King of Kong packs the pixilated drama
by Leslie Wylie
Welcome to the weird world of Donkey Kong, where self-worth is measured in ladders climbed, princesses saved and analog apes defeated. Meet the players, their flaccid bodies magnetized to beeping arcade machines for hours at a stretch, coming up for air only occasionally for a tournament or cold shower.
To the outsider, it may seem like a mind-numbing existence. But for Kong devotees like Steve Wiebe, protagonist of video-game dorkumentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, itâ’s a metaphor for the American Dream. â“When you want your name written into history,â” expounds one Kong player, â“you have to pay the price. Itâ’s absolute brutality.â”
In fairness, Steve may be the most well-rounded character profiled by King of Kong. A shy high-school science teacher, he lives in the Washington suburbs with his wife and two young children, all of whom are remarkably patient with dadâ’s obsessive-compulsive gaming habit. Steveâ’s wife suspects that her husband might be a shade autistic, and explains that heâ’s always been the kind of guy who was OK at a lot of things but not great at anythingâ"until he tried his hand at Donkey Kong.
The vintage simplicity of Donkey Kongâ’s premise (navigate little Mario through a maze of scaffolding to reach the princess) is deceiving. The best Kong players are masters at pattern recognition and memorization, and their hand-eye coordination is freakishly well-developed. Throughout King of Kong, Steve is shown mapping out his strategies on the screen itself, drawing intricate webs of arrows and 90-degree angles, and studying books on beating the game, a kind of paradox in and of itself. Before Steve, only two other players had ever reached what is known as the â“kill screen,â” the point at which King Kongâ’s programming breaks down, Mario dies, and the game is officially over.
The competitive gaming community, however, is reluctant to embrace Steveâ’s mastery of Kong. Governing organization Twin Galaxies is smitten with another legendary Donkey Kong player, Billy Mitchell, whose 1982 world record score is considered virtually impossible to beat. But between Billyâ’s sinister looks and icily arrogant disposition, itâ’s hard for the audience to share Twin Galaxiesâ’ allegiance. Almost immediately the stage is set for a Donkey Kong showdown of epic proportions: newcomer versus veteran, David versus Goliath, good versus evil.
Steve has the odds stacked against him. Even when he videotapes himself breaking Billyâ’s world record, his score is disqualified because of his loose friendship with a rogue gamer. In response, Steve doggedly travels thousands of miles to prove himself in person, but Billy still finds a way to one-up him. The rivalry continues to build, reaching a climax worthy of the â“Eye of the Tigerâ” soundtrack to which the filmâ’s director, Seth Gordon, has it set.
Comparisons to documentaries featuring other niche competitionsâ"Word Wars, for instance, about Scrabble tournaments, or Spellbound, about spelling beesâ"are inevitable. King of Kong manages to set itself apart by featuring such an engaging, if unorthodox, cast of real-life characters. Itâ’s a modern-day American tragicomedy, goosed forward by a mixture of jealousy and sabotage and passion, and it raises more than a few challenging questions about the nature of competition. Why do we nod approvingly at a game of chess but snicker at the mention of a Donkey Kong tournament? And, in either case, what does it mean to win, anyway?
King of Kong offers no cut-and-dried answers, presenting instead a microcosm of human behavior that bears a surprisingly universal relevance. Weâ’re all preprogrammed to want to be at the top of our game, whatever that game may be. Some are just more willing than others to live in their parentsâ’ basements, if thatâ’s what it takes to get there.
Movie Guru Rating:
If youâ’ve been passing up movies youâ’ve never heard of starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, AKA the twerpy kid from 3rd Rock From the Sun, well, no juryâ’s gonna convict you. Thing is, youâ’ve been missing out on the most interesting young actor in Hollywood. Even before he stopped mugging with John Lithgow, Gordon-Levitt embarked on a series of roles in small films (Manic, Mysterious Skin, cult hit Brick) that pushed him far beyond his cuddly prime-time image and revealed a knack for intense, finely observed performances. The Lookout continues his near-flawless streak.
Gordon-Levittâ’s Chris Pratt is a former small-town high-school BMOC who suffers a horrific near-fatal accident. He keeps his boyish good looks, but head injuries leave his brain scrambled: He has to write things down to remember them, and he scuffles by on handouts and a few bucks from a job as a janitor at a bank. Still settling in to lowered expectations for his future, Chris meets bad-news Gary (Matthew Goode), who introduces him to ex-stripper Luvlee (Isla Fisher). Garyâ’s seductive rap and Luvleeâ’s carnal enthusiasm draw Chris into something sinister that he must somehow puzzle his way out of.
You could almost call the kinds of roles Gordon-Levitt favors Oscar bait if the Oscars bothered with films this modest. Nonetheless, he never reduces Chrisâ’ disability to tics or melodrama; his guileless demeanor and visibly turning wheels convince thoroughly. Likewise, Chris and the situation he finds himself in might inspire eye rolls were it not for a sharp script and grounded direction from veteran screenwriter Scott Frank and a fantastic cast: Jeff Daniels hams it up a bit too much as Chrisâ’ blind roommate, but Goodeâ’s smooth criminal would steal the film from a lesser lead. Thrillers with smarts and genuine heart are rare; talents like Gordon-Levittâ’s rarer still. â" Lee Gardner
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