Monday, September 10, 2007
An engrossing and funny documentary about a subject most people could care less about, "The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters" (***1/2) covers the intense rivalry between two giants of the classic arcade game community. It may not have real crowns and scepters, but the battle between Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe has its Shakespearean moments. Shifting allegiances. High-stakes secrets. Unchecked ambition. Woeful vanity. Thrilling duels. Devious henchmen. Desperate men chasing ghosts from the past. The overthrow of a King.
It's not Shakespeare's "Hamlet," but a new documentary entitled "The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters" that follows the David and Goliath of a strange little subculture known as the classic video gaming industry.
Actually, I'm not sure that it is much of an industryÂneither its competitors nor referees are financially rewarded for their participation. In fact, one of the most bizarre elements of this movie is how few people show up at these tiny tournaments held in nondescript gaming shacks in Iowa and Florida. The classic gaming community's desire to be recognized is as strong as their desire to best each other in the most outdated video games around.
What these uniquely American gladiators get instead is the recognition of being the absolute best at something. For recently laid-off suburban dad Steve Wiebe, chasing the world record high score at Donkey Kong is a chance to prove himself. Life has thrown the man its share of flaming balls and barrels to hurdle, and he has yet to truly realize a satisfying goal or dream.
King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters *** 1/2
A gripping yarn, an edge-of-your-seat thriller, as well as a mocking insider's view. While it might be about the world Donkey Kong record-who claims to have it, who wants it and what the first guy will do to keep it-it's really about life, character and how we think of ourselves.
Standing in his way is renowned Gamer of the Century Billy Mitchell, now a restaurant entrepreneur and hot sauce maven. Mitchell has held the high score since 1982, and has a few tricks up his sleeve on how to stay on top. Like Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in "Heat," Billy and Steve only have one scene together, but the moment shared between the Kong guerillas is fraught with twice as much tension.
Director Seth Gordon combines revealing interviews and archival footage with a strong grasp of storytelling that is perfect for this quasi-ridiculous subject matter. In addition to inheriting a colorful cast of supporting characters that would seem too outrageous in a fictional film, he had the foresight (or luck?) to have his camera when the most captivating drama was unfolding.
Often times people forget that documentaries show the truth that the filmmaker has chosen to show. The straightforward and efficient narrative Gordon has created positions Steve as a "Rocky"-type underdog (even using "Eye of the Tiger"!) with an enviable home life. Billy emerges as the insecure champion who demands loyalty and will go to any lengths to discredit his challenger.
The biggest strength of "The King of Kong" is also its only discernable weakness. By concentrating almost exclusively on the storyline of the two men, much of the surrounding classic arcade culture not directly tied to them is left as one big fascinating gray area. How could the film introduce someone with a disputed high score on Missle Command who calls himself Mr. Awesome in his how-to-get-a-date videos and not go into any further detail about him?
Scoff at the subject matter all you want, these developmentally challenged adults take the "sport" dead seriously. Gordon lets us into their need for accomplishment so we can too. This may take place in the insular world of men who spend too much time in front of dimly-lit video screens, but that does not make this very un-Homeric struggle for glory any less engaging. You certainly don't need to know a joystick from a track ball or "Joust" from "Frogger" to enjoy "The King of Kong."