The Reeler

Reviews

August 16, 2007

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

Irresistible characters and a classic trajectory ensure another surefire, nerd-doc hit

Already slated to be remade as a fiction feature, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters can be filed alongside Spellbound and Wordplay as a surefire nerd-doc hit. Taking on a lower-brow game, Kong follows the duel between two middle-class heroes attempting to earn the highest score in the arcade classic, Donkey Kong.

Shot and edited for maximum narrative impact, the film contrasts its two characters in the starkest terms possible. The champ, Billy Mitchell, is portrayed as a power-hungry prick who attempts to stay on top at any cost. The most famous video game player of all time (for what it’s worth), Mitchell appeared on the cover of LIFE magazine in 1982, and in 1999 was named the “Gamer of the Century” by the Tokyo Game Show. His main challenger, Steve Wiebe, is depicted as a hard luck loser. A white-collar striver and family man, he was laid off from his job at Boeing the day he signed the papers on his house, and recovered by starting a career as a high school science teacher. While Mitchell is shown bragging about his patriotic wardrobe and booming hot sauce business, Wiebe is sweating in his garage, playing Kong while raising his kids.

Gordon forces our sympathies so strongly towards Wiebe, it’s difficult not to feel manipulated -- or at least as if one was already watching the schlocky remake. Wiebe logs the majority of screen time (along with his wife and kids), while Mitchell is shown lurking in various corners, supported only by his tough-guy caricature of a father, who looks like a dried up Rod Steiger. But the more Mitchell speaks, the more cartoonishly megalomaniacal he seems; it soon becomes impossible to resist the film’s charms, which are derived almost exclusively from the characters surrounding the game.

Take Walter Day, for instance: Founder of Twin Galaxies, “the world authority on player rankings, gaming statistics and championship tournaments, with pinball statistics dating from the 1930s and video game statistics from the early 1970s.” A balding Iowan who practices transcendental meditation and pens folk songs, Day also dons referee garb to officiate arcade tournaments all over the U.S., a job he engages in without pay. As Mitchell is the face of Twin Galaxies, and of video gaming worldwide, his image needs to be tended to; when Wiebe comes out of the blue with shockingly high score numbers, he encounters fierce resistance from Day and Mitchell’s underlings.

One of those underlings is Robert Mruczek (#1 at Star Wars, with 300,007,894 points). Mruczek is the organization’s main judge, watching untold hours of game playing videos in order to determine whether records were achieved legally. In the course of his investigation, Mruczek charges into Wiebe’s house to take photos of the Kong machine in order to verify its integrity. As the story progresses, the film implies that Mitchell is some sort of conspiratorial cheating mastermind. He suspiciously refuses to play at live competitions (but receives reports of Wiebe‘s exploits from his lackeys), and Gordon hones in on an odd blurring effect on the video recordings Wiebe sends in of his record scores.

As the purity of Wiebe’s skillz gains him the respect of his fellow obsessives, it becomes clear that each member of their fraternity was simply closing ranks against an outsider. When he proves he belongs, The King of Kong's triumphal narrative trajectory is complete, and his fellow nerdy gamers welcome the newcomer with open, pasty arms.

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