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Gorilla warfare

The story of two men and their quest for video game supremacy

BILLY MITCHELL Never to be outdone in the video game arena, Mitchell will do anything to keep his high score intact, except play. BILLY MITCHELL Never to be outdone in the video game arena, Mitchell will do anything to keep his high score intact, except play. (Bootsy Holler/Picturehouse)

A great villain isn't just someone you don't like. He's someone you want vanquished. And a great movie with a great villain doesn't necessarily have to vanquish him. It just has to rouse your dislike enough to hope for his comeuppance. Billy Mitchell, one of the legendary arcade gamers in the very entertaining new documentary "The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters," is that kind of villain.

Three decades ago, he set the high score for Donkey Kong -- 874,300 points. And for three decades, that tally stood -- until a middle-school science teacher in Redmond, Wash., named Steve Wiebe toppled it.

Mitchell refuses to accept the score. Wiebe submitted his record-breaking game to the country's competitive arcade gaming league on a videotape; Mitchell insists he beat his score live. But when Wiebe accepts the challenge, flying across the country for a live showdown, Mitchell punks out.

You might expect to see this presented as a jokey sketch from a troupe of improv players. But director Seth Gordon captures it all with finesse, and shrewdly plays it as comic melodrama. He shot and edited the movie himself, and rather than mock these guys (this world is mostly male) he feels for them. He even treats the arcade game as a true sport and treats the band of nerds with respect.

Donkey Kong, we learn, requires a special kind of tenacity and intelligence to master; pattern recognition is crucial. Few old-school arcade gamers think today's models compare to the classics. The average game of Kong lasts about a minute and most people never get beyond the third board (there are 22). Meanwhile, Wiebe seems able to play for long stretches in a single turn.

"The King of Kong" is of a piece with "Dodgeball," "Talladega Nights," "Blades of Glory," "Hot Rod," and the upcoming ping-pong farce "Balls of Fury," but it's not a satire (although the punning subtitle would lead you to think otherwise). What's most surprising is how affectingly human it is. The movie wouldn't work if Mitchell and Wiebe (you pronounce it "wee-bee") weren't developed characters, which they are. It would just seem mean and exploitative.

Wiebe, a relatively normal family man, has always had an obsessive personality, but nothing he's attempted has panned out -- neither his pitching career nor his musical interests, though as a younger man he was a prodigy at both. His mother says she's always thought of him as a little autistic. (Playing baseball, he was a head case.) But he's also had some bad luck, too. He was laid off from Boeing the day he and his wife signed the lease on their house.

Wiebe's passion for Donkey Kong seems like a means of escape from his disappointments. He sits at a console in his garage and plays and plays -- his wife, bless her heart, is as supportive as she can be. She's rooting for him to conquer the game, in part so he can come back to his life.

If Wiebe seems egoless in his pursuit, Mitchell, by contrast, wants adulation. Surrounded by sycophants, he's a God among geeks. "There's a glamour to Billy," one friend says. You get the sense that he'd wear a crown if it wouldn't mess up his hair. (The film is slated for an unnecessary fictional version, and you can see already Ben Stiller aping Mitchell in it.) Mitchell has a restaurant and sells his own hot sauce in Hollywood, Fla., but he also works as a referee in the Twin Galaxies gaming league where Wiebe sent his record-breaking tape. When Mitchell cries foul, the conflict of interest is obvious to everybody except most of the people in the league.

News of Wiebe and his high score also unearths a bunch of old rivalries and bad blood from Mitchell's youth. And while the ensuing rancor feels a little bit absurd, the movie stays focused on the human drama that Gordon has so deftly established.

What remains is a portrait of two different men whose compulsion for Donkey Kong is hilarious. But it's worrying, too. On Wiebe's way to play for a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records, his daughter offers a reality check: "Some people sort of ruin their lives to be in there."

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

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The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

Directed by: Seth Gordon

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 79 minutes

PG-13 (a brief sexual reference)

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