Sunday, August 19, 2007

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

I took in The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters with a capacity crowd last night at the NuArt. What a great movie! The crowd cheered for the hero and hissed at the villain to the point where it felt more like a summer blockbuster than a documentary about 80s video games.

The film chronicles an epic battle over the Donkey Kong high score. The champion, Billy Mitchell, set the record as a teen in 1982. He got his picture in Life magazine, and, with his feathered hair and premature moustache, he was definitely the hottie of the geek champs in the photo spread. 25 years later, Billy is still riding high on his video game triumphs, sporting a lush mullet and governing an empire of hot sauce in Florida. He's the unimpeachable idol of his peers, including the governing body of video game high scores, the Twin Galaxies gang.

Billy's record - and honor - is challenged by a much-lower wattage personality, Steve Wiebe. Steve's got some OCD issues, but he's basically a likable family guy from Washington with a Donkey Kong machine in his garage. There's a hilarious scene where his attempt at breaking the high score is threatened by his son screaming that he pooped his pants and needs to be wiped. Steve mounts a valiant challenge but comes up against the skepticism of Twin Galaxies, which is revealed to be quite the cabal.

The movie is a classic underdog story. It's also hilarious, without really being condescending. The filmmakers clearly have respect for the ability of the players - Donkey Kong is revered as one of the most challenging games - yet they can't help but be skeptical of the time and effort spent on earning these records (nobody expresses this better than Wiebe's daughter - watch for that moment). You just can't help but get laughs from a subculture than includes an 80-year-old gal trying to break the Q-Bert record. It definitely conjures up a lot of nostalgia for those of us thirtysomethings who spent a lot of time in the arcade, lining up our quarters on top of the Dig Dug and Paperboy machines. But with characters as compelling as Billy and Steve, and the motley crew of supporting pro gamers, you don't have to have been an Atari 2600 owner to enjoy this film.

The director, Seth Gordon, and editors were on hand for last night's screenings, along with a colorful personality known as "Mr. Awesome." The filmmakers deserve a lot of props for turning what could be deadly dull (it takes 2.5 hours to play a record-challenging game) into an entertaining, suspenseful, fast-paced documentary that's a classic good vs evil story.

Now, if only I could clear that first elevator screen...

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