’s survey of books, television shows, musical releases, or other forms of entertainment that were financial flops, critical failures, or lack a substantial cult following.

On a 1977 episode of Saturday Night Live, John Belushi played Italian super-producer and schlock maestro Dino De Laurentiis promoting his latest movie opposite Dan Ackroyd’s Tom Snyder on The Tomorrow Show. The blockbuster in question is a big-budget remake of King Kong starring Jeff Bridges, Charles Grodin, and Jessica Lange in her film debut.

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When asked why the world needed another version of King Kong, Belushi’s De Laurentiis semi-famously insists, “When the Jaws die, nobody cry. When my Kong die, everybody cry,” an assertion he makes repeatedly with minor variations. According to Hollywood lore, De Laurentiis actually made a similarly bold assertion in real life about the waterworks that would inevitably ensue when his outsized ape bites it. But in a sense, it does not matter whether De Laurentiis actually promised universal weeping at the end of his King Kong. The anecdote feels too perfect to be true because it so vividly captures the shamelessness of the Italian trash icon’s exuberantly tacky, gauche sensibility.

The 1976 King Kong sure seems to conclude in the expected way, with King Kong paying a terrible price for his misbehavior and one-sided lust for Jessica Lange when he plummets off the World Trade Center to his apparent death. What little emotional weight the campy, aggressively stupid 1976 King Kong remake possessed came from the fatal fall that is this story’s inevitable conclusion. Kong has to pay the ultimate price for humanity’s sins for King Kong to be a tragedy. If the monkey doesn’t die, nobody cries.

Ten years later, De Laurentiis and his collaborators had a brainstorm that would allow them to continue the story in blatant defiance of common sense and God’s will. To paraphrase Eli Cash on Custer’s death in The Royal Tenenbaums: Everyone knows King Kong dies at the end of the movie. What King Kong Live presupposes is: maybe he didn’t?

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For a sleepy, timid little sequel, King Kong Lives begins audaciously. De Laurentiis and returning director John Guillermin open the movie with the climax of King Kong, complete with stock-footage cameos from Bridges and Lange and the same damn footage of Kong’s fall. It’s a total Roger Corman move: De Laurentiis cannibalizes the expensive, star-studded climax of an earlier hit so that he can piggy-back lazily and cynically on its A-list production values and big-name cast.

As an insultingly flimsy pretext for a sequel, King Kong Lives posits that King Kong didn’t die, but fell into a coma for a solid decade. Dr. Amy Franklin, a heroic monster doctor played by Linda Hamilton, attempts to rouse the big guy from his slumber via heart transplants. Where the 1933 and 2005 King Kong explored fantastical realms beyond human imagining where dinosaurs never went extinct but evolved in cool and fascinating and terrifying ways, King Kong Lives tries to generate an equivalent sense of excitement and mystery out of a slumbering giant ape lying perfectly still on the world’s largest surgery table.

There are many ways to shape and mold the raw materials of a King Kong movie. Only King Kong Lives is desperate enough to re-fashion the King Kong legend as a “surgery of the week” melodrama, with the patient being a giant ape who appears to be the sole surviving member of his species.

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Linda Hamilton is a fine actress and a badass icon thanks to her roles as Sarah Connor in some of the Terminator movies and her Beauty role in the television series Beauty & The Beast, but she’s terrible here. While in principal it’s progressive that King Kong Lives’ female lead is a brilliant scientist rather than the desperate ingenue of the 1933, 1976, and 2005 versions, Hamilton’s unfortunate perm and robotic delivery make her seem more like an alien or a cyborg than a brilliant analytic human mind.

Then again, Hamilton isn’t helped by a script that calls for her to deliver a line like “Sir! We are not lancing a hemorrhoid here. We’re replacing a heart!” without a hint of irony or humor. Her Dr. Franklin is frustrated that she can’t seem to wake Kong from his endless nap. Then she learns that Hank Mitchell (Brian Kerwin), an adventurer in the Indiana Jones/Allan Quartermaine mold, has discovered a lady version of Kong in the jungle and decides she’s his last, best chance for survival.

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Hank brings Lady Kong in for a successful blood transfusion/heart transplant, but the apes make a break for it. Lieutenant Colonel Archie Nevitt (John Ashton) is dispatched to hunt down the missing apes with the rest of the American military, as well as an unlikely collection moonshine-swilling, cousin-marrying, toothless-smile-sporting hillbillies. It’s less King Kong Versus Godzilla And Mothra than King Kong Versus Cousin Cletus, Josephus, And Other Cousin Cletus. The giant-monkey versus hillbilly skirmish takes up an astonishing amount of screen time and is so thoroughly, surreally misguided that the film almost comes full circle and becomes enjoyably ridiculous, with lines like, “I want that ape’s head on the back of my pick-up!”

King Kong has a size advantage over these puny southern gentlemen, but he also seems to have an intellectual advantage as well. These morons don’t seem to realize the danger the giant ape in their midst poses because he’s temporarily weighed down by rocks. They somehow can’t conceive of this giant beast freeing himself from rocks so he can enact swift vengeance on his dim-witted tormentors. King Kong even pops one of these hillbillies in his mouth like he was a human potato chip in a moment custom-made for GIF technology.

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After taking care of the hillbillies, King Kong frees Lady Kong from her prison and these two freakishly large monster apes make sweet, sweet ape love (off-camera, thank God), resulting in Lady Kong’s pregnancy and eventually the birth of their son, Baby Kong. King Kong Lives tries to make up in quantity what it lacks in quality when it comes to monkey business. Instead of one unforgettable ape, it gives us three—King Kong, Lady Kong, and Baby Kong—who collectively make very little impression.

King Kong Lives foolishly reimagines King Kong as a bland 1980s family man, as the movie ends with the birth of King Kong’s baby. It’s supposed to be a moment of ultimate triumph. Kong has spent two movies desperately trying to get laid, both within his species and out of it, before doing his part for the propagation of giant apes. Yet the moment feels sentimental and maudlin, a cynical attempt to set up a third entry focusing on the son of Kong (not unlike the 1933 sequel Son Of Kong), rather than an organic way to end the story.

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King Kong Lives is a terrible film, alternately boring and fascinatingly misguided. But it’s ragingly inessential more than anything else. King Kong’s 1976 remake filled commercial considerations and the public’s undying appetite for special-effects spectacles involving giant apes, beautiful ingenues, and freaky islands full of fantastical and terrifying creatures. Considering King Kong’s box-office success (it was the seventh top-grossing film of the year), a quickie sequel might have made sense. But waiting an entire decade to follow up the kind of movie everybody sees and very few people like feels willfully perverse.

Like its predecessor, King Kong Lives ends with what appears to be the death of Kong, although he is at least survived by Lady Kong and his son. But this time, it’s safe to assume that his death made nobody cry. Hell, even a half-hearted shrug would be an overreaction to the screamingly anti-climactic demise of an American icon.

Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Fiasco

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