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The King of Kong

(2007) *** 1/2 Pg-13
83 min. Picturehouse. Director: Seth Gordon. Cast: Billy Mitchell, Walter Day, Steve Wiebe, Nicole Wiebe, Robert Mruczek.

They say that there are two kinds of people in this world. The new documentary The King of Kong--about competitive video-game playing--is cause for reflection on that old chestnut. I'm thinking not of winners and losers, though they're certainly on hand in The King of Kong. I'm thinking of basically decent people versus basically indecent people.

The decent ones believe in hard work, self-determination, and pride only in what is deserved. The indecent ones are selfish, Machiavellian, venal, and/or toadying, and they put their faith not so much in themselves as in the manipulation of an artificial power structure. But there's a third kind of person in this world, and in The King of Kong: the kind (as Samuel L. Jackson says in Pulp Fiction) that's trying real hard to be the shepherd. The kind beginning to suspect that the power brokers they've hitched their wagon to are bastards.

This may all sound just a bit serious for a movie built around a video game called Donkey Kong, but they're clearly thoughts on director Seth Gordon's mind as he follows the story of the men who try to break video game records and the guardians who stand watch over those records. I'll let you discover for yourself what separates the men from the boys in the many senses described above, but I can tell you that the players--which include a 30-year-old retiree and an 80-year-old Q*bert contender--are all interesting.

There's Billy Mitchell, the defending world-record holder in Donkey Kong. Having almost literally been the poster boy for classic arcade gaming since a 1982 Life magazine photo shoot in Ottumwa, Iowa, hot sauce mogul Mitchell has kept careful watch over his records. Also part of the photo event (which I suppose is like Art Kane's "Harlem, 1958," except for video gamers instead of jazz musicians) was World's Video Game Referee Walter Day, the torch carrier for organized competitive video game playing. His organization/website Twin Galaxies maintains the official records of top scores (they're considered so official that even the Guinness Book staff comes to them in the course of the story).

Another fellow from the photo is lawyer Steve Sanders, who got into the Life shoot only by lying about his top scores in Donkey Kong. Mitchell called him on it at the time, and the life-changing lesson made Sanders a lifelong friend and devotee to Mitchell. This story casts light on contemporary events captured by Gordon, as scores are again called into question. This is serious business: one Twin Galaxies volunteer--who most will peg as half-crazed--devotes himself to watching hundreds of hours of videotapes that purport to show record-breaking video games.

Into this insular "empire" comes a spoiler named Steve Wiebe. Washington-stater Wiebe is an underdog who's had something to prove since whiffing a key baseball game in his youth and, more recently, contending with a layoff from his engineering job. Now a junior high teacher with a "weird" hobby, Weibe has launched a campaign from the stand-up Donkey Kong machine pressed up against a wall in his garage. The goal is to beat Mitchell's Donkey Kong record, but even when he appears to have accomplished his goal, the story is just beginning.

When the film builds to the Classic Arcade Tournament at Funspot in Weirs Beach, New Hampshire, it has become The Karate Kid of video games (use of the song "You're the Best" confirms it). Will records be broken? Will Mitchell and Weibe go head to head? After maddening controversy, who will be vindicated? The hairpin twists and turns make The King of Kong compulsively watchable and reveal plenty about fragile egos and personal fears. It's about ethics and personal character as much as it is about the weird world of die-hard arcade gaming.

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