There's no Maverick on view in The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, but there are definitely an Iceman and a Goose. And if referencing Top Gun in a review about a new documentary that centers on a video game seems like a stretch, think again.
For better or (mostly) worse, Top Gun was one of the defining movies of the 1980s, and here we have a current release that equally bathes in the pungency of those times by focusing on an old-school arcade game. When the video game phenomenon exploded during the early 80s, the charge was led by such innovative -- and now charmingly retro -- challenges like "Pac-Man," "Centipede" and "Asteroids." But it was "Donkey Kong" that emerged as the most popular -- and reportedly most difficult -- of all these primitive games (I wouldn't know, having been a "Galaga" diehard myself). The King of Kong initially centers on gaming deity Billy Mitchell, who, as a teenager back in the day, set the "Kong" high-score record, a feat that hadn't come close to being equaled in over 20 years.
Right from the start, Billy comes across as being too aloof and full of himself, but we can easily admire his confidence, optimism and can-do attitude. "He's a winner," states Billy's dad, and we believe it, as evidenced by Billy's success in his "adult" career (hot sauce entrepreneur) as well as the rock-star status he enjoys within the gaming community.
But cut to the present, and along comes Steve Wiebe, a family man who, possessing a pinch of the autistic about him, proves himself to be a "Donkey Kong" player extraordinaire. Steve catches the attention of the gaming community, and the old guard begins to worry that this affable Goose can overthrow the Iceman himself. As for Billy Mitchell, he turns uglier and uglier right before our eyes, as his actions resemble those of a bratty child more than a world champion.
Documentaries about competitions (Spellbound, Mad Hot Ballroom, Wordplay) invariably lead to a climactic contest to determine who's the best of the best, but with The King of Kong, director Seth Gordon has managed to tap into a true-life tale that veers off-course more than once. It's not revealing too much to state that Steve gets the upper hand on Billy, since that occurs about midway through the movie; what's fascinating is the ensuing portrayal of Billy as a weakling afraid to tamper with his own legend and the continual emergence of Steve as a career benchwarmer who finally makes it to the big leagues, only to be frustrated by an inner clique reluctant to embrace him as a member.
A study of both chronic adolescence and the need to win (and keep winning), as well as a compendium of memorable characters (wait until you get a load of the self-named "Mr. Awesome," who's anything but), The King of Kong is a documentary that successfully takes it to the next level.
ONE OF THE CENTRAL GAGS in Knocked Up involves the efforts of Seth Rogen and his pals to create a Web site that catalogues all the nude appearances made in motion pictures by actresses of all ranks. Of course, sites of this nature really do appear all over the Internet, though it's unknown (at least by me) if a similar site exists that tackles male movie-star nudity with such dedication.
If so, then Viggo Mortensen's turn in David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises will be right at the top of the site's "Most Searches" list. In one of the climactic scenes, Mortensen's Nikolai Luzhin, a taciturn chauffeur who works for the Vory V Zakone outfit (the Russian mafia) in London, is relaxing in a steamroom when he's attacked by two knife-wielding (and clothed) assassins. Without time to even pick up his discarded towel, he ends up fighting both assailants in the buff, and thanks to cinematographer Peter Suschitzky's camera angles, we can examine Mortensen from vantage points that even his personal doctor probably hasn't seen (it's astonishing that the prudes on the MPAA board gave the film an R instead of an NC-17). Some might think that Cronenberg is merely giving the ladies in the audience equal time, but on a thematic level, the skirmish makes sense: Nikolai has been living a life full of betrayal and deceit, and it's time to strip down to his essence in order to make an attempt to reclaim his true identity.
In a sense, Eastern Promises is a bookend to the last film made by Cronenberg and Mortensen: 2005's excellent A History of Violence, about an ordinary cafe owner who may or may not have been a vicious mobster in his earlier years. Both films run along parallel tracks, full of whispery menace, marked by probing studies of masculinity at its extreme boundaries, punctuated with bursts of sexual and violent excess, and coping with abrupt endings. A History of Violence's hurried third act still carried enough weight to leave viewers satisfied, but Eastern Promises falls a bit short in the final count, taking some turns that are far more conventional than just about anything Cronenberg has ever done in his long and eccentric career and not allowing viewers enough time to come to terms with these contrivances.