“The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters” may be the best film about video games ever made.
OK, no, there aren’t that many films about video games, let alone ones based on games. The latter is among the most demonized genres in modern film (and with titles like “Resident Evil,” “Super Mario Bros.” and “Doom” in the canon, it’s not difficult to see why). Silliness and dubious artistic merit that dog the medium aside, many mainstream video games just don’t have good stories, and likewise don’t inspire the same on film. Magic plumbers fighting lizards may seem fun, and it is, but it’s not terribly dynamic.
But that’s the genius of “King of Kong”: It realizes there can be tension and drama in playing games. Sometimes the best stories come from the challenge of the game itself. People take high scores very seriously. Players want to beat the bad guy or complete the level. They want to save a beautiful, pixilated princess.
That’s Steve Wiebe’s goal. And that’s why he plays countless hours of “Donkey Kong.”
“The King of Kong,” a documentary from newcomer Seth Gordon, is an amusingly sensationalized look at the joystick joust between top tier “Donkey Kong” champion Billy Mitchell and hopeful contender Wiebe. Rich in ’80s nostalgia and mixed with underdog sports film gusto, this is “Rocky” for the digital age. And best of all, it has the advantage of being true.
Meet Billy Mitchell. To put it nicely, the man’s weird. The king of many games (“Burger Time,” “Pac-Man”), he’s been known round the underworld since the early 1980s. Billy is a champ. The owner of a successful chain of chicken restaurants, Billy has lived the last 25 years with pride. He constantly brags about his talents and the nature of his true success. He’s a celebrity in his own right. Oh, and he rocks a rad mullet and a wicked America tie. You know this guy: a macho asshole villain. But the ironic thing, not lost on the film, is that Billy is about as far from macho as this prototype comes – he’s a total video-game dweeb.
Billy has been the high scorer in “Donkey Kong” since 1982 and has gone unchallenged in his mastery of the game. That is, until family man Steve starts playing the game in 2005. A scrappy, loveable loser from Seattle, Steve has come close to success and crumbled in almost too many pursuits for one life. A once-great baseball and basketball player, musician and American dream-seeker, Steve’s been let down in a lot of things. He’s a consummate dabbler.
But when he feels compelled to master something, fate and almost too perfect planning bring Steve to an old “Donkey Kong” machine. He knows he can conquer this one game. Just to get a recognized high score would do wonders for self-esteem. And damn it, you’re really rooting for him to do it. It’s when he finally becomes recognized that the real fight begins, and “Kong” turns from typical documentary into a classic, over-the-top rivalry.
Gordon orchestrates the challenge with a refreshing command seldom seen in documentaries. With poppy effects, clever editing and humorous retro montages, “Kong” one-ups most docs in its ability to engage visually. Sure, the overall tone can seem too directed. Flashy Adobe after effects and simple characterizations may leave the audience wondering if there’s more to the story.
It doesn’t matter. This is well-dramatized non-fiction. When music from “The Karate Kid” plays, you laugh because it’s so ’80s, but you clench your fists because you hope Steve plays well, too. At the same time, the movie clearly doesn’t want to be taken too seriously – Gordon never forgets that it’s a short piece about two strange men fighting over “Donkey Kong” scores.
To see Steve’s video-recorded score being challenged is shocking to watch. To see Billy summon his lackeys to dismantle Steve’s machine and secretly watch him play is shocking. And to see Billy and Steve go head to head over “Kong” is wrought with an exhilaration most fiction films spend too much money on only to get wrong. “The King of Kong” is startlingly entertaining human drama – and the funniest thing is it all revolves around a 25-cent video game. All this over a high score and a chance to save a princess from a big, dumb ape.
The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
At the State Theater and Showcase