REVIEW: The King Of Kong (Gordon, 2007)
In 1982 Billy Mitchell, then a geeky teenager, set the world record in Donkey Kong. The record stood for 23 years. To fully appreciate this fact and to lay the groundwork for The King Of Kong, a charming documentary worthy of praise, three things ought to be emphasized:
1) Donkey Kong was released in 1981, so Mitchell set the world record only one year after the game was on the market.
2) The people who play these games competitively personify devotion. They are geeky in exactly the ways you’d imagine. They do things like take detailed notes on the games, figuring out patterns that can be gleaned only after years of serious playing, all so that they can increase their high scores a few more points.
3) Donkey Kong is considered the Mount Everest of gaming. The average games lasts less than a minute. Only three people have ever ‘beaten’ it. And anyone who’s taken an interest in competitive gaming has tried to take down Mitchell’s record. Mitchell’s initial record withstood an onslaught of such proportions you’d need a protractor, compass, and flux capacitor to even begin to grasp the enormity.
Any film documenting the extremes of obsession will undoubtedly feature a curious ensemble of characters. The King Of Kong is no different and Mitchell is a prime example. Mitchell is the reigning king of the video game world — a honorific that comes with fawning attention on and cult-like allegiance from the population of Dorkdom. One serf says, in all seriousness, that Billy is “the closest to being a Jedi of any one of the players.” Years of such lavish praise has imbued Mitchell with a nerdy bravado rivaling the harshest clichés imaginable. This makes him a compelling character, but then add to that his personal appearance — long, flowing black hair blow dried to perfection; closely cropped beard; proclivity for wearing USA-themed ties with mismatching shirts — and you have yourself the perfect villain.
Contract Mitchell with Steve Wiebe, who plays the likable foil. A family man of many talents, none of which he’s ever excelled at, Wiebe is the man striving to take down Mitchell’s record. He exists outside of the competitive gaming world. For instance, he doesn’t live in a cabin or with his parents. Also: He has a wife and children, the youngest of whom, a daughter of about seven, speaks the most insightful line in the film while Wiebe is attempting to set the new record, saying, “Some people sort of ruin their lives to get in [the record books].” To which Wiebe doesn’t really have a response.
This might be the only moment of critical distance in the film. But diving into this world full bore is one of the pleasures of The King Of Kong. Who would’ve thought that it could be so fun? Death threats! Scandals! Mustaches! Haunched shoulders! Complete disregard for personal appearance other than the video game-themed tee shirt! The King Of Kong overflows with a liveliness unexpected in a film about people whose sole pursuit requires a stoicism of the sort you’d expect from a deeply focused mathematician. And then you have Wiebe, a guy who living outside of the video game anti-establishment who might be the best Donkey Kong player of all time, who is interesting precisely because he’s boring in a way the regular video game obsessives aren’t.
In many ways the The King Of Kong is your typical underdog/outsider story. Hell, the theme songs from the Karate Kid and Rocky play over stirring montages that will actually make you care about things like kill screens and and platforms and fireballs — even if the idea of being emotionally invested in adults playing old arcade games sounds unlikely. Trust me here. You’ll care. You’ll be involved (and not just because the music will manipulate you into feeling). And while The King Of Kong easily fits the contours of its genre there are a number of twists that come as a surprise, all of which you’d be hard pressed to script and each of which help make the film a pleasantly enjoyable documentary.