Joystiq review: The King of Kong (film)

billy mitchell
Truth is stranger than fiction. And while it needs to be threaded by a capable hand, even Donkey Kong can be woven into a compelling canvas that examines the comically-profound idiosyncrasies that drive human competition. The King of Kong, director Seth Gordon's first feature, is a remarkable film that documents the little-seen niche of competitive gaming, as waged on '80s-era, coin-op arcade machines.

"That ape is very, very cunning, and he will do what he needs to, to stop you," warns a Funspot regular, squeezed into a t-shirt emblazoned with a geeky kung fu joke. The same could be said of Billy Mitchell, the film's antagonist, a blown-dry Machismo americanus and heir to the Rickey's World Famous [Hot] Sauce empire. Mitchell (above), whose 3-letter high score handle (typically one's initials) is U-S-A (notice the Liberty tie?), is stiff and threatening, at least to the mild-mannered circle he maintains a firm grip on. He regards his "Video Game Player of the [20th] Century" title as a symbol of patriotic heroism. Speaking of symbols, Mitchell's wife's cleavage is paraded on screen like a tangible manifestation of his ballooned ego, which is predictably deflated by Gordon's touching narrative of the first true challenger of the Donkey Kong high score; a score set by Mitchell more than two decades ago.

Our hero, Steve Wiebe (below), is portrayed as a man prone to self-defeat and desperate for his first victory. "I always thought he was a little autistic," remarks Wiebe's mother, who later reads aloud the words "Donkey Kong," as they're dribbled atop a celebration cake, with uncertainty. Wiebe (pronounced wee-bee) is just a nice guy, and a loser; the one who's laid off the day he signs papers for the purchase of his family's suburban Washington home, later to become a "weird" middle school science teacher with squandered gifts in athletics and music. Everyone can sense the danger in him risking the last bits of his unbroken psyche on an impossible high score attempt -- and in not succeeding. People have ruined their lives over such pursuits, observes Wiebe's grade school-aged daughter in a moment of backseat wisdom.
steve wiebe
The rest of the cast, which seems cribbed from an unpublished Christopher Guest script, is stocked with characters who appear as caricatures of themselves -- absurdities, seemingly drawn from our imaginations of who these characters should be. There's Walter Day, the founder and chief referee of Twin Galaxies, the preeminent score-keeping authority, an out-there Transcendental Meditation practitioner who seems to maintain a higher sense of being separate from the role he 'plays' for his community of diehard competitors; and sidekick (now retired) Robert Mruczek, who must scrutinize the details of every high score entry sent to Twin Galaxies through his thick, buggy glasses, including the seized innards of Wiebe's arcade cabinet. And of course, there is Brian Kuh, the self-described protégé of Micthell. Kuh likely imagines himself the Padawan to "Jedi" Mitchell (as peers describe the champ), but he's really just a fragile pawn, visibly crushed when he doesn't become the second person ever to reach a Donkey Kong KILL SCREEN. Finally, there's Roy Shildt (aka Mr. Awesome), Wiebe's by-default life coach (or at least patron) who claims to have talked Wiebe out of "chumpatizing" himself and into accepting a challenge to attempt a live high score in order to exact revenge upon Mitchell, who happens to be Shildt's long-time nemesis and alleged inhibitor of Shildt's unsanctioned Missile Command score. Uh-huh, these are real people.

The drama unfolds much like other high-energy sporting events do on film. There are moments of pure elation, only to be burst by teary anguish. Sweat and tears -- but no blood. At one point the Mitchell-Wiebe showdown is likened to the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry, and then to: "Heckle and Jeckle." The baseball analogy perhaps fits better (though Wiebe and Mitchell lack great history) than the innocently muffed "Jekyll and Hyde" reference, but it is true that Wiebe and Mitchell are two very different men fixated on the same goal.

I brought my player-hating better-half along to this well-hyped face-off, hoping to transform her perception of video gaming -- still fearing that this world and its characters would continue to appear alien, and boring. But, much to our surprise, Gordon has effortlessly recorded an inspiring story of fruition; at least, that's how the final product, shot with HD Cam, smoothly plays out over a breezy 80 minutes (a sign of a promising filmmaking career to come). That Donkey Kong is the primary plot device is almost trivial. The game and its surroundings add color, sure, but they do little to alter what is ultimately a universal tale of humanity, one that's told endlessly and affectionately to charmed audiences.

"The King of Kong" releases nationwide August 17, 2007. A feature remake (based on the documentary) is also in the works. [See also: SXSW Review: The King of Kong]

This article was originally published on Joystiq.