Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Film Review - 'The King of Kong'

The King of Kong (full title, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters) is the story of one man's determination to be 'the best'. It's the tale of a stubborn refusal to give up, even in the face of overwhelming odds.

It's a classic tale, really. You have the plucky young under-dog striving to prove himself. You have the reigning champion desperate to hold on to his title. You have those people all eager to choose sides as the seemingly inevitable conflict draws ever closer. The only thing that really separates this story from your classic sport film is that we're not talking about a fighter trying to prove himself in the boxing ring, or a team of under-dogs trying to earn respect on the field. No, we're talking about the classic video-game Donkey Kong, and the struggle of two men to hold on to the coveted high-score position.

Also, this isn't some bizarre comedy film about eccentric losers desperately chasing some form of relevance. This is a documentary - and, these are real people.

It would be very easy to mock the people you will meet while watching The King of Kong. You may even go in thinking that that is the whole point of the film - and, that you are about to watch the savage mockery of some over-grown man-children who should really know better. It's to the film's credit that it will quickly become apparent that that isn't what The King of Kong is about.

The 'plucky under-dog', here, is Steve Wiebe. After being laid off from his job, Steve found himself forced to endure a long period of unemployment. Unsure of himself, and desperate for something that he could focus on to help him get through a low point in his life, Steve found his way to the Twin Galaxies website. Twin Galaxies, under the guidance of Walter Day, is an organisation that has existed since the 80s - and, is the most widely recognised source for world-wide high-scores in a wide variety of classic video-games. They even have a partnership with the people behind the Guinness World Records books, and are the providers of any video-game related records published in each volume.

For whatever reason, Steve was won over by the site, and particularly the high-score for Donkey Kong. Believing that it was something he may actually be able to achieve, Steve bought himself an arcade cabinet, and set it up in his garage - taking up a rigorous training regime of playing Donkey Kong for a few hours each day. Despite being clearly shown as a decent and hard-working sort of man, and one who is talented in a number of areas, the film goes to some length to show Steve as a man who has often 'come up short' in life, and who has never quite been able to live up to his own potential.

The 'villain' role is filled by reigning Donkey Kong champion, Billy Mitchell, who has held the world-wide high-score since the 80s. Portrayed as smug and arrogant, Billy's ego seemingly wont allow him to admit defeat - even going as far as trying to deliberately undermine Steve's efforts to take the title from him.

King of Kong seems to want to present itself as a sort of 'comedy' documentary. And, there are moments of humour to be found in the tale of these eccentric people (because, oddly enough, they aren't all men - as shown by the "world's oldest video-game champion", Doris Self), and their bizarre obsession. But, for the most part, it is a good-natured and even affectionate sort of humour. Steve Wiebe himself, though, is rarely a source of any comedy in the film. Portrayed as a man who actually genuinely seems to need a 'win' in his life, at least in the beginning, his genuine emotional investment in the whole process makes the idea of actually laughing at him vaguely uncomfortable. He's the 'hero' of the story in the truest possible sense of the word (keeping in mind that we're still talking about video-games, of course), and the film does a remarkable job of making you root for him.

Billy Mitchell, portrayed as the 'villain' of the film, is a much clearer source of humour. His ego, and his casual arrogance, is played so strongly that you may begin to wonder if he is simply performing for the camera - and, that he is actually just a regular guy with a good sense of humour, having a bit of fun. Though, directer Seth Gordon has gone on record stating that the real Billy Mitchell is actually much worse than he appears in the film.

There are some minor controversies surrounding the film, though. Following the initial release of the film, Walter Day later posted a list of issues he had on the Twin Galaxies forum, stating that the film was occasionally dishonest in its portrayal of the film's events - preferring to go for 'drama', rather then the truth. But, seriously, that wont spoil the simple enjoyment of the film. Also, a quick trip to the Twin Galaxies website will show you that neither Steve Wiebe or Billy Mitchell currently holds the top position on Donkey Kong. But, for a brief, shining, moment, each got to call themselves the 'best in the world' at something. Even if it was just a video-game, that's still something to be proud of.

Sure, The King of Kong is a documentary about video-games, and the people who take them a bit too seriously, but that doesn't mean that it can't be genuinely entertaining. And, it really is. The King of Kong has definitely earned itself a spot on my list of favourite documentaries. And, it is one that I am more than happy to recommend.

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