Home > Culture, Film, Reviews > Film Review: The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

Film Review: The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007; Directed by Seth Gordon)

Billy Mitchell, American Hero

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters is a funny, weird, insightful and superb documentary about, yes, arcade video game nerds, but also about the strange, resilient contours of American masculinity. For the Donkey Kong rivals at the centre of this film (slick arcade star insider Billy Mitchell and humble yet determined teacher and family man upstart Steve Wiebe) achieving a world record score in an arcade game is about achieveing a displaced alpha-male dominance, a supremacy that their culture tells them is their due but that their society has stubbornly denied them. For each of them, in their own way, Donkey Kong is not a game to be enjoyed, but a vehicle to be driven ruthlessly to glory.

Because make no mistake, as much as this film is about an obsessive and absurdly self-important subculture, it’s really a narrative of powerful, contesting male wills, just like the two classic films referenced in its title. Steve Wiebe, under the gaze of director Seth Gordon’s camera at the least, is cast as the honest, decent white knight, toiling away at a dream in his free time while raising a family and selflessly moulding the youth of America as a science teacher. Even if it’s surely a distortion, the characterization is strong and even the skeptical viewer is drawn into mild outrage at the indignities that Wiebe’s championship form suffers at the hands of the arcade record establishment (represented by the ineffectually neutral “referee” Walter Day).

Take that, you pixelated gorilla!

Mitchell, meanwhile, is cast most definitely as the villain from Gordon’s point of view, and definitely fits the part in this edited reality. He’s an unfailingly assured self-promoter with a penchant for American flag ties who has parlayed his arcade royalty reputation into a modest business empire of that most American of products: greasy, flavourful foodstuffs. He also comes across as a dissembling manipulator when it comes the the Twin Galaxies gaming record community over which he towers like a joystick-wielding Greek god. He cultivates fawning sycophantic acolytes (Brian Kuh, no arcade slouch in his own right, comes across as a complete toady here) and intimidates the supposedly objective judges with the enormity of his profile in the subculture. Indeed, from what we’re shown of the dubious tape of a record-breaking Donkey Kong game that he submits from afar while Wiebe is busting ass to set a new mark “live” at a prestigious New England arcade, it’s no stretch to say that such a submission would hardly have been accepted if it had come from anyone but the Arcade Jesus.

It’s not hard to root against Mitchell and for Wiebe, but even such a stark dichotomy doesn’t diminish the effect of The King of Kong. This is an entertaining descent into a peculiar underworld as well as an ambiguous exploration of social values and homosocial influence.

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Categories: Culture, Film, Reviews
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