The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

Rumor has it that "The King of Kong," Seth Gordon's wildly entertaining docu about warring "Donkey Kong" champions, already picked up by Picturehouse for an Aug. 17 release, will be made into a mainstream feature.

Rumor has it that “The King of Kong,” Seth Gordon’s wildly entertaining docu about warring “Donkey Kong” champions, already picked up by Picturehouse for an Aug. 17 release, will be made into a mainstream feature. But Hollywood may find it difficult to cast two big-name stars willing to play it as broadly as the real-life hero and villain of this tale. Nor would many self-respecting scriptwriters dare to match the sheer improbability of these actual happenings. Most of all, perhaps no nondocumentarians save the Farrelly brothers would appreciate the heady liberation from political correctness the docu affords.

Early on, Billy Mitchell — hitherto undisputed “Donkey Kong” record-holder, arcade master extraordinaire and heir to a hot sauce empire — arrogantly enumerates his many blessings. Conversely, enter Steve Wiebe, laid off from Boeing on the day he signed the mortgage for his home. Talented enough in many areas (sports, music, mathematics) to ultimately fail at all of them, Wiebe embodies the aphorism that nice guys finish last.

An exhaustive “score verification” system called Twin Galaxies has been established in Iowa, with Walter Day as its administrator and Mitchell its unofficial king. When Wiebe sends in a tape of a game that shatters Mitchell’s 25-year “Donkey Kong” record, all hell breaks loose.

What follows is an intricate tale of intrigues, tourneys, minions and fools that would put a Renaissance court to shame: Acolytes scramble, factions realign, legends totter and history is written and rewritten by a folk-singing referee.

Patently skewed toward Wiebe’s point of view, Gordon’s docu never quite attains the levels of hyperbole of his subjects as they jockey for the highest score and the moral high ground. Wiebe travels all over the country vainly trying to engage Mitchell in head-to-head combat, while Mitchell sends “examiners” to discredit Wiebe’s home console. When Wiebe breaks a record at a public tournament, Mitchell dispatches a little old lady with a jumpy tape of Mitchell’s supposedly even higher score.

Of course, the personalities of the two players themselves make helmer Gordon’s advocacy a no-brainer. Wiebe, casually dressed in light colors, with a patient, loving wife and two kids, reinvents himself as a science teacher, while Mitchell, still sporting the long black hair, stiff gait and cowboy boots of his teenage heyday, parades his trophy wife around, pointedly ignoring the competition.

Perhaps the most glorious aspect of “King of Kong” is the fact that just when it becomes obvious the filmmakers are manipulating the footage to make their hero look more heroic and their villain more Machiavellian, reality does them one better.

Somewhere at the back of the viewer’s consciousness hovers the fact that Mitchell’s extreme paranoia, defensive patriotism and constant mental game-playing could, in another field, lead to more sinister types of defenses, strategies and conquests. But such thoughts rarely intrude while the foreground is filled with such sublime absurdity as the moment Wiebe, on the brink of breaking the world record, is loudly summoned by his little boy to help him wipe his rear end.

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

  • Production: A Picturehouse release of a Picturehouse presentation of a Launch Pad production. Produced by Ed Cunningham. Directed, edited by Seth Gordon.
  • Crew: Camera (color, DV), Gordon; co-editor, Luis Lopez; music, Craig Richey; associate producers, J. Clay Tweel, Lopez. Reviewed at Tribeca Film Festival (Showcase), May 5, 2007. (Also in Slamdance Film Festival.) Running time: 82 MIN.
  • With: <b>With:</b> Steve Wiebe, Billy Mitchell, Walter Day, Nicole Wiebe, Steve Sanders, Robert Mruczek, Brian Kuh.