The King of Kong may be labeled as a documentary, but don't be fooled into thinking that it's some sort of mundane, clinical, PBS-style offering. Seth Gordon's account of two men battling for the world record Donkey Kong score is every bit as engrossing, suspenseful, funny and heartbreaking as any of its big-budget narrative counterparts could ever hope to be.
With his feature-length documentary debut, director Gordon establishes himself as a master storyteller from the outset, molding The King of Kong into a riveting tale of good-versus evil, featuring two of the most fascinating characters captured on celluloid in recent memory. Steve Wiebe, the film's protagonist, is an unfailingly earnest family man who turns to Donkey Kong after being laid off from his engineering job at Boeing. A remarkable blend of jock and savant, Wiebe is both a former star athlete and a musical prodigy (in one scene, he casually rattles off a Neil Peart drum solo on his son's child-size drum set), his path to greatness thwarted by a combination of injuries and criplling social awkwardness.
Wiebe's rival -- and the clear villain of the film -- is Billy Mitchell, the current Donkey Kong world record holder and a living legend in the classic gaming community. Strutting around town with his trophy wife in tow and accompanied by an entourage of toadies, Mitchell clings desperately to his rock star status within the strange subculture. Laughably arrogant, he exudes insecurity as he boasts of his gaming prowess, all the while refusing acknowledge Wiebe's accomplishments, let alone mention his name.
Surrounded by a cast of characters so quirky and colorful that they'd be perfectly at home in a Wes Anderson film or a Christopher Guest mockumentary, Wiebe and Mitchell engage in a competition as dramatic and intense -- and controversial -- as any World Cup final or heavyweight title bout, replete with questionable calls, political intrigue and allegations of foul play.
Indeed, Kong's storyline is at times so gripping, so cinematic, that some moments seem almost too perfect to be completely spontaneous. At times, some of the lines feel coaxed, if not scripted. But when I interviewed Gordon, Wiebe, Cunningham and Sanders at Comic-Con last month, I received no indication that anything in the movie was faked, fabricated, or even exaggerated.
The King of Kong isn't just one of the best documentaries of 2007, it's one of the best movies of 2007, period. By the end of the film, I became so attached to the characters, so engrossed in their pursuit of gaming glory, that I didn't want it to end. As the credits rolled, I found myself thoroughly entertained, yet yearning to know more. If only documentaries had sequels.
Have something to say about this review? Email me at tleupp@Reelz.com.