Film Reviews

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

This is a mockumentary, right?" I've been asked that question at least a dozen times since The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters made its bow at the Slamdance Film Festival in January. Quite simply, some folks just don't believe that Seth Gordon's film about two men vying for the title of World's Greatest Donkey Kong Player could be a true story. It's too perfect: the arrogant mullet pitted against the sad dad in a contest adjudicated by self-appointed refs who look like they woke up in a car. Who gets the writing credit? C'mon.

No way this is a documentary. No way could anyone swagger like Billy Mitchell, who talks about himself in the third person while wearing the gaming crown for 25 years on a head of hair that screams, "Party in the back, bitches!" No way Steve Wiebe really told his crying kid to waitaminute, waitaminute while attempting to ascend Mount Dorkus. But, yeah, it's all true — every magical, exhilarating, infuriating, dumbfounding, jaw-dropping second of Gordon's miniature masterpiece, which got a pass from the Sundance Film Festival on its way to becoming one of the year's best movies.

Ostensibly about Mitchell, who began his reign as Donkey Kong world champ in 1982, King of Kong is as much about the perils of hubris and the price of heartbreak; like the trailer says, it's about a loser who wants to be a winner and a winner "who refuses to lose" and comes off looking like an ass. Since Mitchell became champ as a kid, piling up nearly 900,000 points on the arcade machine, no one's come within 300,000 points of his record. He has spent the last two decades growing a chicken-wing sauce business, primping his hair and pimping his fame as the so-called "Videogame Player of the Century," under the banner of Twin Galaxies — the "official" scorekeeping franchise for all arcade world records, for which Mitchell's also a judge.

Only one man emerges to challenge Mitchell: Redmond, Washington middle-school science teacher Steve Wiebe (pronounced "Wee-bee"), a husband and father of two whose life thus far has been defined by his failures — missing The Big Game in high school, losing The Big Job his father once held, disappointing his family. "He's just come up short in a lot of things in his life," says his tolerant and forgiving wife, Nicole, "and nobody wants to do that all the time." Wiebe has only this going for him: his high-school sweetheart, a Donkey Kong machine in the basement and the ability to figure out how to beat every flaming barrel Kong throws his way.

By 2003, the challenger becomes champion: Wiebe unseats Mitchell, for whom losing is unfathomable and unacceptable, to the point where Mitchell and his Twin Galaxies cronies essentially conspire to disallow Wiebe's million-point mark. "Competitive gaming — when you want to attach your name to a world record, when you want your name written into history — you have to pay the price," Mitchell says, and he and his posse make sure Wiebe gets no discount.

How they screw Wiebe, and to what level they're willing to stoop — that's at the heart of The King of Kong, which would play like dark comedy were there not such honest-to-God cruelty at its core. Wiebe alleges that Mitchell and his Twin Galaxies gang broke into Wiebe's house to scope out his Donkey Kong machine, which they claim had been tampered with to allow for a higher score than Mitchell's. And there's a deliciously tense moment when Wiebe flies to a classic-game emporium not far from Mitchell's home in Florida. There, they could settle the matter once and for all, but Mitchell declines to play Wiebe — declines to even acknowledge his existence, as he and his girlfriend stroll past the visitor as though he's the invisible man.

Mitchell comes off as thoroughly unlikable, a small-timer who fulfills the role of big-screen villain with remarkably little effort. But in recent weeks, Mitchell has begun rejecting the role; he told MTV News in May that not only did he not try to keep Wiebe's record from being recognized, but that he actually wrote articles celebrating his achievement. He also denies trying to dodge Wiebe in Florida, insisting he hadn't played the game in almost a year and that a face-off at that moment would have been inconceivable.

No doubt Gordon has streamlined a complicated narrative; there's enough back-and-forth on the Web at this very moment to merit a book about this epic, hilarious and often heartbreaking battle over a nostalgic childhood diversion. But there's no disputing the grace and charm of the filmmaking, illustrated in a scene during which Wiebe marks up the game's screen with a grease pencil to diagram the bounces of the barrels. Wiebe provides the pounding sound track — bashing out a drum solo on his five-year-old son's kit — as the director begins illustrating everything with the pencil's white lines: the arc of a free throw, the trajectory of a fastball, the rat-a-tat of the drumsticks. And it's absolutely thrilling, this scene and this story about two men trying to get to a girl held captive by an ape stuck in a video game machine.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky