"That ape is very cunning, and he will do what he needs to, to stop you." This nugget of wisdom, tossed off by a spectator who's hoping to witness a record-setting Donkey Kong score, is at once simple and poignant much like The King of Kong, which chronicles the rivalry between two of the game's elite players, both men in their 30s who take the pursuit of arcade excellence very, very seriously. As in any great sports story, there's an underdog (determined newcomer Steve Wiebe, a family man who teaches middle school science) and a seemingly infallible champ (hot-sauce tycoon Billy Mitchell, a legend since the early 1980s). There's fierce competition, triumph over daunting odds, bold statements like "Anything can happen in Donkey Kong," and the judicious use of motivational pop songs. But the drama in The King of Kong (subtitle: A Fistful of Quarters) is so gripping, "Eye of the Tiger" is almost an afterthought.
Gripping drama? Wrought from grown-ups hunched over video games? Yeah, you heard me. Some outlets including MTV.com, which ran an extensive piece on Mitchell have suggested that Kong director Seth Gordon applied some editing-room finesse to heighten the tale's tension, and there are moments that achieve near-Shakespearean levels. Wiebe, so outwardly unremarkable that nobody he encounters in the gaming world remembers how to pronounce his name, has been second best all his life. His Kong skill springs not from talent but from determination, with hours logged at the machine he keeps in his garage. After he records himself earning a previously unheard-of million points (even as his young son screams, "Daddy, don't play!" in the background), he comes to the attention of Twin Galaxies, the organization that tracks and regulates video game records. (Twin Galaxies guru Walter Day a key player in the yet-to-be-released film Chasing Ghosts, another 2007 doc about arcade games really deserves a full portrait of his own colorful life, which encompasses not just gaming but also folk music and Transcendental Meditation.)
Mitchell, Twin Galaxies' star ambassador, also takes note. Kong may be slanted against Mitchell he's blow-dried, attired in tacky ties, and apparently cocky but his actions in the context of the film do seem questionable. Why wouldn't he show up to defend his title at a competition transpiring mere miles from his Florida home? Why would he demand Wiebe demonstrate his prowess in person then overshadow the man's success by submitting a videotape with a superior score? Who knew you could set a video game high-score record with a videotape, anyway?
Trust me, even if this all seems silly in the abstract to you, it becomes entirely dire once Kong sucks you in. Gordon doesn't make fun of his subjects, and he never once belittles them for their laserlike devotion to a certain barrel-hurling ape although some of the secondary players invite ridicule due to their incredible nerdiness. At any rate, there's precious little time devoted to the game itself (notable exceptions include a look at a Donkey Kong "kill screen," which comes when the game runs out of memory and little Mario spontaneously keels); it's suggested that the best of the best advance thanks to technique and luck and, possibly, the good graces of whoever's in charge.
For the eventual winner, the benefits reach beyond a line in Guinness World Records. "It's not even about Donkey Kong anymore," a tournament bystander opines, and he's right. That the game is from an earlier, more innocent era compared to Grand Theft Auto, Donkey Kong looks like child's play is key.