The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters is a documentary about the secret underground world of Donkey Kong competition. Okay, so it’s not really that secret or underground, but I’ll guarantee you that even most people who have seen The King of Kong aren’t familiar with the high stakes, cut-throat world of classic video game high score competition. Likes Balls of Fury, which is a fictional story about an actual underground sports world, The King of Kong isn’t for everyone, but those with enough perceptive ability to get past the surface meaningless of the film will find much to enjoy and think about afterward. That isn’t to say this documentary is in the same league as No End in Sight, but it does produce almost as many laughs as that film about the tapestry of lies by everyone in the Republican Party to get the war they wanted up and running for the rest of your life.
The King of Kong is essentially about two men and their pursuit of the world record high score for the classic 80s arcade video game Donkey Kong. It has a starkly drawn hero and villain, but once you get past those broad strokes that delineation become less unambiguous, and the real antagonist of the movie turns out not to be the one the movie desperately attempts to create. The two men at the center of The King of Kong are Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe. Billy Mitchell is the self-professed rock star of the world of video game competition. Back in the 80s, Mitchell was just another dork who spent most of his free time in the Putt-Putt arcade. Life Magazine did a cover story on the titans of video games and held a competition at which Mitchell set a record high score that lasted for two decades. Today he has shed his dorky image for a John Redcorn hair style, a beard and an immaculate presence. (I think he’s a dead ringer for Tom Cruise, myself.) He is, by all accounts, extremely successful in everything he does. At the other end of the spectrum is Steve Wiebe, a guy who never quite came in first at anything he did. The movie wants you to root for Wiebe and against Mitchell and it seems easy at first, until you begin to watch closely.
Billy Mitchell comes off as a world class jerk, but I’m not terribly sure about that. Steve Wiebe comes off much better, but there is at least one thing about him that is hardly heroic. When Wiebe does break Mitchell’s record on his home machine while videotaping it, you can hear his young son screaming at his father to wipe his butt after going to the bathroom. Wiebe refuses to give up his pursuit. Understandable, I suppose, but…. Billy Mitchell does seem to have some serious personality problems, but to call him arrogant, as many have done, misses the psychology entirely. Mitchell is a showman and he understands that the mythology of superstardom. As a result, he carries him and behaves in ways that, while certainly not admirable, are not necessarily enough to call him a jerk. In fact, when Mitchell isn’t faced with losing his world record, he’s not such a bad guy at all. There is a concerted mystery and aloofness that Mitchell has cultivated that may, or may not, be related to his actual personality. Unquestionably, Billy Mitchell is a hard man to like. Well, for most of us.
The true villain of The King of Kong, in my opinion and others, is not Billy Mitchell at all, who at least has a personality. If you rent this documentary hoping to get a glimpse into the truly dorky video game player who has probably never had a date in his life, then Brian Kuh is your man. This guy is far worse than Mitchell in that he is a disgusting little sycophantic butt monkey of Mitchell’s, who seems to exist solely for the purpose of making Billy Mitchell look like a God. Brian Kuh’s lack of any definable personality is on full display in the extended sequence that begins with Steve Wiebe shutting up all his doubters and ends with a surprise on a video tape from Mitchell that Brian Kuh treats like it was the Ark of the Covenant. If you choose to watch The King of Kong just so you can make fun of video gamers, there are really only a handful of people who will fit your bill and while neither Mitchell or Wiebe are on that platter, Brian Kuh is a pig with a giant apple stuck in his mouth waiting to be carved open.