By: Bob Denerstein
Back in the '80s, when such favourites as Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, and Q-bert were being played in bars, I was busy with what I regarded as more appropriate saloon activity: knocking back enough cold ones to make a mockery of eye-hand coordination.
Despite my lack of personal knowledge, I decided to check out director Seth Gordon's "The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters," a documentary about men who play competitive Donkey Kong. You gamers already know most of the details: An outfit called Twin Galaxies establishes the standards, and various folks vie to break records on what the movie regards as one of the most difficult machines ever, requiring amounts of concentration that would challenge an eastern yogi.
But forget all the game stuff. It's not the game that makes "King of Kong" so entertaining; it's characters in conflict. Sure there's a cast of supporting dweebs, but the movie boils down to a mano-a-mano Kong-off between Billy Mitchell, an arrogant champion, and Steve Wiebe, his humble challenger. To borrow a phrase from the lawyers: Here are some things we can stipulate: To immerse in the world of Donkey Kong, one must be obsessive by nature. Competition has at least two possible effects: It either sharpens people's skills or makes them crazy - maybe a bit of both. Finally, the folks who play competitive Kong seem to lack the kind of perspective that would tell them that they are not competing in events on a par with The U.S. Open or The Masters - never mind The World Series or Super Bowl.
So what? So what if the fate of empires doesn't rest on the movie's outcome? Who cares if no lives are at stake? Why fret over the fact that there's no love to be won or lost? Even without epic grandeur and the drone of ESPN coverage, the Donkey Kong wars brim with competitive zeal, slowly exposing a bold clash of wills and skills.
Wiebe functions as the movie's hero. You root for him the way you root for Luke Skywalker in "Star Wars." The Florida-based Mitchell, who sells hot sauce for a living, becomes the Darth Vader of the piece. He won't play Mitchell face-to-face, but will play all manner of head games to give himself an edge.
On top of that, Wiebe does what many characters have done in many good movies: He seeks redemption. His layoff from his Boeing job seems to be one more brick in a wall of failures. Smart, talented and athletic, Wiebe nonetheless has trouble finishing. He's a nice guy, but maybe not a closer. It's this inner struggle that gives the movie a tantalising double edge. Can Wiebe beat the Evil Empire? Will he choke? Will his opponent beat him or will he beat himself?
Those questions are as genuine and compelling as any you'll find in a fiction film, and Gordon makes the most of them. Sure he explains how Donkey Kong works, and shows us how the masters try to outwit the game's seemingly random quality. But it's not the games that matter in "King of Kong;" it's the people who play them.
I've read some reviews that suggest that Wiebe might be wasting his time playing Donkey Kong, that he probably could find more meaningful things to do with his life. Maybe it's just my inner nerd peeking through, but I tend to admire people who are willing to obsess and push limits. And isn't it true that if a thing's worth doing, it's worth overdoing?
"Donkey Kong'' battles aren't likely to inspire the kind of noble sentiments that Shakespeare drew from the Battle of Agincourt, but with apologies to the Bard, "Henry V, " St. Crispen's Day and the English language, try this tin-eared tribute to those who aspire to become Kings of Kong:
"We few, we happy few, we band of gamers: For he today that sheds his coins with Wiebe Shall be his brother; be he ne'er so vile, This day shall gentle his obsession, And gentlemen with Xboxes now-a-bed Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not at Funspot, And hold their eye-hand coordination cheap whiles any speaks That tried to keep up with Wiebe at a quarter a play."
Hey, I apologised in advance, didn't I?
Bob Denerstein spent 27 years reviewing movies for The Rocky Mountain News in Denver. He recently took a buyout from the paper and has moved on to other writing challenges. You can follow his musings at Denerstein Unleashed.