The King of Kong



Tribeca Film Festival


NEW YORK -- Like the recent "Air Guitar Nation," this documentary examines those who are obsessed with what, for others, is mindless entertainment. The film focuses on gamers who have a single-minded devotion to the retro arcade game Donkey Kong. Their fanaticism is irritating and occasionally dumbfounding, but a clever structure by director Seth Gordon means that "The King of Kong" ends up more engrossing than its bunch of geeky characters initially suggest.

The Picturehouse release will have no trouble attracting gamers to theaters -- providing they can drag themselves away from their machines and venture into the outside world. A wider audience could connect with a classic dramatic setup, which pits a lonely outsider against a cocksure champion player. It played the Tribeca Film Festival.

In Donkey Kong, the player has to negotiate girders and ladders while dodging projectiles hurled by the eponymous villain. It's reputed to be a tough game to master. Gordon's film focuses on the world championships hosted by a downbeat organization called Twin Galaxies.

The reigning champion is 34-year-old Billy Mitchell, a cult player who's achieved a phenomenally high score of 800,000. Then gamer Steve Wiebe sends in a tape showing him achieve a higher score. Twin Galaxies rallies round its hero Mitchell and makes it difficult for Wiebe to verify his score. Thus the stage is set for an epic struggle between the two gamers.

Characters and plot dynamics make this documentary a winner. Mitchell, who has a big mustache and runs a hot sauce business by day, is overconfident and highly manipulative. Wiebe is a friendly family man who only wants to be accepted as an equal by the Twin Galaxies group. As Mitchell's Machiavellian tactics get more complex, it's impossible not to root for the downtrodden challenger. An assortment of nerdy supporting characters provides accidental comic relief.

Gordon seems to have amassed a lot of footage for this film. Telephone calls, for instance, are often shot from both ends. This has enabled a featurelike structure that shows the many dramas of the championship unfolding.