A western in which the weapons of choice are arcade games rather than firearms and the final shootout doesn’t even come off might seem a hard sell, but though that’s essentially what Seth Gordon’s picture is, it’s compulsively watchable and enormous fun while even saying something a little profound about obsession and Machiavellian manipulation. “The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters” (with the subtitle added after its festival triumphs for national release) is yet another demonstration that we’re living in a golden age of documentaries.
The Kong of the title is Donkey Kong, the video game of the 1980s that might seem more than a bit primitive to those addicted to today’s advanced software but is still revered—and played (as are other arcade machines of the period)—by a small group by devotees, who, under the watchful eye of a bunch of referees led by Walter Day, a bearded Iowan and founder of the umbrella organization Twin Galaxies, promote tournaments and judge claims of high scores. The whole operation, we’re told, goes back to a first tourney held in Ottumwa in 1982, where a young guy named Billy Mitchell clobbered the self-proclaimed DK champ, Steve Sanders, who was so humiliated by the defeat that he admitted he’d lied about his claimed scores. The reformed Sanders became Mitchell’s right-hand man as the newly-recognized champ grew into the movement’s poster boy and chief promoter.
Nearly a quarter century later, however, Mitchell, coming across as an arrogant and grimly confident guy who owns a rib joint and hot-sauce distribution outfit in Florida, finds his score challenged by an outsider—a Washington State fellow named Steve Wiebe. Wiebe’s Mitchell’s opposite—a likable, laid-back science teacher, husband and father who taught himself the game in his garage on a machine he’d bought and taped himself breaking Mitchell’s record on it. “The King of Kong” is about Wiebe’s crusade to get himself recognized as the new champ while Mitchell (aided by an ostensibly even-handed Sanders) works to undermine his efforts. The picture also questions whether the entire Twin Galaxies operation might not be conspiring to discredit Wiebe’s claim in order to keep the movement’s poster boy on top, first by demanding that Wiebe prove his mastery in public on a Twin Galaxies machine and then by accepting a video tape from Mitchell showing him besting Wiebe’s score in spite of doubts about such recorded evidence previously voiced by Mitchell himself. (Their suspicions about Wiebe are accentuated by the revelation that he’s been in touch with an old rival of Mitchell’s who has ambitions of his own.)
What makes the movie so enjoyable isn’t just the story—with its white-hat, black-hat protagonists—but the wonderfully weird milieu in which it’s set. The gang at Twin Galaxies, not least Day (who fancies himself a singer and offers an impromptu performance on the grass beside his barn) but also detail-obsessed referee Robert Mruczek and geeky, anxious-to-please gofer Brian Kuh, are charming oddballs, and the hangers-on and enthusiasts we glimpse in their vicinity add to the almost suffocatingly closed ambiance. Mitchell, with his piercing eyes and superior air, is almost a cartoon villain, and though the soft-spoken, mild-mannered Wiebe, with his supportive but combative wife and precocious kids (little son Derek interrupts one game at a critical moment with a demand for bathroom assistance from his dad), is far more likable, he’s not exactly normal either—no one who devotes himself so extravagantly to pursuing the top score in an old arcade game can be called ordinary. Glimpses of the memorable friends and family of both men only add to the colorful background.
It wouldn’t be fair to reveal all the twists that Wiebe’s pursuit of recognition and Mitchell’s counter-punches take; suffice it to say that Gordon’s movie is funny, poignant, surprising and satisfying from beginning to end, with some great shots even during the final credits (don’t leave early). Technically it’s pretty commonplace, but in terms of content—including the great selection of songs chosen to comment on the narrative (ues, even “Eye of the Tiger”—“The King of Kong,” like some of the players it showcases, earns a nearly perfect score. No wonder they call it a joystick.