Monday, February 18, 2008
TBG Reviews: The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
The ol' Netflix queue has become top-heavy with documentaries and an exceptionally fascinating one arrived in my mailbox over the weekend.
The King of Kong tells the tale of two men (Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe) and their respective attempts to defend and challenge for the title of "Donkey Kong World Champion". Of course, most of you are already making the same mistake Mrs. Bootleg made after catching two minutes of the movie from the corner of her eye – "They made a documentary about a video game?!"
The decades-old arcade game is merely the backdrop for this extended peek into the frighteningly insular world of two men who are obsessed with each other, while completely oblivious to how awesome their lives already are. Wiebe is a respected 7th grade science teacher, with an inexplicably understanding wife and two great kids. The mulleted Mitchell is a restaurateur and chicken wing sauce magnate, whose wife has huge porn star boobs. Why do these guys need video games?
The answer is a lot more complicated than you might think.
Mitchell, the reigning champion, revels in his ersatz stardom and rules his Donkey Kong kingdom with an aluminum-sided trailer park fist. The overt reverence that other old school gamers (and his parents!) hold for him is unquestionably pathetic, but there's never a sense that anyone realizes how absurd it all looks, which, believe it or not, is a big part of the movie's charm.
Wiebe is probably the more "normal" of the two, but his quiet, everyman aura belies an insanely obsessive need to beat Mitchell. Wiebe ups and flies off to gaming tournaments on the other side of the country at regular intervals, all the while trying to rationalize away his addiction with the same words heard from those who favor booze n' drugs. (In fact the movie's best line comes from Wiebe's young daughter, who casually mentions how often people "ruin their lives" to get into the Guinness Book of World Records).
Wiebe's sad-sack Wile E. Coyote chases Mitchell the Road Runner throughout the movie. At one point, Wiebe appears to have wrestled away the championship, only to be foiled on a technicality that could ONLY happen in a world inhabited by omnipotent, self-appointed commissioners and referees. In fact, the question of whether Wiebe and Mitchell will ever meet in an 8-bit mano a mano builds to the movie's somewhat anticlimactic conclusion.
Still, the ride to the end is helluva lot more fun that it had any right to be. Personally, I was mildly disappointed that the ending of the actual movie required not one, but two postscripts (the first in the form of on-screen text, the second as part of the DVDs "special features"), but I still didn't mind the 80-minute investment of time.
Must-see viewing for anyone who remembers the arcade craze of the early '80s. For the rest of you, it's easily worth a rental.