Movie review in the Friday, Aug. 24 Oregonian...
So one of year's funniest movies -- and its most inspirational sports drama -- is a documentary. A documentary about two middle-aged guys who are really, really good at Donkey Kong.
(That's right, Donkey Kong -- the '80s coin-op arcade game with the monkey and the ladders and the barrels and the little Italian guy with the 'stache and the hammer.)
"The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters" is shamelessly manipulative and wildly entertaining. It had me simultaneously laughing at and rooting for a group of spectacular nerds obsessed with something society deems unimportant. And by film's end, director Seth Gordon had persuaded me that this unimportant something was a valid sport with its own hard-to-master skillset and hall of champions.
Gordon starts out by introducing us to the insular world of elite vintage arcade-game masters -- specifically, to Billy Mitchell (pictured above), the self-styled "best classic arcade player of all time." Like many of the people we meet in "King of Kong," Mitchell has a personality so outlandish, the fact that Hollywood is thinking of adapting Gordon's doc into a feature film seems redundant.
There's no doubt that Mitchell is a stunning talent. In 1999, he played a literally flawless game of Pac-Man, and his 1982 Donkey Kong score of 874,300 stood for decades. But Mitchell is also possessed of a competitive ego as vast as his flowing mane. He wears patriotic ties and uses the high-score initials "USA" and has his own line of hot sauce and is prone to trash-talking like Clubber Lang and comparing himself to Helen of Troy. And he's worshipped by the self-appointed referees who run Twin Galaxies, keepers of the world's highest video-game scores.
And then a newbie crashes the party, and all hell breaks loose.
Steve Wiebe (above, right) is an easygoing seventh-grade science teacher in Redmond, WA and a perpetual runner-up in life. He's choked on the pitcher's mound, gone nowhere with his garage band, and was laid off from Boeing the day he signed the papers on his house. But then he has the audacity to not just break but smash Mitchell's Donkey Kong record in his garage, scoring over 1 million points. (The videotape of Wiebe doing this as his toddler son screams at him is priceless.)
But when Wiebe submits his record to Twin Galaxies and unbalances the apple-cart of Billy Mitchell worship, it sets in motion a chain of subterfuge and one-upsmanship and ego-popping too juicy and hilarious and rock-concert exciting to spoil here. It involves accusations of game-motherboard sabotage, travel to and confrontations with critics, curious rule-bending, and at least one lackey who is basically the Mr. Smithers to Mitchell's Mr. Burns.
Grown men cry. A wife becomes a fan. A person calling himself "Mr. Awesome" urges Wiebe not to "chumpatize" himself. And there are detailed explanations (with graphs!) of how Wiebe and Mitchell just absolutely rock Donkey Kong all the way to its legendary "kill screen."
I do want to note, again, that "King of Kong" is manipulative as heck. We get to know Wiebe and his family fairly well, but only see Mitchell's public persona, which would make Tony Robbins blush. There are even "training montages" set to '80s sports-movie schlock classics like "Eye of the Tiger" and "You're the Best." Mitchell is making a big stink about how he's portrayed as the villain of the piece, and he may have a point. It's also worth noting that the Mitchell-Wiebe rivalry has reversed itself once or twice since the doc stopped shooting, with no end in sight.
But none of that makes "King of Kong" any less moving or inspiring. By film's end, you're out of your seat -- realizing with perverse joy that this trivial pursuit has escalated to "Thrilla in Manila" levels of ferocity and drama. It's "Over the Top" via Nintendo, and it is stunning to behold.
B-plus; 79 minutes; rated PG-13 for a brief sexual reference.
‘The King of Kong’ (The Oregonian, Aug. 24, 2007)