September 21, 2007

REVIEW: The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (A)

Background: Clearly, documentaries have exploded in Hollywood to the point where several are released each week, when years ago it may have been one a month. Filmmakers are following animals, soldiers, spelling bee contestants, athletes, and pretty much anything else that moves. And I've enjoyed all of them! But, I must admit I scoffed when I first heard about this - Donkey Kong? Really? Where will it end? Believe it or not I even did a quick Tomatometer check on RT to see if this was a joke or a gem. Totally rare for me, but that just shows how skeptical I was. I'd never heard of the director, Seth Gordon, and I really never played Donkey Kong that much. So, I went.

Synopsis: In 1982, Billy Mitchell, then a mustached, sneaky looking guy with a mullet, set the all-time high score for the arcade version of Donkey Kong. Since that year, no one has even approached his high score of 850,000+, but not for lack of trying. In fact, an entire industry has been created out of setting world record scores for retro games, and we meet everyone from the Mappy (?!) champion to the score certifiers to the head referee. All the while, Mitchell, now a bearded, sneaky looking guy with a mullet, smirks at his desk throughout his night shift at a hot sauce factory in Florida. He brags, boasts, jeers, grins, and generally makes you feel really uncomfortable. Enter Steve Wiebe, an otherwise totally normal science teacher from Redmond, WA, who decides that Donkey Kong will be the one thing in his hard-luck life that he is going to be better than anyone else at. Wiebe buys a Donkey Kong arcade console for his garage and begins an intensive training regimen in the hope of facing Mitchell one-on-one. The rest of the film takes us to arcades and gaming competitions and essentially introduces us to a world and in its umm... unique inhabitants that are totally unknown to the average person. Wiebe faces extreme resistance from Mitchell's "disciples," but at the end earns one last shot (with wife and 2 kids in tow) at dethroning the great Billy Mitchell.

I Loved:
+ Wow - Steve Wiebe! How could you not!?
+ The surprisingly meaningful lesson you take home with you.
+ The classic lines - there are no jokes set up in this, but you and whoever you watch it with will have laughs for ages with these.

I Liked:
+ The really powerful emotional highs and lows Steve Wiebe and his family experienced.
+ "Mr. Awesome"
+ The soundtrack, background information given, and graphics.

I Disliked:
- Not knowing what has happened to so many of the film's subjects since it was completed.
- The sometimes unnecessary graphics.

I Hated:
- Wow - Billy Mitchell! How could you not!?

Writing - N/A
Acting - N/A
Production - 9
Emotional Impact - 10
Music - 5
Significance - 5

Total: 29/30 = 97% = A

Last Word: This is the type of hilarious documentary that you tell everyone to see. I have to believe that anyone can find some humor and also some meaningful insight from Steve Wiebe vs. Billy Mitchell. And if you think it's just a completely mocking portrayal of video game players or nerds, it's not. At least not entirely. This is in the vein of Spellbound - real experiences of really interesting people that, against all odds, you really find yourself relating to. There are a lot of strange niche cultures out there, but few are shown in a way that people find appealing to watch. If this was just a historical review of the game Donkey Kong, it would lose everything. The human condition is the vital element, and it's gloriously on display in The King of Kong.


  1. Update on KofK as it has officially achieved smashing success on DVD, as predicted. Matt found an interview with Billy Mitchell at The Onion's AV club online. Find the discovery at the 2/10/08 NYT Mag post in the comments section., search for King of Kong Continued

    (We're idiots and don't know how to hyperlink in comments yet)

  2. Finally watched this movie the other day... and it was great!!

  3. Nice, Sauer! Some great lines, aren't there?

    Here's the link that I tried before, since I'm now savvy.


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