King of Kong, The (United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

In this era, it comes a something of a surprise that a documentary might exist that isn't about a big issue: the war in Iraq, global warming, U.S. politics, terrorists, the state of the American health care system, the morality of abortion, and so on… The King of Kong isn't about any of these things. In fact, on the profundity scale, it aims toward the ground. At the core of this movie are video games. Not the kind you might play if you fired up a PS3 or Wii instead of reading this review. These are old school, hardcore games - the kind the provide the perfect defense to Roger Ebert's no-art argument.

As is suggested by the title, the game that gets the most play (literally and figuratively) is Donkey Kong. As a kid, I didn't play Donkey Kong very often. My exposure was limited to an occasional game at a machine in the front of a local supermarket. Frankly, it was too hard to stay alive for more than a few boards and, as a result, the game ate up quarters at an alarming rate. (Avowed trigger-happy xenophobe that I was, Space Invaders was more my speed). This is something mentioned more than once during the course of The King of Kong: Donkey Kong was the hardest of those early arcade games, and that made it all the more impressive to own the world's highest score.

For 23 years, the record was held by Billy Mitchell, a titan in the video game world. Billy doesn't play games for fun. He plays them to get high scores. A charismatic self-promoter, Billy talks a good game but his actions don't match up. Until I sat down to watch this movie, I had never heard of this guy, which would probably be a blow to his ego. He seems to think everyone should recognize his name. If he wasn't so young, he could be added to the list of candidates for the inspiration of Carly Simon's "You're So Vain."

In 2005, an out-of-work Washingtonian by the name of Steve Wiebe found that he had too much time on his hand, so he did what any self-respecting unemployed husband and father would do: broke Mitchell's Donkey Kong record. (To be fair to Steve, who comes across as a really good guy, he also went back to college, got a master's degree, then was hired as a teacher at a local elementary school.) The guys who decide which records are valid - particularly a man named Walter Day - wouldn't accept Steve's record. Walter and Billy claimed that for it to be valid, it had to be performed in public. Steve accepted the challenge. Thus began a series of strategies, deceptions, ploys, and avoidances worthy of the CIA. The idea was to get Steve and Billy together for a one-on-one competition. At least that was Steve and Walter's idea. It apparently wasn't Billy's.

There's a strong sports story element to The King of Kong: likable underdog goes up against grizzled veteran. Steve looks the part of Rocky and it would be hard to find a more perfect villain than Billy. With his piercing gaze and almost Satanic looks, it's impossible to see him as anything less than bad to the bone. It's conceivable that director Seth Gordon wasn't even-handed in his portrayal of Billy, but the man doesn't do or say much that would indicate he's just misunderstood.

Ultimately, The King of Kong is lightweight and superficial, but still good fun. I don't much care who holds the world record for the highest Donkey Kong score, but watching the effort and energy expended by those who do care makes it seem like a high-stakes endeavor. The film is a little lean when it comes to setting the stage - more time could have been devoted to explaining the early-'80s video culture. It's assumed everyone watching the movie attends with this information already in their back pocket. Also, some of the secondary characters get a little too much screen time. I'm sure Gordon found Walter to be a colorful and interesting individual, but a little of him goes a long way. I would have liked more of Steve and Billy (although I suspect Gordon used every last snippet of footage he shot of the latter).

Two additional movies have been mentioned. One, which is already in pre-production, is a narrative re-make of The King of Kong with at least one A-list actor rumored to be involved. The other is a possible documentary sequel detailing "what happens next." While Gordon chose to end The King of Kong on a high note, a little perusing of the Internet will reveal that the movie's coda is just another chapter in the ongoing struggle, and not the final one. This is one story, however, where a definitive conclusion isn't necessary to appreciating all the precedes it.

King of Kong, The (United States, 2007)

Director: Seth Gordon
Cast: Steve Wiebe, Billy Mitchell, Walter Day, Brian Kuh, Robert Mruczek, Steve Sanders
Screenplay: Seth Gordon
Cinematography: Seth Gordon
Music: Craig Richey
U.S. Distributor: Picturehouse
Run Time: 1:19
U.S. Release Date: 2007-08-26
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Mature Themes)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1