I was raised on classic video games: Space Invaders, Pac-Man, and (yes) Donkey Kong. So no one was more intrigued by the pseudo-documentary, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, than I, a Generation-X enthusiast who has fallen by the arcade-gaming wayside. Although King of Kong delivers some wistful memories, it is hardly worthy of a “Best Picture of the Year” honor as most film aficionados would proclaim. In fact, after reading the reviews on the box, you would have to believe, that this movie is Schindler's List with a joystick. It is not.
Regardless, the story is as old as Rocky himself: seemingly sad-sack and all-around “good guy,” Steve Wiebe, is laid-off from his job at Boeing and looks back to his childhood and favorite game (Donkey Kong), for solace, inspiration, and some come-from-behind recognition.
Why would he do that, you may ask? Well, rather than “sucking it up” and finding another job to support his family (which is lost in the background of his self-absorbed desire), Steve Wiebe decides it his “high time” to beat the high-score in Donkey Kong to soothe his raging inferiority complex – no time like the 1980s, it seems!
Along the way, he meets the object of his affliction, Billy Mitchell, who was the cover boy and video-gaming “centerfold spread” of LIFE magazine back in 1982 – ultimately named “Gamer of the Century.” What better way to redeem yourself, it looks like, then by knocking off "the King" of all video game geeks, huh?
And, thusly, our story unfolds: Good vs. evil and the guy who never could vs. the entrepreneur sporting a mullet who holds the ultimate Donkey Kong title. Who could ask for anything more in our pop culture-loving universe, right? Wrong.
The story is innocent enough, to be sure: It harkens back to a kinder, gentler, day, after all, we all have some great memories of hanging out at our favorite arcade and/or comic book store. Nerds rule, it seems – at least in the minds of our heroes and their gushing family and friends who adore them on every possible level.
But that’s where this story (like Mario himself facing the wrong-end of a barrel) goes astray. The movie gets too wrapped up in it’s “wink-wink glory” as an American Idol-wannabe for our VH1-throwback times. The protagonists, like many middle-aged men still hanging out in comic book shops well past their prime, want us to believe that the high-score in a simple game like Donkey Kong is the be-all, end-all, of our soulless, strip mall existence.
Times are tough, sure, but are we really supposed to believe that a video game “standoff” among grown men is the best way to recapture the lost glories of our youth? You would like to believe so, but the utter truth is this: the movie hurts more than it helps the collective-longing for our cherished childhoods. It comes across as blunt and pointless as a Mario mallet to the head, for that matter.
The two men end up travelling to "The Fun Stop" for a showdown of epic ape proportions. This "Fun Stop" is a video arcade that actually looks like a leftover set from a Kevin Smith slacker movie, complete with an onsite, sixty-something referee who officiates video game standoffs. Does he do it for a living or just for kicks? Either way, he must be a real hit with the ladies.
Sadly, the DVD extras do very little to add to the lackluster drama of Kong, with the exception of the wonderful animated short, "The Really, Really, Brief History of Donkey Kong" which is a wacky little nugget about Nintendo and the creation of our big bad ape (that was more entertaining than anything in the actual movie. Too bad).
The rest of the extras are just more "bios" about two bozos obsessed over being good at something that most of us left behind in our best friend's basement, years ago (In a story recounted by his elderly parents, Billy Mitchell's first video game that he ever played as a small child was – gasp! – Pong - STOP THE PRESSES! That little tidbit of information is about as mind-blowing as Pong itself).
The King of Kong, in the end, is as harmless as these man-children playing a video game and trying to recapture some past "middle school magic." But is it truly worthy of being touted as “Best Picture of the Year” by movie critics when such haunting pleasures as No Country For Old Men currently exist? I think not.
As the years keep rolling by us like so many barrels, and current pressures of adulthood abundantly persist, there is surely no harm in picking up the joystick of your old Atari 2600 once in a while to help relieve a little tension – and reflect upon better days. But, when it comes at the expense of neglecting the ones you love, or even changing a dirty diaper once in a while, it ultimately seems rather shallow in the end.
For the record, this comes from the guy who currently holds the high score of Activision’s “Pitfall Harry” - in his own mind. Where’s the justice, I ask? Not in this movie (for the audience, anyway) - but it does give you the chance to hit the “Pause" button and mull it over like Mario, for whatever that’s worth, right?