Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

Posted By on Wed, Sep 19, 2007 at 12:00 AM

Billy Mitchell is a cowardly dick. With his well-coifed mullet, black dress shirts and jingoistic neckties, he's every self-satisfied bastard you've ever wanted to sucker punch.

He's also a great movie villain. Whether he's comparing a video game controversy to the abortion debate, bragging about his "USA" gaming initials or delivering smug platitudes about being a "never surrender" winner, this Florida hot sauce mogul is exactly the kind of guy you're dying to see knocked down a peg.

But arrogant Mitchell's no fool. Devious and successful, he's turned 15 minutes of fame — he was featured as the ultimate video game champion in a 1982 issue of Life magazine — into minor celebrity. For 20-plus years his score at Donkey Kong (and Donkey Kong Jr.) went unchallenged and — in the world of video game geeks — he was God.

Then there's Steve Wiebe; the gee-shucks, straight-laced family man who can't seem to get a break. Laid off from his Boeing job the day he signed on his new house, he's the kind of guy used to coming in second. Unemployed and looking for a distraction, he decides to go for the world record score on a vintage Donkey Kong arcade game. With the benefit of fantastic hand-eye coordination and a healthy dose of OCD, that modest goal seems not only possible but probable.

And so the stage is set for the battle of the century. Don't believe it? I defy you to find a sports film from the last year that matches the competitive twists and thrills in Seth Gordon's King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.

At first glance this terrific doc could almost be a Christopher Guest parody. Filled with oddball supporting characters and hypercompetitive geeks, Kong reveals the ridiculously serious and highly arcane world of vintage arcade gamers. There are self-important egotists, sycophantic toadies, a guy named Mister Awesome and a pasty-skinned referee who — no shit — enthusiastically spends hours upon hours each day watching videotaped games entries for free. You can't blame Gordon for indulging in a bit of snark as one misfit after another delivers an absurdly earnest pronouncement about the importance of what they do. But just when you think it's all fun and games, Kong spirals away from its simple conceit to reveal something profound about the nature of competition and the role of hope, integrity and pride.

Much to his surprise, guileless Steve Wiebe discovers that claiming the mantle of champion is rarely as simple as getting the highest score. Personal vendettas, Machiavellian scheming and a casually corrupt system stand in Steve's way, and — as Leonard Cohen sings in the movie's winning soundtrack — "everybody knows that the dice are loaded."

Gordon transcends his technical limitations — the production values are low-rent — to deliver a documentary that is as fascinating and emotionally satisfying as anything Ken Burns or Michael Moore has recently produced (maybe more so). That's a bold statement for an inherently trivial topic, but Kong uses competitive video gaming as a canny metaphor for how the bigger world operates. More than a story about two archetypal foes, it's a treatise on how winning and losing shape a person's character.

And not just for the competitors. Take Walter Day, the most intriguing player in the Donkey Kong drama. Founder of Twin Galaxies, the official scorekeepers for video game world records, he is a T-M practicing, folk singing Iowan who acts as his tribe's affable leader. Clearly blinded by his longtime association with alpha-male Billy Mitchell, Day has trouble accepting outsider Weibe as champion — no matter how convincing the evidence. As controversies and conspiracies swirl, he struggles to reconcile the inherent decency of the challenger to the throne with the craven behavior of its current king.

If Kong makes anything clear it's that there are two kinds of people in the world — not winners and losers, but assholes and nice guys. And as anyone will tell you, nice guys finish last. Or do they? It's to Seth Gordon's considerable credit that he keeps you guessing until the final minutes of this weird and wonderful little film. See it before Hollywood releases the star-studded version (which is currently in the works).

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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