Donkey Kong Country

Brian Kuh is pacing back and forth, with insatiable urgency, through a winding maze of lights and buttons and whirring noises. This is his digital wilderness, his 8-bit terrain, but somehow, inexplicably, there’s a new threat to the throne on the premises. A “mysterious visitor from the west coast,” in Kuh’s own words. His nerve-wracked voice echoes off the high ceilings of the Funspot Arcade as if from the tongue of a modern day Paul Revere. No phrase has ever been uttered with such searing intensity: “There’s a potential Donkey Kong kill screen coming up, if anyone’s interested!”

2007’s “The King Of Kong: A Fistful Of Quarters” is the most absurd, joyous, and mesmerizing documentary of the 21st century. Its trick is that it somehow turns something inherently trivial into what seems like an all-out war for human decency. The film pits American Hero/Everyman, Steve Wiebe, against corporate stooge/slimeball, Billy Mitchell (complete with mullet), in an incendiary battle for the Donkey Kong world record. Wiebe is as likable a protagonist as you’ve ever seen (teacher, family man, perpetual underachiever), or at least is framed as such. Billy Mitchell is an unhip goon in an American flag tie who won’t give someone the time of day if it doesn’t serve Billy Mitchell. If Steve doesn’t beat Billy, life as we know it will come crashing down around us!

Of course, there’s no way for us to know what these men are really like, but it’s a tribute to director Seth Gordon (who has since gone on to helm “Four Christmases” and “Horrible Bosses”) that these characters are drawn so impeccably well. Assuming the film’s editing is occasionally misleading, it’s mostly immaterial because these are real people in a real fight over a video game world record. More or less, these characters (from Steve Wiebe to the astonishing Brian Kuh) exist and Seth Gordon was there to chronicle these events.

This world of “professional” gamers is backlit by an act 1 history lesson and then the viewer is quickly launched into a world of grudges and betrayals – all among men who consider video games to be the pinnacle of their existence. Not only are the characters fascinating, but Gordon walks an incredible tightrope. He’s certainly mocking his “villains,” but never to the point of belittling their passion because it would derail the trajectory of our hero – and the film itself.

There isn’t much to learn from the film (no heady life lessons here, folks), but if you’ve ever dabbled in video games or enjoyed any kind of competition, “The King Of Kong” is a documentary you’ll never forget. I saw the film upon its DVD release in 2008, but I’m sure it was an especially fantastic theatrical experience. It’s too bad it never received a wide release. I like to imagine moviegoers breaking out into spontaneous chants of “USA! USA!” towards the end of the film. And to have attended one of the screenings at which Steve Wiebe made a world record attempt? Game over.

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Excellent)

-J. Olson