By NICOLAS RAPOLD August 17, 2007
Long before Xboxes and Wiis, the arcade was the field of battle for video games, waged a quarter at a time, sometime back in the first Reagan administration. The new documentary "The King of Kong" uncovers today's diehard fans of that earlier era's games, people whose thumbs are callused from games like "Pac-Man" and "Centipede" instead of more modern fare like "Grand Theft Auto." Filmmaker Seth Gordon chooses to focus on the high-scores competition between two "Donkey Kong" mavens, feebly playing up their rivalry and squandering his promising topic.
After some perfunctory history (top gamers made the cover of a 1982 issue of Time magazine!) and amid much hyperventilation (these games are so hard!), "The King of Kong" settles into its long build-up to a promised showdown. In one corner stands Billy Mitchell, holder of the Kong title, who's considered video-game royalty for his years of record-breaking play. Fond of nerdy trash talk, he owns a barbecue-sauce business and confidently sports a mullet and a beard that looks sprayed on.
In the other corner, and looking rather cornered, is sad-eyed Steve Wiebe, a recently unemployed family man who has unaccountably chosen "Donkey Kong" to be his savior. The movie's signature image is Mr. Wiebe, a paunchy ex-jock, hunched over his "Kong" console in the back of his garage. His eyes are locked on the barrel-throwing ape that stands between him and his attempts to inflate that tiny number in white at the top of his screen.
"The King of Kong" adopts the old documentary gambit of circling around a forthcoming contest and tracking reactions from kibitzers along the way. The main event will be a record-setting attempt at a giant New Hampshire classic-gaming hall called "Funspot." Self-proclaimed official record-keeper for the classic gaming world, Walter Day, is the film's chorus, called upon for background and dead-air filler. Mr. Wiebe's long-suffering wife rationalizes her husband's distressing tunnel vision, while Mr. Mitchell's gamer minions gossip and connive.
Mr. Gordon's film wheezes along as he insists on whipping up intrigue around two people who are difficult to like without a certain measure of discomfort. Mr. Mitchell is cast as a reigning villain, though sometimes there simply seems to be less footage shot of him. Mr. Wiebe, on the other hand, carries a pungent air of barely contained desperation that the film palms off with the bromides of his friends and family. Tearing up over setbacks, he is less a man nobly sticking to his quest than one beset by terrible pathological fears and clinging to a childlike order.
"The King of Kong" hardly scratches the surface of its two "characters" and stops short of the irony or insight that the material sorely needs to ascend beyond novelty value. The filmmaking is akin to a teenage reality television show, cycling through participants who say little to add to the big picture, with the occasional obvious 1980s song cut, for example, Animotion's "Obsession." At several points, Mr. Gordon nearly loses basic momentum during the film's scanty running time. Mr. Day certainly has a lot to tell us about just how hard classic games are.
But Messrs. Wiebe and Mitchell, and the whole subculture, really, have too much personality for "The King of Kong" to falter entirely. The retro appeal, mild nerdsploitation, and living-dinosaur oddity will be enough to carry many audiences through (not surprisingly, Mr. Gordon has already agreed to direct a fictional feature of the story). I, for one, am quite gratefully horrified to learn that a human being exists whose job is to watch recorded videos of record-breaking attempts (thus creating, for a moment, the Chinese box of ultimate passivity: watching a man watch a man play a video game). But ask yourself what you've really learned about the classic gaming scene or who these people are beyond Mr. Gordon's quick impressions and lukewarm intrigue, and you come up empty. That's a waste, since there's still much to learn about the ascent of video games from pimply teen bliss-out to mainstream activity, or home technology's general de-nerdification and transmutation into a new social fabric.
© Copyright 2007 The New York Sun