On paper, Seth Gordon's documentary "The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters" sounds like it might appeal only to hard-core gamers. It could well be titled "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Donkey Kong World Record" or "Men Who Game Too Much," and much of its action consists of watching youngish men (and one elderly woman) slumped in front of arcade games, working the buttons and knobs as if it's second nature. And yet, the movie's a kick: Gordon, a Seattle native, has a knack for shaping a story, taking the audience on a ride as manic and unexpected as that on any video-game console.
And he's been given a cast of characters that no screenwriter could devise. Steve Wiebe, a Redmond junior-high teacher and world-class Donkey Kong player, is the film's designated good guy; a soft-voiced family man whose wryly understanding wife and cute kids get plenty of screen time. Billy Mitchell, a hot-sauce mogul once proclaimed "Video Game Player of the Century," is cast as the villain; he's a dark-bearded fellow who's guarded in his comments and whose quotes make him seem a tad self-important. "No matter what I say, it draws controversy," he says. "Sort of like the abortion issue."
Surrounding them are a host of personalities from the gaming subculture: Walter Day, a gaming referee and would-be folk singer who's devoted much of his life to documentation of video-game records; Brian Kuh, a chatty young player obsessed with kill screens (the screen you get at the conclusion of a game, should you get that far); and a mysterious guy named Roy who calls himself Mr. Awesome and who gives helpful advice to Wiebe involving the word "chumpetizing." (Apparently, one should not chumpetize oneself, if one feels that one's Donkey Kong record is being disrespected. Got that?)
This is more color than you'll get in a Crayola box, and Gordon gleefully lets his tale unfold. Wiebe, who plays Donkey Kong in his Redmond Ridge garage, sets out to break the world record but finds some controversy from gaming headquarters, Day's Twin Galaxies organization, along the way. (One of the many arcane facts you learn from this film: There are people — well, guys — who, entirely voluntarily, watch scratchy homemade videotapes of other people playing video games for hours at a time, in order to judge the legitimacy of the performance. This would appear to be one tiny ladder-rung away from watching grass grow, but hey, to each his own.)
Wiebe travels to Funspot, a somewhat shopworn arcade-game Nirvana in New Hampshire, to compete in person, and things grow ever more complex from there. Are there conspirators and mysterious factions at work, controlling the Donkey Kong record books? Is Steve's record-breaking attempt corrupt? Is Billy's? Does anyone care? Surprisingly, you just might; and surely you'll cheer by the film's feel-good ending.
Mitchell, who has set a new Donkey Kong world record since the film's completion, is reportedly unhappy with "King of Kong," and certainly it's a documentary with a definite point of view: The good-guy/bad-guy matchup is made as clear as any old-time Western. But whatever may have gone on outside of camera range, Wiebe and Mitchell make appealing nemeses, staring each other down from opposite corners of a strangely fascinating subculture. "When you want your name written into history," says Mitchell in the film, "you have to pay the price."
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or