September 20, 2007

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The King of Kong: A Fistful of Dollars (PG-13)
Famous gamer Billy Mitchell has his record as the highest scorer in Donkey Kong challenged by newcomer Steve Wiebe in the surprisingly and unironically drama-packed documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Dollars.

OK, I know what you’re thinking, but this is not some Hot Pocket-greased inside-Halo geekfest for video gamers only. You do not have to be or have been any kind of a gamer to care about the central conflict of this movie. Even if your only experience with classic gaming is Pac-Man and even if you never passed level two (those ghosts can come up on you mighty quick), the saga of Mitchell versus Wiebe seems like George Foreman versus Muhammad Ali (well, scrawnier Foreman versus doughier Ali) — all fraught with bigger meanings and larger messages.

The movie catches us all up on the world of classic arcade games and the entity — Twin Galaxies — that keeps track of who has the highest score in Q*bert, Pac-Man, Donkey Kong and all those other games that kept kids in the early 1980s on the hunt for quarters and friends with an Atari. It was back in the mid 1980s that Billy Mitchell, who now runs Rickey’s (a barbecue restaurant in Hollywood, Fla.), set the high score that stood until the mid 2000s. We meet the pony-tailed Mitchell, now 42 and full of boasts about his great life, in the early scenes of The King of Kong. If I’m having all this good luck, he says, someone out there must be getting only bad luck.

Meet Steve Wiebe.

Wiebe is laid off on the day he and his wife sign the papers to buy their house. His wife describes him more or less as a good-hearted guy who has been rather repeatedly kicked in the gut by life. In part to cheer himself up, he decides to go after the Donkey Kong world record. He buys the arcade game, sets it up in his garage and starts going for the gold, occasionally video-taping the games in the hope that one of them will surpass Mitchell’s record. Eventually, one does and he captures it on tape, complete with his young son howling in the background to stop playing Donkey Kong and come back into the house to wipe his bum. Despite this intrusion of reality into the world of gaming, Wiebe sends his tape in to Walter Day, the Twin Galaxies founder and the arbiter of who holds what records.

Wiebe’s momentary success is met with the kick to the gut of Billy Mitchell’s jealousy and Wiebe’s high score is thrown into all kinds of seemingly spite-filled doubt. He eventually decides to travel cross country to Funspot in Weirs Beach to break Mitchell’s record live. He does, enjoying entire minutes of a feeling of accomplishment, but then Mitchell sends his own tape (one that the documentary seems to view with some suspicion, at least in regard to its timing) with an even higher score. Wham, another kick to Wiebe’s gut and the former Boeing worker, now science teacher heads back home, head hanging.

Twin Galaxies is then contacted by Guinness, which wants to use the organization’s records in its upcoming book. Walter Day sets up a tournament to offer gamers a chance to beat or defend standing records. Wiebe heads to Florida (Mitchell’s home turf) to attempt to prove his Donkey Kong prowess.

Billy Mitchell may be a perfectly nice man in real life but the movie portrays him as pure nerdy evil. He refuses to publicly play Wiebe or even acknowledge him. In one scene, he visits the Florida arcade where Wiebe is playing and walks up behind him. Hey Billy, Wiebe says. Billy and his busty wife stand there for a minute and then Billy walks away. He’s chattier when he’s alone, however, and we see him forever scheming. He brings to mind hair product guru Paul Mitchell crossed with Emperor Palpatine — and for much of the movie he even has his own little Darth protégé. Though Billy refuses to appear at many of the gaming events, his weaselly follower gives a constant play-by-play of all the events via phone.

Billy Mitchell makes a good character and so in his underdog way does Steve Wiebe. Even though this entire slice of the world might seem trivial, the movie is able to balance the “it’s just a video game” factor with the sports-movie-style record race. We care about these characters even if we don’t care about Donkey Kong. It’s a well-edited documentary — we get a perfect amount of information without ever getting bogged down in the minutiae of joysticks and game strategy.

Toward the end of the movie, I started to feel that whatever happened in the worlds of Donkey Kong or barbecue sauce, Wiebe is the real winner. He has a nice family with sweet children, a very understanding wife filled with actual empathy and love for him, a decent job as a teacher and a Donkey Kong machine in his garage, which would not be my personal choice for an electronic device indulgence but is a fairly cool thing to blow off steam with. I hope he sees it that way too. If you Google “Billy Mitchell,” you’ll see that the end of this movie is just the beginning of this ongoing saga. A-

Rated PG-13 for brief sexual reference. Directed by Seth Gordon, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Dollars is an hour and 24 minutes long and is distributed in limited release by Picturehouse.