Monday, February 18, 2008

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)

In the best of many great sequences in Seth Gordon’s The King Of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, nobody middle-school science teacher Steve Wiebe walks into a FunSpot arcade during a video game convention and breaks Billy Mitchell’s long-standing Donkey Kong record. While a seemingly inconsequential feat, at this point in the film Gordon has so engaged the audience with Wiebe’s miniature quest for glory that as he surpasses the million-point mark we are just as excited and astonished as the crowd of geeky arcade game aficionados that have gathered around him. Herein lies the charm of the The King of Kong, an ingenious documentary that ostensibly focuses on video game culture but is at its heart a surprisingly touching character study about the universal need for excellence and recognition in life-- no matter how odd or obscure the particular field may be.

The film follows the competition between everyman Wiebe and Billy Mitchell, a restaurateur and minor celebrity in the world of gaming (he lives in Hollywood...Florida) whose record has stood untouched for more than twenty years. Both men are masters of the classic arcade game Donkey Kong, often recognized as one of the most frustratingly difficult games ever made, and the film documents them as they continually break one another’s high scores in a contest to get into the Guinness Book of World Records.

Part of why the film is so effective is due to its rich characterizations of the denizens of the world of video games, particularly polar opposites Wiebe and Mitchell. A soft-spoken family man from Washington, Wiebe has failed at nearly everything he’s tried in life (he mastered Kong after being laid off from his job), from High School baseball to the business world, while Mitchell, the mulleted champion who smugly jokes that he “oughta try losing sometime,” has basked in the glow of his gaming prowess since the early eighties and stands as a demigod of nerd-dom. In addition to this perfectly-realized duo, we also meet a hilarious and often absurd collection of peripheral players that includes Walter Day, the warm-hearted proctor of video game records (and a dead ringer for Charlie Manson), an octogenarian Q-bert champion, and Mitchell’s smarmy sidekick Brian Kuh, who frequently sneaks away to update his idol on Wiebe’s progress throughout the competitions. As Wiebe challenges his record, Mitchell, comfortable in his place at the top of the gaming heap, repeatedly uses his status in the culture to subvert his rival’s efforts, from invalidating Wiebe’s scores to questionably reclaiming the Donkey Kong record via video tape.

The King of Kong wisely lets its subjects speak for themselves-- Gordon isn’t patronizing them or using them as the butt of jokes-- and the result is that the audience becomes very much invested in Wiebe’s struggle against the video game establishment, which ultimately rises to the level of a Hurculean task. As the filmmakers show interviews with his friends and his confused but supportive wife, it becomes apparent that Wiebe needs this record as much as star athletes need a Super Bowl ring or the Stanley Cup, and we are surprised to find that we are rooting for him as though the stakes were that high. And perhaps for him they are, since when all is said and done, The King of Kong is about the elemental quest for self worth and achievement, the need of every man to prove himself at something, even video games.

The King of Kong is as much an inspirational sports story as it is anything--with Mitchell the established champion and Wiebe the plucky underdog a la Rocky-- and one could only wish that all sports films were this gripping. With this in mind, it’s no surprise that Gordon is now remaking The King of Kong as a fiction film, but I have trouble seeing the need. This true story is so perfect, the struggle at its center so compelling, and its characters so rich, that I can’t imagine it being written any better.

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