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It’s a little hard at first to believe Billy Mitchell, the subject of the documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. It’s not because the Florida restaurateur and hot-sauce shill, now in his early 40s, was once crowned “Gamer of the Century” after setting records on a number of classic video-arcade games—most notably Donkey Kong, on which he recorded a seemingly unbreakable high score of 874,300 in 1982. Nor is it because he’s still proud of those achievements and was happy to talk about the good ol’ days with Seth Gordon, the film’s director.
Rather, what’s difficult to believe is that the character of Billy Mitchell you see onscreen actually exists. Now that reality shows and mockumentaries have hardened us to the truthiness that’s out there, your natural reaction to Mitchell may be that the dude’s been coached. The hair: long but tidy and businessman-slick, accompanied by a trimmed full beard. The clothes: skinny black pants, dark shirts, and patriotic ties for a monochrome look that says “I love the ’80s.” And, finally, the attitude, which involves not only referring to himself in the third person but announcing things like, “No matter what I say, it draws controversy. Sort of like the abortion issue.” Come on.
But Mitchell persistently uses that same self-important tone whether he’s talking about the “absolute brutality” of Donkey Kong or going on about what it takes to be a winner in life and, well, it would have taken some serious craftiness on the filmmakers’ part to fashion a person who wasn’t an inherent ass into the Mitchell you meet. The King of Kong also isn’t a nostalgia trip but an update. Mitchell had been sitting pretty on his record for more than two decades when a challenger emerged in 2003. Steve Wiebe, a 35-year-old father of two, had just been laid off from what he expected would be a lifelong job at Boeing (his father had worked there) when he discovered that he was pretty good at Donkey Kong. Desperate for a purpose, he looked into the game’s best score and decided to try to beat it on his home machine. Fate was not on his side: As the film shows, Wiebe was always the frustrated-but-amiable loser, gifted in sports and music but never quite able to become the No. 1 anything. He even lost his job the same day that he and his wife bought their first house.
The nerds went wild over the competition anyway. The nerve center of the gaming world is Twin Galaxies, an organization with “referees” who police the virtual world by recording game statistics and player rankings as well as creating codes of conduct. Its founder, a slightly weird and vaguely bummish man named Walter Day, is tickled by the unexpected rivalry, as are the assortment of eccentric characters—mainly refs and other record-holders—included here, most of whom pretty much admit that they’ve got nothing else going on in their lives. Again, the high degree of geekdom that Gordon presents knocks you off-balance a bit: Is this meant to be merely a let’s-laugh-at-the-freaks project, a real-life Napoleon Dynamite?
Mercifully, the answer is no. The King of Kong genuinely unfolds into a classic and very funny underdog story, yet because of the bizarre subject matter—and bizarre subjects—it never feels clichéd. Better yet, Gordon makes you understand that the competition really isn’t a joke to these guys: Wiebe submits a tape that shows him beating Mitchell’s record (and in which Wiebe’s young son repeatedly and hilariously demands, “Wipe my butt! Stop playing Dooooonkey Koooooong!”), but when his score is disqualified by Twin Galaxies, he twice travels to compete in person at a sanctioned machine. (Yes, there’s a conspiracy, and it’s strangely compelling.) But Mitchell, even after sneering about how setting a world record at home doesn’t mean a thing, well, let’s just say that the talent he shows off best here is running his mouth. The players’ motivations, and therefore their humanity, eventually trump their initial caricatures as it becomes clear that neither of them want to hold the world record just because. As with any other sports film, there’s tension and snarkiness and thrills and even, unfortunately, tears, although this bit of melodrama is kept to a flash. “It’s not even about Donkey Kong anymore,” Wiebe says as the competition is about to boil over. And you believe him.