I'm utterly amazed at how a few astute filmmakers can take a story so slight, so silly and so trivial ... and turn it into a 90-minute documentary that's as fascinating as something that Ken Burns put together. Yes, The King of Kong is a documentary about bragging rights among video game geeks -- a topic so nerdy I hesitate to even mention how fascinated I was by the flick's subject matter -- but it's also as compelling, colorful and entertaining as any of the "human interest" documentaries of the past five years. If you liked Spellbound, Word Wars and Wordplay (or any other enthusiast-friendly documentary), you're going to have a ball with The King of Kong, and if you're about my age (let's say mid-30s) and you remember the earliest days of video gaming with much enthusiasm, I'd bet you a thousand quarters that you'll get a huge kick out of the flick.
The story in a nutshell: Back in the mid-80s, a video game mega-guru named Billy Mitchell set the all-time world record for Donkey Kong. (Donkey Kong, you'll remember, is the game in which Mario made his debut while trying to rescue the princess from a grumpy giant ape.) Mitchell's record remained uncontested until 2006, which is when a mild-mannered family man called Steve Weibe broke the all-time high -- but when he submitted his score to the "official" gaming commission, it was denied because Steve racked up all his points on a home-based machine. Apparently the only way to truly claim the record is to play the Donkey Kong machine that's inside a specific Funland location. But that didn't stop Mitchell from submitting his own video-taped record -- and that score WAS accepted as yet another new world's record.
Suffice to say it's a long and winding road to the title of Kong King, and director Seth Gordon captures all the whole damn story in all its geeky glory. True that the flick paints Mitchell as an arrogant lout while Wiebe is portrayed as a sensitive little sweetheart, but both of the guys' legitimate personalities seem to burst through at every opportunity. Wiebe is a sad-sack nice-guy who's had a bunch of financial problems, while Mitchell's a cocksure and self-adoring entrepreneur who basically refuses to acknowledge his challenger's existence! Throw in a handful of looooongtime video game experts and a few insights from the long-suffering spouses, and you've got a human interest story that's just too delicious to ignore.
Proof positive that human beings will find just about anything to argue about, The King of Kong also speaks to a larger issue. Regardless of how trivial a competition may seem to you, the simple truth is that success and recognition come in a million different disguises. Is the activity of competitive video gaming more or less "important" than spelling bees, Scrabble games and crossword puzzles? Depends on what you like doing with your own spare time, I suppose, but speaking as a movie geek who's also been a video game freak since the age of 12, I found The King of Kong to be an absolute treat from start to finish. The thing breezes by for 80 slick minutes, and if it leaves you wanting more, here's some good news: New Line is planning to make a "fact-based feature" version of the documentary! Cool!