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Arts and Entertainment

Movie Review: The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

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After weeks of trying to see it at screenings around town, I finally got the chance to see The King of Kong. My expectations were high as I walked into the theater, and I'm thrilled to say they were not only met, but exceeded. Seth Gordon has made one of the most ridiculously entertaining documentaries in years. Sure, it's about Donkey Kong and the genuinely weird subculture of Golden Age Arcade Game competition, but at its core it's a traditional story about honesty, decency and perseverance. And, oh, what a villain it has!

As Kong opens, we are introduced to the man honored by NAMCO in 1999 as the "Video Game Player of the Century"--the quintessential gamer Billy Mitchell. The owner of a full and lustrous mullet, Mitchell helps guide us through the glory days of the early 80s when arcade games dominated popular culture in a way not seen since. He is assisted by Walter Day, founder of Twin Galaxies, an organization started in 1982 for the express purpose of ratifying and compiling high scores. In their common zeal, you would think that no time had passed at all.

For awhile, this is the story we get: a whimsical, nostalgic tour of a world that really only exists in memory anymore despite the best efforts of a devoted group of oddballs. Then, suddenly, an anomaly enters this previously static universe. Steve Wiebe, laid off from his job at Boeing, decides to take up Donkey Kong and challenge Billy Mitchell's long-standing, seemingly untouchable record. Miraculously, he succeeds, setting in motion a series of events so improbable that not even Donald Kaufman would dare imagine them.

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In the unfolding of those events, The King of Kong becomes something far greater than a mere reminiscence about a time that has past. It becomes a detailed character study about the degrading power of ego and the powerful lure of a man with true integrity. We see Billy Mitchell--the Tiger Woods of classic gaming--reduced to a petty has-been before our eyes, unwilling to even play Donkey Kong in public. We also see Steve Wiebe, a kind, decent man, slowly win over everyone as he crosses the country willing to play anyone, anywhere.

Film can be a terribly subjective medium and Seth Gordon's sympathies clearly lie with Wiebe. Still, it's hard to imagine a more self-deluded prick than Mitchell and a finer Everyman than Wiebe. Gordon often simply places the camera in front of them and lets them either hang or save themselves. It's this plain technique, coupled with a perfect, timely use of primitive graphics that pulls you into this strange, insular world. It's hard to get people into theaters to see documentaries, but this rousing film deserves to be seen with a crowd. Go today!

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters is now playing in Los Angeles at the new Landmark on Pico in West LA. And at the Laemmle Playhouse 7 in Pasadena.

Photo courtesy of tspauld via Flickr