Friday, 15 October 2021

CANNON ARM AND THE ARCADE QUEST - London Film Festival 2021

One of the highlights among the documentaries at this year's London Film Festival was Mads Hedegaard's joyful Cannon Arm and the Arcade Quest, fresh from its debut at CPH:DOX and Hot Docs. Following in the footsteps of the almighty retro arcade doc King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, Cannon Arm and the Arcade Quest charts another plucky contender hoping to make gaming history by playing his favourite arcade game for 100 hours straight.

The gamer is question is the brilliantly named Kim "Kanonarm" K√∂bke - a nickname he's had since he first starting playing games in Danish diners in the 1980s - a mulleted Danish grandfather who loves listening to Iron Maiden and playing the classic arcade game Gyruss surrounded by his friends at Copenhagen's Bip Bip Bar. Already the holder of the impressive record of playing Gyruss (an outer space set shooter that sees you manouvre a space craft around the screen as you blast away patterns of stars) for 49 hours on one coin, his aim is to beat that record in honour of Thomas, a friend of the Bip Bip Bar who they lost to suicide.

The record attempt is not without its health risks, and although Kim is in decent shape for a man his age, people have died attempting similar endurance records, so his team of supporters have tailored a complicated score tracking system to make sure the game - much like the famed Donkey Kong kill screen - doesn't crap out on him and bring his record attempt to an abrupt halt. Starting off with 5 lives, the problem is he can technically accrue around 250 extra before the game errors, so he must keep track of how many he wins so he doesn't hit the top limit, but also, building up those extra lives so he can grab some much needed sleep for ten minutes or so is a crucial part of the plan. With his team monitoring the ever changing cache of lives, all Kim has to concentrate on is his scoring, keeping his eyes open, and hastily run to the garden whenever he needs to take a leak.

The comparisons to Seth Gordon's King of Kong are unavoidable, with its use of flash graphics and retro 8-bit sounds a major part of the fabric of both films, but director Mads Hedegaard doesn't shy away from acknowledging the existence of the former, even going as far as featuring a couple of the big names from that film and the world of arcade gaming. Both Walter Day from official video game scorekeepers Twin Galaxies, and the self-proclaimed "greatest arcade machine player" Billy Mitchell (who talks to Kim and his friends via telephone ahead of their record attempt, and before a cheating scandal sees him fall from grace in the eyes of his fans) appear briefly. But prior viewing of King of Kong isn't necessary to enjoy Cannon Arm and the Arcade Quest's own underdog story, with Hedegaard going some way to show why the quiet, unassuming Kim is such an unlikely but perfect subject for a documentary, and how his mind works when he's playing the game. If you do know your arcade gamers, needless to say that Kim is definitely more of a Steve Wiebe than a Billy Mitchell, and gains more of our support for it. As for Kim's team, they're a similarly unique group of gamers, more vocal and outgoing than Kim, doubling up as experts in the fields of music theory, physics and poetry in their every day lives.

The documentary spends its first hour detailing the prep and training needed for Kim's big record attempt, before switching into its final act as Kim settles down in front of the Gyruss machine and gives us the kind of one man against the odds battle not seen since the finale of Rocky. It could be easy to dismiss the film and his record attempt as frivolous or unimportant, but as we hear the game play on and Kim's accumulation of lives fall away as he attempts to rest his brain for a few precious minutes, it's one of the tensest moments in cinema I can recall. Without spoiling the outcome of his record attempt, what I will say is that if you've ever had your own life-engulfing obsession that seems completely alien to most people, you'll find so much to relate to in Kim and his friends. Touching on mental health and finding the support you need from your friends, ultimately all these guys want is for their efforts to have a lasting impact in the world they call their own.

A gloriously fun journey into this outsider lifestyle anchored by a loveable group of misfits you can't help but root for, Cannon Arm and The Arcade Quest is undoubtedly the best snapshot of this subculture since King of Kong and a truly captivating underdog story. A strong recommend.

Verdict

4/5

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