25 March 2008

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

Competition and rivalries often bring out the best in people, and just as often bring out the worst. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters features a nerdtastic competition and an engrossing rivalry. I put it on the ol' Netflix queue on a lark, thinking a documentary about competitive Donkey Kong would at least be funny, and at most validate my own thumb-mashing, cartridge-blowing, Contra code-chanting childhood. I just got a Wii, after all, and legitimately consider Wii boxing to be a thorough upper-body workout. Why not revel in old school Nintendo glory?

I was emotionally exhausted after screening it. Watching that slimy, wily Billy Mitchell defend his high score is like watching the Yankees buy another All Star. Or Ivan Drago juicing in Rocky IV. Or Kreese telling Johnny to sweep the leg. Occasionally, movie villains come along that audiences love to hate. Billy Mitchell is not one of those villains. I wanted to strangle him. The fact that he is a living, breathing, bona fide real person makes me livid.

I'd rate The King of Kong as one of the best sports movies in recent years. And at first blush, it's probably up there with the all-time great sports flicks. Sure, the inspirational, based on a true story movies like Miracle, Rudy, and Hoosiers stand out, especially since they are about monumental moments in athletic lore and not about a video game. But I can't think of another film that so thoroughly and effectively captures the dynamics of competition, the cliques that form, and the often juvenile means in which competitors view each other and define themselves. How many sports fans quantify their team's wins and losses, not content to let the scoreboard be the defining element it is supposed to be? How many purists are loathe to compare generations, always claiming that theirs was the toughest? The King of Kong illustrates how a level playing field is a completely subjective notion.

Things start innocently enough, revealing Billy Mitchell as a man not content to let go of his 15 minutes of fame, and Steve Wiebe as a man who never got close to a second of it. The tape that Wiebe submits of his first high score attempt, complete with his young child demanding Wiebe stop playing to come wipe his ass, is the kind of detail I expected. It's both hilarious and poignant, a portrait of childhood pursuits that never die. But the real meat of the proceedings comes next, when the governing body of video game scoring, Twin Galaxies (which could be subject of its own doc), refutes Wiebe's score. Did I mention that Mitchell, the poster boy of Twin Galaxies, is also one of the judges? And that he has an oily mullet and sells hot sauce?

How this involves Mitchell's unsettled rivalry with a man who calls himself Mr. Awesome is too... well... awesome to conceive. But it is Mitchell's truly Machiavellian responses to Wiebe's pursuit of a face-to-face battle that blew me away. You can't help but root for the hard luck Wiebe, in part because he does everything asked of him and more, and especially when Mitchell ducks him and sends a series of minions to do his dirty work. It's classic David versus Goliath stuff that exposes the very dark underbelly of this -- and really, any -- competition. The politics and nuances of this world are positively Shakespearean in their breadth.

To recap that last paragraph: competitive Donkey Kong = Machiavelli + Bible + Shakespeare.

This is not hyperbole. I swear, this movie is that good. The greatness of The King of Kong is how it reveals the complexities of competition, no matter how simple the rules. It finds the human drama in a twenty-plus year-old video game and underscores just how rivalries in sport never truly end, even if the game does.

Some people worry that kids are playing too many 1st-person shooters. They ought to watch this film.

For updates on their story since the completion of the documentary, check the film's official site: www.billyvssteve.com

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