"King of Kong" is an uproarious, unsettlingly observant, and romantically biased documentary on the golden years of classic gaming. The film presents the viewer with a depiction of aging men trying to defend their glory days through combat waged on arcade games, sweetened naturally by the subculture's glorious predilection for social awkwardness. A hoot from start to finish, "King of Kong" is one of the best pictures of the year.
Over the years, Billy Mitchell has spent his time nurturing his restaurant business, overseeing the sale of a popular hot sauce, and reveling in the fact that he's the high score world champion on "Donkey Kong." Steve Weibe is a down-on-his-luck nice guy, saddled with a life of missed opportunities and failures. Sensing his gift for "Kong," Steve decides to chase the high score, eventually taping himself in his garage toppling Billy's triumph, which leads to an outbreak of controversy inside the world of arcade records and gaming website Twin Galaxies. With both Billy and Steve claiming rights to the world record, the stage is set for a face off between the two men, taking Steve around the country in pursuit of a match with Billy.
Ostensibly a documentary on the lives of arcade record-breakers (with some fascinating background info on what it takes to defeat these machines), "King of Kong" is more of a fictional comedy. Director Seth Gordon uses his miles of footage to mold a deceptively simple film about uncontainable ego and Arthurian displays of backstabbing and accusations. Taking this film as cold hard fact is missing the point of what "Kong" offers as a piece of entertainment. Even Christopher Guest couldn't come up with an acting troupe as deliciously self-absorbed as this, or situations that drip with unreal gobs of vanity.
Let's cut to the chase: Billy Mitchell is a character of astounding confidence. In "Kong," it reads as pure, uncut ego, but it's plain to see how Billy has created this aura of godlike power about himself. A lanky man with beard of wisdom, long, immaculately conditioned hair, and clad in black to best sustain his reputation as the man with a plan, Billy has no problems extolling the virtues of his life and his mastery of a game that has defined his existence since 1982. It doesn't take much effort on the part of Gordon to get Billy to open up about his achievements. It seems all Billy needs is a camera and he's off on a tangent about his arcade dominance or spouting off constant philosophical streams that tie directly into his game play wizardry. He's an easy Alpha Mario in a subculture where participants cling to questionable success with little care for self-respect.
In other words, it's high school all over again, and Billy is the star quarterback.
Steve, on the other end of the spectrum, is a loser in the nicest sense of the word. Blessed with a healthy family (including a very patient wife) and a burgeoning career as a teacher, Steve has met one too many roadblocks in his life, looking at the "Donkey Kong" journey as an opening to grasp the fame and respect he's always craved. Unlike Billy, Steve barely speaks above a squeak and is about as affable a man as one could ever meet.
Do a little homework on "Kong" and it'll be easy to spot inconsistencies in the story and character shadings. Instead of coldly relaying the facts, Gordon exploits the personality chasm between Billy and Steve and sets up "Kong" as an epic story of men protecting their useless gifts. Steve is headstrong and passive-aggressive, while Billy is deceptive, ruthless, and adores the warm embryonic fluid of his past achievements. Scored with a wide array of 80s empowerment anthems, "Kong" gets to the heart of the conflict quickly and never deviates off course.
"Kong" is best when tracking the competitive shenanigans between the two men. Steve travels the country hitting tournaments, hoping to challenge Billy directly in front of the gaming community, overseen with questionable authority by Twin Galaxies, an organization that seems to have fallen ass-backwards into the role of high score gatekeeper, even employed by the Guinness people to bring arcade games into the world record books. Steve is frustrated with Billy's non-compliance and even ostracized for his friendships with fellow gamers (including rabid anti-Twin Galaxies spokesman, Roy "Mr. Awesome" Shildt). He's a man with a mission, yet nobody wants to upset the Billy Mitchell apple cart and allow him his rightful place on the top of the "Donkey Kong" food chain.
Billy, however, keeps his cool. Staying put at his base of operations in Hollywood, Florida (where he keeps company with his busty trophy wife and enjoys rearranging grocery store shelves for best sauce product placement), he prefers to burrow into Steve's head and toy with his vulnerabilities. Backed by his team of gaming toadies, Billy is a mastermind of manipulation and condescension; a Blofeld to Steve's suburban dad Bond. You can watch robots transform into cars, pirates visit otherworldly delights, or sprint with Bourne around the globe, but all of that pales in comparison to Billy Mitchell and his endless reservoir of superiority.
So where does this all lead? Well, that's a secret, and should be discovered in a theater with other viewers similarly thunderstruck by this pageant of unease. Suffice it to say, "Kong" doesn't end up where you think it will, yet still manages to offer the satisfaction of a big ending without actually achieving one. "King of Kong" is an iffy documentary, but a sublime comedy as delightful as they come. You won't find a more engrossing and infuriating set of personalities all year.
For further online adventure, please visit brianorndorf.com